Michael Jeh April 6, 2009

Unfaithfully yours

Loyal to a fault, Australian cricketing culture is built around 100% support for the captain

Australian cricket, even at the lowest levels, has always prided itself on team spirit. Regardless of personal differences, Australian cricket is famous for a fierce loyalty towards the captain and the notion that the team always comes first. I’ve seen it first-hand and cannot think of a time when any team I played for/against did not show this admirable trait. As a nation, we’ve even built an Anzac legend around this notion of mateship and unswerving loyalty.

I’ve just started reading 'Golden Boy' by Christian Ryan, a re-telling of the Kim Hughes era. The author describes it as “unairbrushed tale of Australian cricket in the Hughes mini-era” and it certainly lives up to that billing! I’ve rarely enjoyed a cricket book as much as this one, perhaps because I remember that period with great clarity and perhaps, because it destroys so many myths I had of that great ‘team spirit’ ethic in Australian cricket.

The fact that it is unauthorised is what makes it so interesting. No hidden agenda and no favourites – he just tells the story as seen through the eyes of all the players, administrators and media of that period. There’s an overall consistency to it that gives it authenticity. Too many people are singing from the same hymn sheet for the author to be too far off the truth.

What astounded me most was the complete lack of support afforded to Hughes from the Dennis Lillee/ Rod Marsh camp. I knew they were never best mates but to read of the open dissension and undermining of Hughes’ captaincy was an eye-opener. It went against everything that Australian cricket teams were meant to embody and it also made a mockery of the very public reputations of Lillee and Marsh as the ultimate team players. They may well have been that under the Chappells’ captaincy but readers are left with no doubt that both Lillee and Marsh did not remotely extend that courtesy to Hughes.

The 1981 Ashes Tour, affectionately referred to as Botham’s Ashes, was when it all came to a head. All those interviewed, including England players, were utterly clear in their memories that both Lillee and Marsh undermined the captain to the extent that there was almost a sense of delighting in his failure. It did not even appear to be a secret – it was just open dissent and there was a general admission that Hughes, despite his own faults, was left isolated and with no realistic chance of success. Lillee repeatedly tried to decapitate Hughes in the nets, a practice that astounded team-mates but rarely fazed Hughes apparently.

On reading this, my view of Marsh especially has undergone a major transformation. On and off the field, his contempt for Hughes is crystal clear. For example, he berated Hughes for hooking down fine leg’s throat at Edgbaston when Australia choked on a small chase. “Christ, a captain is supposed to lead by example” he said, conveniently forgetting his own hook shot dismissal in the famous collapse at Headingley in the previous Test (Willis’ 8/43) and then missing an ugly swipe across the line, just forty minutes before making that comment about the captain. That sort of hypocrisy was not lost on the rest of the team and one gets the impression that both Lillee and Marsh, still revered amongst The Greats, did their reputation no favours on that fateful Ashes Tour. In fact, it is testament to their greatness that their reputations were able to survive such a poisonous episode.

Mike Whitney tells a poignant story about dismissing Botham in his debut Test at Old Trafford, caught by Marsh and then being bemused when the ‘keeper did not even congratulate him, seen instead with a frown on his face as if secretly disappointed that Botham was out. Whitney admitted to being completely dumbfounded by this incident and it was a common tale of an unhappy team, completely opposite to just about every other Australian touring team I’ve read about.

I'm only halfway through the book but even though I haven't seen any reference to Shane Warne, it gave me a new insight into his personality. Despite his obvious disappointments, Warne was unfailingly loyal to Taylor, Waugh and Ponting (briefly to Gilchrist too). It made me realise that Warne’s contribution to the team was much more than his brilliant bowling. He was the sort of team man that Australian cricket’s legend is built around.

Of course, loyalty to the captain is not a uniquely Australian trait. Imran Khan and Arjuna Ranatunga famously harnessed this spirit in winning World Cups. The West Indies were magnificently united under Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards. Stephen Fleming brought out the best in modest NZ sides he captained, Saurav Ganguly was credited with similar support during his reign and MS Dhoni appears to have that same quality, despite the presence of senior players like Tendulkar, Ganguly, Dravid and Laxman in his team. In terms of seniority and legend status, they are no different really to the Lillee/Marsh dynasty that crippled Hughes.

Halfway through the book and loving it…..what has surprised me most thus far is that this short period of disquiet went against everything I’ve seen in dressing rooms in Australia, even in club cricket. Loyal to a fault, Australian cricketing culture is built around 100% support for the captain. It is something I admire enormously. It was just this period from the start of the Packer circus in 1977 to that famous Ashes series in 1981 when a nation seemingly betrayed itself.

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane