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Getting at the wretched truth

Two books approach the Newlands scandal and Australian cricket's darkest hours in different but equally damning ways

Paul Edwards
Paul Edwards
Systemic failure or just three bad boys?  •  Getty Images

Systemic failure or just three bad boys?  •  Getty Images

For some diehard England supporters, the recent agonies of Australian cricket might seem a gift of unprecedented munificence. If the squalid cheating at Newlands wasn't delicious enough, there were the swift suspensions and teary apologies to enjoy and then the resignations of leading officials. Even finer, of course, is the prospect of Steve Smith and David Warner returning to Australia's team just in time for the World Cup and an Ashes series in England. How many of the Barmy Army will resist the temptation to give them heaps?
But many other followers of Joe Root's team take a broader and better perspective on these matters. They wonder how it could be that cricketers whose predecessors prided themselves on a "hard but fair" dictum could become snarling louts with no respect for the best traditions of Australian sport. They are joined in their bemusement by cricket lovers across the world and by some folk who might not know a short leg from a chair leg. "Stornationen skakas av byx-fusket" (Country shaken by panty-cheating) ran the headline in Sweden's Aftonbladet last March. "What the f*** is going on?" asked Darren Lehmann, rather foreshadowing the gist of the questions asked by millions of Australians as they woke up to the sight of Cameron Bancroft shoving sandpaper down his kecks. But hang on, they thought later, if Boof didn't know what was happening, then what the f*** was going on?
Those seeking an answer to that question are fortunate that in a year when a few Australian cricketers were discrediting one of their country's most treasured ideals, two of their fellow countrymen were rising to the challenge of explaining what had happened. Gideon Haigh and Geoff Lemon have written distinguished, insightful books, yet they have done so from such different perspectives that one might almost think they had divided the work between them. While Haigh conducted his own investigation into Cricket Australia, a cheaper version of the inquiry that resulted in the Ethics Centre's report last October, Lemon was penning a more conventional tour book, one that reflects all the grim excitement of those tawdry moments last March.
One originally thought that Lemon's title was a nod to Gilligan's Men and Collins's Men, the Ashes tour books written by Monty Noble and Arthur Gilligan in the 1920s. But so vividly is journalistic fever conveyed that perhaps All The President's Men is a more fitting model. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein would certainly have relished telling this tale, but they would not have done the job any better than Lemon.
Yet heaven forfend the suggestion that Haigh's book is dull. On the contrary, it is a gripping examination of how the increasingly shabby ethos of Cricket Australia actually encouraged the country's cricketers to act as they did at Newlands. Beginning with his already famous axiom that "Nobody goes to sleep honest and wakes up a cheat," Haigh's own cultural review analyses the process by which the drift to corruption "occurs little by little, influenced by example, precedent, incentive and human material, and after a time may need a third party to identify itself as such." The result is a tough but necessary read for those who care about Australian cricket. And those who believe its conclusions have solely antipodean relevance should think again. Remember Allen Stanford, anyone?
Haigh's long experience in writing about business organisations made him outstandingly qualified to write Crossing The Line and he has seized the opportunity superbly. The result is a careful but searing indictment of an organisation that lost sight of its purpose and employed people who understood next to nothing about cricket yet had no great interest in extending their comprehension. Other large companies rate as many mentions as cricket teams although Haigh is far too wise and subtle a writer to make the case that recruiting from outside is always a bad strategy. But he is not afraid to make the case that if Warner is a bad apple something might be wrong with the tree. On occasions Haigh lets his anonymous interviewees speak for themselves: "Asked to sum up the culture of Australian cricket, one of my interviewees put it more succinctly than I ever could: 'Bullies and sycophants.' Said another, by way of contrast: "[Australian rules] Football gives you one in the belly. Cricket gives you one in the back. It is full of good haters."
And Haigh is a stakeholder in all this. Anyone reading his essays will come across references to the Yarras, the Melbourne club for whom he has played more games than anyone else. Close involvement with a cricket club should benefit any cricket writer and it certainly helps make the concluding pages of Crossing The Line a moving read, as Haigh admits that the cricket he is paid to cover feels "less precious, less precious, less representative and less a part of civic life than it used to." He also asks these questions: "Why does the Australian season seem so frantic, and the hierarchy of importance so confused? When did cricket cease to be a complex, skilful, collaborative endeavour of competing team cultures, and decide to be about the identification and pampering of individuals? When did it stop being a game, and become an event, a product, a sale?"
Crossing The Line ends by pointing out that "cricket sought solace from the idea that here were just three bad boys". Each of those boys gets a chapter to himself in Steve Smith's Men and they are among the strongest sections of Lemon's powerful book. In particular, "David" offers a far more nuanced and rounded picture of a troubled cricketer than anyone has written previously; and those critics willing to condemn Warner without much thought will do well to read it. "They weren't born wanting to do this," Jed Bartlet reminds an audience when seeking to explain juvenile evil in the "College Kids" episode of The West Wing. To its credit, the report of the Ethics Committee also looked beyond mere villainy: "[Bancroft] should have said no," one administrator is reported to have said, "but he had no foundation on which to say no, whatsoever."
And in two later chapters of the book, Lemon also considers the culture of both Australian cricket and Cricket Australia. These are the only major areas in which his book overlaps with Haigh's, but those chapters are absolutely worth reading, too, not least for this devastating conclusion: "The Cricket Australia of the last few years has been abrasive, selfish and immune from consequence. It would have been a miracle if its cricket team had been anything else." Abrasive, eh? It's a neat touch, neater perhaps than giving a rough texture to the book's sand-coloured title.
Both these books are paperbacks and neither may seem particularly cheap. Yet they deserve a wide readership far beyond Australia, for they offer a warning to all sports administrators who think they are merely running a business. Ball-tampering, of course is nothing new; someone will probably attempt it next summer and punishments will follow. But far more poisonous is a culture that appears to justify such conduct. The grisly results of such corruption unfolded last spring and the one of the chief consolations we have is that Geoff Lemon and Gideon Haigh were around to ensure we understood the wretched truth.
Crossing The Line
By Gideon Haigh
Slattery Media, 2018
134 pages
Steve Smith's Men
By Geoff Lemon
Hardie Grant Books, 2018
304 pages

Paul Edwards is a freelance cricket writer. He has written for the Times, ESPNcricinfo, Wisden, Southport Visiter and other publications