Many Australians hate identity politics. But the reason why so many are so upset at the conduct of our national cricket team is because they identify with the things cricket is supposed to be. And we don’t like what is staring back at us. Michael Bradley sends a few down.
The fans are surprised and disappointed. Cricket Australia is incredibly disappointed. The sponsors are deeply concerned. The players are disappointed and “not proud”. The media, at least, is pretty goddamn excited in its expressions of extreme dismay. Australia risks drowning in a sea of sadness as we face up to the one thing which our national narrative cannot compute: we cheat at cricket.
On the same day as Steve Smith, the holder of the most prestigious title in Australian formal precedence (Australian Test cricket captain), owned up to the world that he’d been caught red-handed trying to cheat by tampering with the ball, the Manly Sea Eagles rugby league club was hit with a massive fine by the NRL for systemic rorting of the salary cap rules. The latter misconduct was the bigger crime, but it passed through with little more than a perfunctory declaration of surprise and disappointment from the NRL chief, and otherwise a collective shrug.
Moral equivalence has no part to play here. Objectively, trying to scratch up a cricket ball to get it to swing more is not quite on the same plain of amorality as, say, a government refusing to bring a mentally ill and suicidal 10-year-old boy back to Australia from Nauru for treatment because he’s a refugee of the wrong kind. But really, what’s the point of such comparisons? We get it, this is just sport.
And yet, the world has crashed down around our ears in the past few days, and pretending otherwise on the rational grounds that that can’t be right is like shouting at clouds which the weatherman promised wouldn’t be there.
The wiser philosophers of the media are busy explaining that cricket is a metaphor. Steve Smith is Icarus. The team leadership are representative of all that is wrong with our culture and society, rotten as it is from top to bottom. This scandal is our canary in the coal mine, a clarion call to lift our national game and stop being so small-mindedly hideous about everything.
Actually, yes that’s all true, we have become a pretty shitty country in a lot of ways, but if you want a metaphor for what’s so badly off-key then really it takes a form which is far more Peter Dutton than Steve Smith.
Smith’s deputy, Davey Warner, is, as I might have mentioned recently, an idiot. It turns out that Smith himself is also an idiot. Their coach, Darren Lehmann, is an idiot. The patsy, Cameron Bancroft, is an idiot. Probably the whole team are idiots. Certainly they have managed to build a culture of fat-headed village idiocy. They deserve everything they’re getting and more.
These guys represent nothing more than what cricket has become. Rugby league operates in its own void of venal commercialism, as does the AFL, cycling, athletics and each other professional brand of sport. The universal surprise at each revelation of corruption or cheating is the only thing which is surprising. Like each of them, cricket has chosen by incremental steps to become a paper-thin pretend version of its once glorious tradition. Its demise is its own fault, not the nation’s.
It’s instructive to watch Smith’s press conference in the immediate after-glow of his televised crime. He said he wasn’t proud of what he’d done; he graciously shared the responsibility with the “leadership group” who he declined to name; and he said he had no intention of standing down from the captaincy. He had literally no fucking idea what he’d just done. He is presumably now surprised and disappointed as he watches his career, income and legacy disappear down the drain hole of history.
Why this matters and will continue to matter a hell of a lot more than a bunch of destroyed careers, way more than any act of public indecency or sexual assault which a rugby league player can conjure up, so much way more than the basest act of criminality or corruption by a political leader or business titan, is simple. Cricket is not a metaphor. Cricket is Australia’s self-identity.
Steve Smith follows in the footsteps of literal gods: Bradman, Benaud, Chappell, Border, Tubby, Tugger, Punter, Pup. Their doings in cricket are not seen by the Australian public as representative of our culture, values and history; they are those things. We play cricket hard but fair; we define summer by the sound of bat on ball; we live the rhythm of Ashes series. Above all, we do two things: we play to win, never dogging it. And We Don’t Cheat. No. The Pakis, they cheat. The Poms, they cheat. Even the South Africans, they actually fixed matches, yuck. But the Kiwis, nuh. They’re like us. We don’t cheat.
What Smith failed to understand was that his responsibility as Australian captain was not just to win at all costs. Not just to sledge his opponents mercilessly and then whinge when they bite back. Not just to be gracelessly triumphalist when we win. These are all givens. But his greater, sacred responsibility was to maintain our self-belief. By not cheating. Or, at least, not getting caught.
We’re surprised and a bit crushed right now. Actually, we’re devastated. I feel it. Down at that subterranean level where we hold symbols and sacred artefacts tight, in inarticulate gut-formed expression, where things make no rational sense but are felt hard nonetheless.
We’re stripped bare. Our captain, oh captain, turns out to be a stupid little boy with the moral compass of a low criminal, enabled and not guided by a whole ship of fools. Cricket, our integrity, is what we can no longer avoid knowing, just another cheapened, commercialised, amoral spectacle presented for our consumption with a bag of corn chips and a sponsor’s beer.
There is nowhere to go from here but down. We’re going to have to find a new identity, because this one is done.
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