Behind our toxic cricket culture
THE toxic culture in Australian cricket that culminated in the shameful ball-tampering cheating scandal and tarnished the game has been exposed by high-profile former cricket players, coaches, executives and commentators.
In a new documentary, 'Caught Out' - which aired on the ABC on Monday night - several industry insiders claimed Australian cricket's "win-at-all costs" culture has been intensifying for years and was destined to implode.
According to them, the mass exodus of legendary players; a winning streak that suddenly turned into a losing streak; a reputation for being "a pack of dogs" who "played too hard"; and the pressure in which the players were under to turn it all around, led to some bad decisions.
The worst among them, ball-tampering - which has seen captain Steve Smith, vice-captain David Warner and player Cameron Bancroft suspended for 12 months.
But one question that has plagued sports fans since the scandal unfolded is: why did they risk it?
In early March this year, Warner avoided a ban over his infamous staircase stoush with Quinton de Kock in Durban, but his level-two charge came with a heavy fine and three demerit points. It meant Warner was essentially on his final warning for the next two years, with even a minor misdeed to trigger an automatic suspension.
The fracas was sparked by disparaging remarks about Warner's wife Candice.
According to Cricket commentator Jim Maxwell, "a siege mentality seemed to have overtaken the side after that incident".
Smith publicly backed Warner on March 8 as the team prepared for the second and ill-fated Test against South Africa.
"Davey plays well when he's aggressive and he gets into a contest," Smith said.
"He has to be careful not to cross the line. Sometimes you can go over the line and that's not what we want to see.
"I can't promise it's not going to happen again in the future.
"But we'll be doing our best to ensure our behaviour's in a good place."
They were fighting words that would come back to haunt them as the ball-tampering cheating scandal - which Smith and Warner were at the centre of - started to play out around the world soon after.
"A lack of maturity of the leadership and the narrowness of their approach to the game, particularly in dealing with their emotions, made sure there would be an error of judgment, that unfortunately, came to pass," Maxwell said.
WINNERS BECOME LOSERS
But the pressure on the team had been mounting long before then.
In November 2016, Australia had just lost its fifth consecutive Test match, this time in Hobart against South Africa, whose captain, Faf du Plessis, ironically, was later charged with ball tampering. Cricket Australia head honchos James Sutherland and Pat Howard marched into the change rooms after the game and declared that something would have to change.
From then on, Smith and coach Darren Lehmann would run the team their way.
A hard-fought tour of India followed in early 2017 but it was pockmarked with rancour, accusations of cheating and on-field confrontations.
There were soon whispers of leadership issues that were preventing the team from overcoming conflict and coming out on top.
According to BBC cricket commentator Alison Mitchell, "David Warner's a stronger personality than Steve Smith, and Steve Smith may be not able to question things maybe that David Warner was saying".
Critics claimed that although Smith was arguably the best batsman in the world, he lacked leadership ability, and was often overpowered by Warner - who was once known as "the Bull".
Ms Mitchell said Smith's managerial and leadership skills didn't compare to past Australian captains including Don Bradman, Bill Woodfull, Warwick Armstrong and Richie Benaud.
Iconic cricketer Merv Hughes told the program that "Steve Smith is a quieter, more gentle sort of a soul, Davy Warner is the bull in the China shop".
"He's going to break a few things along the way," Hughes said.
Cricket writer and author Gideon Haigh said there was a tendency to "always ... choose the best player in the side rather than necessarily a player with alleged leadership and management attributes".
"Everyone looks to you in times of crisis," Haigh said.
"You're the first person who gets the blame when the team fails. You're also the one who's built up the most grandly. And the kudos that comes with being the captain is disproportionate.
"I don't think people quite understand how great an honour it is."
Haigh said Smith was "prepared by God for modern cricket" but that he had instead "actually ended up becoming a bit of a victim of it".
And there's one place everyone should be looking more closely at, according to union representatives.
Australian Cricketers' Association president Greg Dyer said "culture comes from the top ... it doesn't come from the bottom".
EXODUS OF LEGENDARY PLAYERS
Former Test player Bryce McGain told the ABC a mass exodus of cricket legends - including Matthew Hayden, Adam Gilchrist, Justin Langer, Shane Warne and Glen McGrath - had left a gaping hole in the game.
"They had this team of outstanding and unbelievable cricketers who were once-in-a-generation cricketers, but there was about five or six of them in the one team," McGain said.
The Australian team, which was long renowned for its winning streak, suddenly became acquainted with losing. It was amid this transition that Smith stepped into Michael Clarke's shoes as captain and Warner became vice-captain Ricky Ponting's successor.
"Having that same mental disintegration with a group of players that aren't quite at that elite level requires a different approach," McGain said.
"I haven't really seen an enormous change in the way we go about it, but it's always very publicly said, we need to play aggressive, we need to push the line, we need to play in that manner to be successful. Times may have changed."
But even then, it wasn't anything new.
John Buchanan, coach of the Australian team from 1999 to 2007, described an "ugly scene" in which legendary player Glen McGrath was filmed aggressively standing over a much smaller Indian player who had sledged him, contributing to the "concept we were good winners but poor losers". But he said the desperation recently seen among Australian cricketers "comes about by pressure".
"Spirit and rules of the game can be pushed to the limit," Buchanan said.
"That pressure has driven them to a decision that will change a lot of cricketers' careers and will change the attitude, unfortunately, of many people in the Australian public how they view Australian cricket."
Cricket Australia (CA) will learn whether it faces a judicial stoush over suspensions handed down to the shamed trio of Smith, Warner and Bancroft on April 11.
Hearings over the level-three charges and/or sanctions issued to Smith, Warner and Bancroft are expected to take place - if needed - on Wednesday week. There remains a possibility the trio will cop their whack and CA will put a full stop to the ball-tampering saga that has already cost the governing body millions in sponsorship and affected TV rights negotiations. However, it's fading fast.
Warner is understood to be particularly keen to put his case to an independent code-of-conduct commissioner.
Smith and Bancroft have also sought legal advice and are strongly considering challenging their bans, which were for 12 months and nine months respectively. CA's code of conduct dictates that players can accept sanctions at any point "prior to the commencement of the hearing at the time/place specified in the notice of charge", which is understood to be April 11.
The trio have been banned from international and domestic cricket, but encouraged to play club cricket.
There are concerns from the camps of Warner and Smith the star duo could miss out on lucrative national contracts for two years, meaning the effective punishment is more than what CA intended.
There is a sense among many in Australian cricket circles that the bans were too harsh given the International Cricket Council's maximum punishment for ball tampering is a one-Test ban.
Some members of the Test XI hold that view. Tim Paine is doing his best to lead a distraught group in the fourth Test against South Africa.
"You've got some of your best players not in the side, it's just about people picking up the slack," Paine told reporters after day three. CA has made it clear its sanctions aren't for ball tampering, rather conduct "contrary to the spirit of the game","unbecoming of a representative", that "could be harmful to the interests of cricket and/or ... brought the game of cricket into disrepute".
The CA code of conduct spells out that if a player disputes either a charge or sanction then there will be a hearing before a CA commissioner. If players are unhappy with the verdict at the initial hearing, they have seven days to lodge a formal appeal and take the case to an appeals commissioner. "If they do to take that to appeal, that's a good, proper legal process," CA chief executive James Sutherland said last week.
"As a course of natural justice under our code, players have the right." Sutherland admitted a range of penalties, including some more and less severe, were discussed by CA's board.
CA's code of conduct notes that "any decision made by the appeals commissioner ... shall be the full, final and complete disposition of the matter and will be binding on all parties".
- With wires