Purportedly November 21, 2013

Being liked

Thinking the Australian team unlikeable is a habit people slipped into. There comes a time for eyes to be readjusted

"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.

Cricketers can seem most at their most likeable when grappling with their own failings. It is when they are most knowable

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Hari on November 25, 2013, 6:47 GMT

    @ dunger.bob

    do you think people have stopped hating them?

  • rob on November 22, 2013, 23:44 GMT

    This is one of the best pieces I've read in a long time. I truly enjoyed every word.

    I think our team was unlikable because they were serial winners. Winning is fine, but what they managed to do was ridiculous. .. I'm not one for stats but there are some numbers that can take your breath away. This is all coming from memory so it's probably a bit wrong, but all I'm trying to do is paint a rough picture.

    At one stage Aus played 35 or 36 Tests and won, that's won, no draws, 32 of them. They strung together 4 ODI World Cups, the last two undefeated. They held every piece of silverware it was possible for them to have at one point. ..

    People generally love a winner, but not to many like a bully. .. Australia, at it's peak, was like a sixteen year old in a yard full of primary school kids. A veritable giant that looked big and scary because, well, it was.

    If we ever get back there, people will start hating us again soon enough.

  • David on November 21, 2013, 22:31 GMT

    @Laurie Johnson, you've just proved crickelect1's point!

    Everyone (except the statistics) knows that the WI bowling attack before the retirement of Walsh was a completely different beast from its bowling attack post-Walsh. If you compare Slater and Hayden v WI pre 2 Jan 2001 (Walsh's last test against Aus), the stats tell a very different story: Hayden - 13 inns, HS 125, 0s 2, Ave 31.76; Slater - 23 inns, HS 106, 0s 2, Ave 37.57.

    In other words, against the decent WI attacks of the 90s, Hayden had one good score (in an innings with 3 other Aus scores over 80), and the rest was ordinary; Slater had one good score (in an innings with a next Aus best of 33), and a fair bit of decent stuff to go with it (eg, 3 other scores above 80 vs. 0 for Hayden).

    If you want to take Hayden's stats v WI out of context, then you might as well say that Kemar Roach is as good as Courtney Walsh, because they both have an Ave of 28 v Aus.

    Stats DON'T always tell the truth!

  • Dummy4 on November 21, 2013, 20:00 GMT

    @crickelect1 what an easy copout to say averages do lie ... by what other yardstick can we measure a batsman's career in the long run than by the numbers? You say he feasted on the minnows = he got to play Zimbabwe just twice in his whole career. Against the West Indies, who you say found him out, he averaged 51.54 with 5 hundreds in 27 innings. Against India, he averaged 59 with 6 hundreds in 35 digs. Against even the great South African bowling line-up, apart from one poor series early in his career, he built a healthy career tally, with an avge of 43.70, and 6 hundreds in 36 innings. Slater, against Zimbabwe, scored 4 runs ... 4 ... in 2 innings. Had his chance to bully them. Againsgt South Africa, no hundreds, not one. Against the West Indies, avge of 37 with 1 hundred in 23 digs = 1 from 23. And against India, avge of 27.50 with no hundreds in 19 digs. Stats don't always lie. Hayden was a bully, full stop, but he made hay against most attacks some time or another in career.

  • James on November 21, 2013, 14:39 GMT

    @Crickellect: The bowlers going around in their time were a lot better than the ones we have now, for sure. I do take your point though, like Graeme Swann. His wickets are as much brought on by poor batting than good bowling, if Lyon was bowling at our batsmen im sure he would get 5fers for fun too!

  • Dummy4 on November 21, 2013, 13:12 GMT

    "strain to appear likeable despite being locked in a roomful of pricks from marketing" like working a proper job. best line ever.

  • Crickellect on November 21, 2013, 12:32 GMT

    Spot on about Hayden bullying lesser attacks...remember the mid 90s when Hayden repeatedly was found wanting against the great Windies, Pakistani and SAF bowlers...Never had the technique to play quality bowling. Slats had a better technique and was a greater opening bat IMO. Averages do lie...Would question Gilchrist's average as well...And they never had to play McGrath, Warne, Lee, Gillespie...

  • Dummy4 on November 21, 2013, 10:01 GMT

    If your child comes home saying "Mum/Dad I got into a fight today" you can give your child the benefit of the doubt. What if the child gets into fight with EVERYONE! Your child have a problem. Australian cricket team have a problem. Their brand of cricket have a problem. Their cricket culture have a problem. They carry on about Stuart Broad not walking. How about Andy Symonds, Michael Clark and Ricky Ponting for not walking? I have seen their cricket over the last 25 years and nothing has changed!

  • ESPN on November 21, 2013, 8:24 GMT

    its just a phase, some day they will grow strong like the old ausis team

  • Tim on November 21, 2013, 8:01 GMT

    I disagree latecut. The way for Aus ascendancy is...... to get better players. We aren't going anywhere. Our batting line up is mediocre at best and our bowling is good, but often not good enough. Not only that the game is run by muppets in this country. We don't have any greats in the side. What this article is talking about is Australian cricketing attitude more than anything else. IMHO it's time they grew up and stopped acting like schoolyard bullies. They have been acting like that since I have been watching cricket. What's that... 30 years? Perhaps if cricketers in general stopped acting like spoiled overbearing children they would get more respect and be a little more "Likeable". Who'd a thunk it?

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