In March 2018, the Australia versus South Africa Test match at Newlands in Cape Town started as just another game of cricket. It was, however, to alter the short-term future of one of cricket’s global powerhouses. The Test had an unimaginable effect on the public perception of the Australian team, their win at all costs approach and their overall attitude to sporting integrity. The team and the country were tarnished.
The organised ball tampering and subsequent attempted cover-up sent shockwaves through the game.
The three main protagonists, captain Steve Smith, vice-captain David Warner and the bowler caught with sandpaper to rough up one side of the ball – Cameron Bancroft – were given lengthy bans. Coach Darren Lehmann also resigned, although he was not directly implicated. The chief executive and chairman of the governing body departed and the whole culture of Australian cricket was questioned.
It was one of the biggest scandals the world game had seen, comfortably sitting alongside bodyline, the under-arm delivery of Trevor Chappell, the setting up of World Series Cricket, rebel tours to South Africa and recent scourge of match and spot fixing.
Two years on and Australia have returned to the top spot in the world Test and T20 rankings, competed strongly at the last world cup and been involved in enthralling series against England and India amongst others. More importantly they have regained the respect of the cricketing community for their attitude and humility, with accepted redemption for Warner and Smith.
The turnaround has been led by coach Justin Langer and Test captain Tim Paine.
It has also been brilliantly chronicled in the Amazon Prime television series The Test.
Through thoughtful leadership informed by an awareness of their responsibilities to the wider game and the Australian public, and a drive to improve their team, Langer and Paine have epitomised much that is good in sport.
Whether you are a cricket fanatic, a sports enthusiast, a psychologist, or a corporate team builder the eight-part series makes compulsive viewing. Langer’s approach has centred on the players bonding and playing for every Australian – not just their team-mates.
“Together” and “we not I” are constantly stated along with the reinforcement of their responsibilities to each other, their families, the players who went before them and the people of Australia.
Langer also had a higher goal, to make the players who represent their country better people as well as better cricketers. He talks of “elite honesty, mateship, professionalism, and humility”.
He doesn’t want his team to be too nice, he wants them to play hard, uncompromising cricket but be fair.
Banter not abuse on the field, sportsmanship not arrogance and disdain, with a recognition they have a responsibility wider than just a game of cricket. The Test is an emotional journey through the highs and lows of pressurised professional sport. Dressing-room footage showed the reaction of coaches and players to pivotal moments – none more so than the match-winning innings of Ben Stokes during the third Ashes Test at Headingley.
The next day, Langer made his team sit through those final overs again, dissecting things they should have done differently and discussing mistakes they made. This was clearly uncomfortable for captain Paine and his man, but the purpose was to be better next time. Langer also used it to reinforce how to use failure as a means of being stronger as a collective next time. Their ruthless win in the next test was testament to this approach. Langer also used former team-mates to instil in his squad what it means to play for the “baggy green”. Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting, the two most recent stand-out leaders of their country clearly bought into the path that Langer had mapped out, even though the uncompromising on-field approach of both men was part of the culture which culminated in the events of Cape Town. The cheating had taken their legacy in a hugely detrimental direction and both were obviously keen to be part of Langer’s rebooting of the side.
In Grade cricket around Australia or in the Scottish leagues, you will find the same silence of a beaten dressing room, the same bat-throwing anger of a dismissed batsman and the same joy of victory. The Australian Test stars are on a bigger and more intense stage but the DNA is the same.
Australians have a reputation for playing hard and enjoying a beer afterwards. That was shown by the raucous after Test celebrations in the dressing room. Interestingly, the cameras cut away each time the team song was about to be sung. This is a private moment, a proud tradition for generations of Australian cricketers and definitely not for public consumption.
Langer and Tim Paine come across as genuinely decent human beings, thrust into the spotlight in difficult circumstances. Their fragility at times is moving and their commitment to succeed total. Their willingness to lay open the defining moments in their coaching and playing careers to the wider world was a huge risk, but one which has enhanced both of their reputations.
One of the final scenes in The Test was in the dressing room at the Oval after the Ashes had concluded, with the teams sharing a beer and a joke after an incredibly competitive series. Two groups of high-level sportsmen, relaxing in a respectful manner after the most intense 25 days of cricket you could imagine. A strong contrast to the acrimony and bad feeling that was evident in the South Africa series which culminated in the incident in Cape Town.
The Test showed the resetting of a team, the rehabilitation of players such as the superb Smith and combative Warner, the emergence of a new star in Marnus Labuschagne, and through the tightness of a group of men under a passionate and insightful coach, a compelling journey back to the top.
No one will forget the dark days of 2018 but, if the goal of the TV series was to reconnect the Australian team with their public and engage them in the redemption process, it delivered its goal just as strongly as the team has performed on the field.
Roddy Smith was chief executive of Cricket Scotland from 2004 to 2015.
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