"Why is the Australian cricket team so unlikeable?"
The bystander in the coffee-ordering queue said what he said last Friday, a sentiment you can catch most Fridays on the quarter-beard/naturopathy course/chin-stud strip where I get coffee, though this Friday happened to be the Friday when Ricky Ponting was revealed to have left Jamie Oliver (plus Grisham, Winton, Morrissey) chewing on his mock cauliflower pilau in the local literary bestseller charts. There is a fissure in logic somewhere here. Suppose the bystander has a point. Then who's buying the Ponting books?
Technically, Ponting is not anymore in the Australian team. With his retirement, the last of the team that - as South Africa's Graeme Smith categorised them, or some of them, or one of them - "calls you a c*** all day" is gone. But maybe confusion on that score is understandable. Consider this month's press scratchings. Punter mourns Michael Clarke's old ambivalence towards end-of-day debriefings. Shaaane rates Clarke a modern tactician nonpareil. Tugga opts to communicate privately, discreetly with Clarke via text message. Tugga informs the Australian cricket press corps that he opts to communicate privately, discreetly with Clarke via text message. Haydos worries that while Davy Warner's "commodity" is runs he needs to "put together a personality". Binga thinks Mitchell Johnson dangerous when smiling. Shaaane notes tactics are not everything.
"… all day," Smith said. Still going.
Unlikeable feels wrong. It implies "can't like them", as opposed to "don't like them", although for many years a lot didn't. Highly likeable to watch they were, insatiable in their freewheeling ways. In nearly every of the game's key departments crouched a legend. Winning is a winning quality, in cricket like life, and for the fringe cricket fan it's everything. So grounds stayed filled, the team's public visibility soared. The popping-eyed masculinity they embodied was tipping regularly towards brutishness; and yet a touch of it was welcome, freeing men up to be more openly circumspect, brainy even, in their on-the-ground everyday lives, the shy and thoughtful Australian male safely camouflaged within the umbrella shade cast by the macho Australian cricket team.
Sledging opponents was all right when it was gamesmanship, or funny. When sledging turned foul and tarred women it made some watchers quail, though not noticeably more than the comedy of Paul Hogan used to. What blew it for Hogan with the Australian public was him leaving his dirt-under-the-fingernails first wife, Noelene, and taking up with his black-bathing-suited Hollywood co-star, Linda, and at some hard-to-pin-down moment there arrived an hour when it was as if the Australian cricket team had chosen Linda over Noelene only to dump Linda for Linda's younger sister. Boofheadedness beyond credulity - and it got up people's noses. The mild unease about the sledging and craggy demeanour was hardened by a sense that these blokes didn't appreciate their own good fortune, the privileged position they inherited, how much better paid and looked after they were than their predecessors; barely knew - Stan McWho? - their predecessors' names. Meanwhile, the world couldn't keep up, the winning streaks stretched on and turned serpentine; Australia grew fat on winning. I am thinking, unfairly I know, of Matthew Hayden - how, when England were the only other country with a Z-class fast-bowling attack left standing, Hayden flopped in England against England in 2005, the frailties mirroring his earlier haplessness in the face of Allan Donald and Curtly Ambrose, yet hung onto his opening batsman's spot anyway, the guarantee of a fresh batch of beat-upable Zimbladeshi medium pacers just around the corner.
Let us turn back - "Why is the Australian cricket team so …" - it means the team now, except a while ago some people switched off their eyes from watching really closely the old team. Thinking the Australian team unlikeable is a habit people slipped into, like buying fat ghosted autobiographies for Dad at Christmas.
There comes a time for eyes to be readjusted. Today's unlikeables are the bosses, with the players more pawns than bullying. The bosses' minds are stuck on a slashed-down version of the game that is not in the players' hearts. The players have little choice but to comply because not complying would mean giving up riches. No longer is getting paid hundreds of thousands to play cricket the easy and unmixed blessing it sounds. Outside the team, dissenting voices are deemed undesoi-oi-oirable; Cricket Australia's marketing arm grows. In more innocent times, marketing men were hired to make the players seem more real, human, likeable. Now the players strain to appear likeable despite being locked in a roomful of pricks from marketing. Not for them is it sad to see the Sheffield Shield wither. Grade cricket is expendable. Talented boys play not against men but against other talented boys, and graduate to batting and bowling on our TV sets burdened by unripened techniques.
Cricketers can seem most at their most likeable when grappling with their own failings. It is when they are most knowable. And if we look hard, we know the current lot well - the opener, aware he shouldn't be executing ferris-wheel pull shots in the first half hour, aware that if he doesn't, what else does he have? There's the offspinner, for whom gigantic spin is not a birthright, exerting pressure through flight, never certain how much flight is too much or not enough. Chirpy is the wicketkeeper, a lower-order bruiser. The left-arm swinger's lethal once every three weekends. The two right-armers are big-boned, unpampered, and they don't think they are the greatest ever, because they aren't, but they work. We know them because they are us. In Steven Smith was once the pinnacle of batting unsightliness, all crabby hands, no feet, suddenly blossoming dependable, solid; in Shane Watson we see, perhaps, grace and wisdom emerging, a cricketer coming to terms with his own peculiar cossetedness, and how it must have appeared to others, slowly learning humility through ignominy.
As Watson put it last week: "I've got an ego."
As Watson also said last week: "The past is the past."
Today they set their minds to beating a team out from England. What's not to like?
Christian Ryan is a writer based in Melbourne. He is the author of Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the Bad Old Days of Australian Cricket and, most recently Australia: Story of a Cricket Country