Precious little in cricket today could be more extraordinary than the self-flagellation taking place in Australia. The ball-tampering scandal pales compared to the review and report that have bared the Australian game to its bone. David Peever, the recently re-elected chairman, who has now fallen on his sword, initially denied embarrassment but it's hard to imagine him anything other than puce. James Sutherland, the recently retired CEO, is no longer there to comment, and Kevin Roberts, his successor, has written an uneasy note to the Australian cricket "family", saying that Cricket Australia will work to make the country proud of its game once more.
All this at the beginning of a week that followed David Warner walking off the field during the early part of his innings for Randwick-Petersham in a club match last Saturday afternoon. Inexplicably, he was allowed back - a note of misdirected generosity from the umpires perhaps. Whatever - it cost Western Suburbs a thumping big hundred. The word on the street is that Jason Hughes, Phillip's brother, was giving Warner an earful. "You're a disgrace" was the starting point, but Warner and Phillip Hughes were thought to have been friends. It's all very odd, if not perverse. Warner-bashing is in vogue, presumably because he is the common denominator too often for it to be coincidence. He is, of course, a fabulous performer but there is more to being a respected cricketer than that. It beggars belief - and is a terrible shame - that this has not dawned on him, or that those around him have not been able to drive the message home.
Cricket comes from the soul, and historically, because of this, cricketers take care of their own and of their game. Misunderstanding and mistrust around the optimistic ideology of the "Spirit of Cricket" as MCC's preamble to the laws has diminished its importance and cost the game dear. On these pages throughout the last years of his life, Martin Crowe wrote articles that called for a kinder, gentler game - pieces still worth a glance. Australia must now know what he meant. The spirit of cricket is everything, for it is an easy game to treat anywhere from lightly to with contempt; and too often it is just as easy to escape censure. Therefore, the simple idea that respect and responsibility for each other is the core around which the game revolves should be taken seriously, and action taken when it is not. The spirit of cricket, though not more than a title for direction and attitude, is a choice; a choice that any cricketer with a true feel for the game would make without hesitation.
Thinking back now to Cape Town, and the madness, one cannot help but wonder if there was something masochistic in the actions of the Australian players, as if living with the reputation of unpleasantness had become too great a burden; like an adulterer who can no longer live the lie but has not the strength to admit the deception and instead simply gets caught in order to admit guilt and start over. Could it be that the Australian "group" as they call themselves (never "team" or even "side", oddly) felt deep down that it was time to front up? This would have been a subconscious thing, or probably we should say unconscious, but it cannot be ruled out. From afar, one now senses a genuine determination to do the right thing, and to not suggest that in any way these marks for good behaviour compromise results.
Thinking back to Cape Town, one cannot help but wonder if there was something masochistic in the actions of the Australian players, as if living with the reputation of unpleasantness had become too great a burden
The argument that social boundaries and conscience alter according to cultures and backgrounds, and therefore provide an excuse for some but not for others, doesn't wash. Every cricketer knows the rights and wrongs of bat and ball; it is all but impossible to learn the game without learning these values at the same time. Equally, all cricketers are tempted to take the main chance - as they have seen it taken by those before them - and at times are guilty of developing it too far. This certainly applies to ball-tampering, an act that comes in many guises. The English, for example, might scoff at the use of sandpaper on the ball but may quietly pick the seam or suck a mint that leads to saliva that helps the ball to shine and, hopefully, swing.
It is unlikely that such actions can be wholly eradicated. Cricketers - young sportsmen and women en masse - cannot be expected to compete at a high level while displaying both the wisdom of Solomon and the patience of Job. The cricketers of the day play for high commercial stakes in front of intense scrutiny. We ask them to be fully committed, and see their adoption of nationalism as a byword for meaning and effort. The highs and lows they suffer are not easily understood by those on the outside, and therefore their behaviour is expected to be in line with the way we ourselves behave in everyday life.
In general, cricket is better for aggressive intent. The game is made up of vignettes that mainly come from steamy head-to-head contests - a gem of which was on view in England last summer between Virat Kohli and James Anderson. These have edge; there is no way around it. Some walk the line more than others - it is their nature. Judgement - on players, disagreements, mistakes, incidents - needs sympathy, perspective and context above all else. After that it needs strong action from the governing bodies so that there is no confusion about the boundaries. A starting point is the spirit of cricket, which is better for being a little vague. It is there for no other reason than to keep long-established values in mind, thus offering pointers to an attitude that has served the game well for so long. The players took a pounding after Cape Town, three of them specifically. Those who employ them and set their agenda almost entirely avoided criticism. Which brings us to the paperwork.
The 145-page Ethics Centre report commissioned by Cricket Australia in the wake of Cape Town is hard-hitting but mainly well balanced. Effectively, it blames much of what has gone wrong with Australian cricket of late on a win-at-all-costs mentality prompted by >CA's over-zealous pursuit of commercial reward and a misguided perception of national approval. In one way it is incredibly sad that it has come to this: 42 recommendations - most of which have already been agreed to by CA - written in corporate-speak and designed to improve corporate organisation and governance. In another, it is empowering, because the administration of the national game of Australia has given itself a chance to wipe the slate clean: a process that will take almighty courage.
The surprise in the report is that the ball-tampering incident is not specifically addressed in a way that tells us anything we did not already know. Given it was the root problem of the fallout, and prompted condemnation from the Australian prime minister, among others, it might well have been a case of the current players closing ranks in the face of such public outrage. It is revealing that only 24% of them contributed.
The players' charter that has come out of it - a subject of predictable mickey-taking on social media - will however be enlightening to a generation raised on the sort of behaviour the review looks at. After all, the report concludes that the Australian players have been fine-tuned for "the sole purpose of winning" and this has led to a "gilded bubble", in which reside handsomely paid international travellers far removed from the people and communities who made them. The blame for this lies with CA, says the report, whose behaviour in commercial negotiations with sponsors, television companies, radio networks, and those players themselves, has been "arrogant and controlling".
This must make for painful reading, especially for Sutherland, who is a thoroughly decent man and driven by traditional values. Somehow these stopped applying to his organisation. Perhaps he took his eye off the ball; all cricketers know just how destructive a mistake that can be. Probably he stayed in the job a little too long and the new wave had riders that went by him.
Australia has long held firm in the belief that the game must be structured with unwavering reference to the grounded school, club, state, country axis around which it has operated for so long and with such success. This, suggests the review, has been marginalised by the high-performance culture that encourages the pursuit of winning without any "ethical restraints". There is more gruesome stuff - "Australian cricket has lost its balance... and stumbled badly", for example - available in the report, which has been so widely covered here by Daniel Brettig.
In general, it is easy to be cynical about such reviews. The overwhelming feeling after ploughing through this one is that the process could have been simplified by having some blokes at the top of the game, those who know it best, coming together to sort things out. It is ongoingly infuriating that so few of the best cricket brains are involved in the running of the game, and this by no means applies only to Australia. In fact, Australia has one of the best, Mark Taylor, on its current board. Now that Peever has gone, Taylor would be a good choice to take his seat. The seat is ready for a cricket person.
This review, however, which is titled "Australian cricket: a Matter of Balance", has been conducted through interviews with 56 people and responses to a survey by 469, all of whom have at some time in recent years been involved with either the national team, the governing body, the state associations, or have links with the game that are close to its heartbeat. It is thorough, it is raw, and it may prove to be more than a seminal investigation into Australian cricket.
In one way, the report is empowering, because the administration of the national game of Australia has given itself a chance to wipe the slate clean: a process that will take almighty courage
Of course, it is the Australians who are taking a beating, but people in glass houses and all that… The greatest value in this report will be its wide publication and therefore the reach of its message. Greed had overtaken common sense in cricket's order of things: everything is for money and much less is for love. There is hardly a governing body in the world not guilty of taking this wonderful game down a less than wonderful path.
"A Matter of Balance" asks fundamental questions about sport's place in our society and, specifically, about cricket's values at a time when the game is so challenged that the England Cricket Board is pushing through yet another format: one that is designed to attract an audience that it feels is lost to the three formats that presently exist.
Cricket has survived because it is an incredibly special game, and a reflection of life. Its phrases and nuances are to be found everywhere we look and listen. It is both a simple and complicated game that suits all sizes and shapes, majorities and minorities. It does high and low like no other, with the capacity to lift its players to the clouds and dump them in the gutter in the same over. In a split moment, the taking of a fine catch will match the reflected glory of a long-fought-for hundred, or 25 overs of blood-and-sweat bowling that results in wresting control of a potentially doomed situation. But cricket is not to be messed with, for it has the habit of making those that do so pay the heaviest price.
Australian cricket has long held universal respect and, more often than not, other countries have looked to follow its example and emulate its methods. The list of names that have inspired cricketers across the continents trip off the tongue - from Bannerman, Trumper and Bradman to Lillee, Border and Warne. We should not imagine for one second that this will not soon be the case again. It is the circle of life, and cricket is inherent in Australian life and blood.
In summary to an interview Taylor gave the day before the release of "A Matter of Balance", he said: "I'm concerned about the whole mood around the game. Even in grade cricket, we've got people walking off the field. I don't enjoy seeing that. Yes, David [Peever] and I have had disagreements with the way things have been handled in the past, but sooner or later cricket - and everyone in cricket - has got to get over it. We've got to start moving on. This is a terrific game... the vast majority of people just want to go to the game or get on with playing it. I hear that from players and spectators. People just want to enjoy the game. They have to start getting over themselves and their own little agendas... and start thinking what's good for the game."