In darkest hour, Australia start to listen

After years of either wilful or inadvertent ignorance, Australia have recognised the need for a change in attitude for the benefit of their most influential stakeholders: their fans

Tim Paine (left) was made Australia's acting captain after Steve Smith's role in the ball-tampering scandal, South Africa v Australia, 3rd Test, Cape Town, 4th day, March 25, 2018


In his famous 1992 Redfern speech, Australia's then Prime Minister Paul Keating spoke of how to mend years of misdeeds against the nation's indigenous population. Mulling over where to start, he offered the words that "the starting point might be to recognise that the problem starts with us", and healing "begins, I think, with that act of recognition".
Outright awful though Australia were on the final day of the series at the Wanderers, wickets tumbling as Vernon Philander toyed with heavy legs, tired eyes and addled brains, the acts of recognition were plain to see. First, a guard of honour for Morne Morkel on his final day as a Test cricketer. Later, a bevy of handshakes and the promise of shared post-series drinks in the South African dressing room. Lastly, further eloquent words from the new captain Tim Paine, which echoed Keating in terms of recognising the need for a change in attitude and behaviour after years of either wilful or inadvertent ignorance.
"Well, the first thing is we have to, I suppose, listen," Paine said when asked how his team might reconnect with Australia. "We've potentially maybe had our head in the sand a little bit over the last 12 months, [thinking] if we continue to win we can kind of act and behave how we like and the Australian public will be okay with that.
"What we've probably found out in the past month or so is that the Australian public and our fans don't necessarily like the way we go about it. It's pretty simple. We have to listen. We have to take it on board and we have to improve our behaviour in the way we play the game. I know the guys are certainly on board and it's something that we're excited again to go forward and be able to do."
What the Australians will discover, should they listen to South Africa, will not be instructions on how to go about things, but plenty of advice about how Faf du Plessis' team have built up a culture within the four walls of their dressing room
There was attentiveness, too, in how Paine approached the chance to speak with the victorious South African team, the first side to beat Australia at home since readmission, and in a manner so comprehensive as to inflict the fourth-heaviest defeat, in terms of runs, in all Test history. "We've been invited in in the next half an hour actually. It's an early beer, that's for sure. It might be a coffee. But we'll go next door," Paine said. "We've got some young players in our team who will learn a lot from going to have a beer with some of the experienced players that the South Africans have got, so we'd be foolish not to take that opportunity."
What the Australians will discover, should they listen to South Africa, will not be instructions on how to go about things, but plenty of advice about how Faf du Plessis' team have built up a culture within the four walls of their dressing room that ensures both the image of the team and the conduct of the players are kept in strong health. All this being done without anything like the money, resources or administrative stability that Australia have boasted for years.
"Our culture is the same no matter who we play, it's not about the opposition, it's about us, and we do spend a lot of time and energy making sure, if you can call it that, training your culture, but to make sure we stay on it from a daily perspective," du Plessis said. "If there's stuff that falls out of line, we quickly nip it in the bud because we don't want to have a cancer effect where it spreads through the team and you start having a few bad things happen within the team, so we are very, very strong on that.
"I believe that's our strength as a team, we've spent so much time and energy on that, you ask a lot of players and they will say that this culture in the Protea team is something you have to be a part of to understand how special it is, so we take a lot of pride in it. For it to be almost a 12th man on the field, it's not always that your skills are going to be there, and you can't control to score hundreds or take five-fors, but you can control your culture.
"We never want to seem arrogant. Obviously sometimes you'll get things or situations that can look that way, but as a team we deal with it in the same manner, as much as we can we want to be humble at all times. You can see we've got two or three of the world's best players in our team and you would never see them ... there are never days when their egos will be any bigger than the team, the team will always come first, no matter what."
Paine, meanwhile, draws a lot from his experience winning Sheffield Shield titles alongside George Bailey, the longtime Tasmania and sometime Australia ODI captain. Tasmania have overachieved for some years relative to the size of their state, partly because they have become a popular destination for aspirational players surplus to requirements in other states. The need to balance all these personalities and backgrounds placed a premium on ensuring players did not feel they had to conform to a narrow expectation of what they and the team must be. As Bailey said of Ed Cowan on the eve of his 2011 Test debut: "That is the most important thing, and the key to his success: he's just allowed to be Eddie." Paine said Bailey loomed large among those he had learned from.
"George is a very good friend of mine and I've played under him for a long time so I've certainly learnt a lot about the way he captains and his leadership style," Paine said. "I certainly take a lot of the way he goes about but there is other guys as well. I've always thought about going into coaching or something like that after cricket so I've constantly sort of written things down that I've liked about coaches and other leaders that I've played under. I suppose try to take bits that I like and mould it to something that fits me.
The other thing that Australia's players must listen to, of course, is the sound of edges being flicked and stumps being crashed through. Humility about the team's attitude and approach to opponents and the cricket watching public must be matched by attentiveness about the technical task of playing to a high standard, now with the additional handicap of losing Steven Smith and David Warner for at least 12 months. Even factoring in the mental fatigue of the tour and its disasters, there was a lot to be troubled by on day five.
Particularly, the set-up, foot movement and swing plane of Peter Handscomb left many to wonder what exactly he had been working on over the three or so months since his previous Test match, and with whom. At the same time, Mitchell Marsh has shown evidence of a slow deterioration from the fundamentals he worked on with Scott Meuleman over several months out with injury last year, which had put him in such a strong position to score runs in the Ashes and then the first Test of this series in Durban.
With the likes of Paine and Pat Cummins being unable to replicate earlier rearguards, it made for a shudderingly quick finish and another question that the team and their incoming coach must ponder. Darren Lehmann's tenure as coach was ended with an acute example of the batting collapses that have been more or less his constant companion.
"I don't think it was one day too many, I think it was a few," Paine said. "There's been enough spoken about the week we've had. We're disappointed with the way we handled it. This group in here had the chance to show some real fight and determination and unfortunately we weren't able to because I think mentally we weren't quite there. You only have to be slightly off in any game of cricket, let alone a team as good as South Africa, and you get exposed. We certainly were today.
"I haven't spoken to many guys about going home, there certainly hasn't been that feel, coming into the Test match I thought we were going to be a hell of a lot better than what we were, obviously it had more of an effect on guys than we knew, the opportunity to get home, and reset might be refreshing for the guys in the next couple of days. At the moment, there is a fair bit of disappointment and borderline embarrassment in the dressing rooms."
There cannot have been, in all of Australian cricket history, a more shattering tour, not only resulting in abject defeat on the field but a total destruction of the team's image and culture. One of the most heedless lines uttered over the past 24 hours was by the selector Mark Waugh, a great batsman and cricketer who has let the substance of the past week pass him by. "I might be missing something," Waugh said on Sydney radio, "but I don't see this team as any different as any other team from previous eras."
It took 15 years after Keating's speech for another Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, to offer a formal apology to indigenous Australians. Waugh's words offered a reminder that the listening process advocated by Paine will be long and difficult.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig