London-based Cameron Ponsonby reviews a summer spent in Australia and the public’s attitude to a cricket team with a huge winter ahead.
Aussie cricket fan culture is a curious thing.
In the UK you admit to liking cricket in between coughs; in Australia, it is a marginally less embarrassing hobby.
You’ll walk into a bar and the cricket will be on. People won’t be watching it, of course. But it will be there. Sprinkling top-line knowledge across the nation via osmosis.
On the one hand it’s great, but on the other it creates a dangerous combination of people who know just enough about everything, and others who know close to nothing about anything. All with an opinion.
Conversations with beered-up dads on the MCG concourse slur smoothly from David Warner being a disgrace and a cheat to Justin Langer’s removal as coach being a disgrace and a betrayal.
“Well, that’s the media narrative,” one dad told me when I proposed that maybe some of the Aussie players had struggled with a volatile and controlling Langer. That when JL arrived in the wake of Sandpaper-gate, Australia had needed a parent, but by the time he left, it was because those players were ready to move out and have their own space.
He wasn’t having it.
The Grade Cricketer regularly pokes fun at this. If an Australian doesn’t score runs in Test whites, on free-to-air television during the five matches of the Aussie summer, then it doesn’t count. That’s what happens in an insular nation where their nearest cricketing neighbour is little brother New Zealand (cute) and cricket in the rest of the world happens when they’re asleep.
“Who’s this lad? He looks good,” asked my Australian club-cricketer housemate when Suryakumar Yadav walked out to bat in the T20 World Cup.
The confines within which success is possible are narrow, meaning the breadth of potential failure is wide.
It is a trap that Pat Cummins and his team now walk proudly towards with a tour of India, followed by an all-but-secured World Test Championship final and an away Ashes series ahead. Ten Test matches that could herald greatness or could just as feasibly result in an Indian humbling, a poorly timed collapse in a one-off final and then a loss to England in a Bazball-infused five-Test shootout. At which point, the knives for a captain whose standing is strong in a cricketing sense but weak in a cultural one will be sharpened.
Cummins has won 10 of his 15 Tests in charge, losing only once, but he represents an Australian team that is evolving into the shape of the modern day against the backdrop of a fan base for whom cricket is a Christmas tradition that shouldn’t change.
It hasn’t been forgotten that the summer started with “PC by name and PC by nature” Pat Cummins stating that on ethical grounds he would no longer take part in any promotional material for Cricket Australia’s major sponsor Alinta Energy.
“But what’s your carbon footprint, big boy? Fly a lot, do you?” came much of the response from the Australian media and public. Add in Cummins’ role in the moving on of true-blue Aussie Langer as coach and there were mutterings about whether the Australian team could end up being booed on home soil.
It was a sentiment that was gathering pace as Australia suffered a humiliating T20 World Cup exit. Crisis was avoided only after Cummins’ Test men put together a smash-mouth summer so dominant that it had commentators debating the very future of Test cricket whilst an Aussie public drank from the fountain of tumbling numbers and records. Cummins was wokay for now, but lose to England, and invitations to swim home since you’re too good for the plane won’t be far away.
The Test skipper should stand in the image of Australia. Masculine and chest-thumping but rule-following. Someone who can sink a schooner in three seconds but will only cross the road when the light is green. Jokingly referred to as the second-most important job in the country behind the Prime Minister, that’s not to say you’re allowed an opinion of your own.
The reaction to Cummins failing to toe-the-line was consistent with cricket’s standing in Australia, blurred between national pastime and irrelevance. Where players are on the Weet-Bix boxes but people only pay attention for two months a year to a sport that now operates across 12. Cricket seems to be an emblem of what Australia believes it should look like as much as what it actually does.
Warner suffered particularly from this, with the reaction to sandpaper. Within cricket circles, eyes were rolled and the Aussies laughed at for being stupid and brazen enough to get caught. Sandpaper? You weird idiots. Use your zipper pocket, overly strapped hands, stones, nails and mints like the rest of us do (allegedly).
But then the Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull got involved and spoke of the shame that the team had brought on the nation and it became a cultural controversy as opposed to a sporting one. Cricket is a big enough national sport for Sandpaper to have drawn comment from the very top, but not big enough for the context, the fact that literally everyone is doing this, to be understood.
“I have to say,” said Turnbull, “that (to) the whole nation who holds those who wear the Baggy Green up on a pedestal, about as high as you can get in Australia…this is a shocking disappointment.”
Warner had betrayed the image that people wanted to believe about the gentleman’s game, not the way it actually was. Recently, he dropped his attempts to have his leadership ban revoked when it became clear that to continue would re-open the whole ordeal publicly.
The same dad mentioned earlier also bemoaned Warner’s pursuit of “justice”: that it merely involved dobbing his mates in it. So Warner individually was a cheat, but to prove that he wasn’t he’d have to be a grass, which is even worse. It’s going to be a hell of an autobiography.
White-ball internationals are no longer broadcast free-to-air, meaning specialists like Marcus Stoinis and Adam Zampa represent their country in formats that are away from public view at home but make them millionaires overseas. International cricket used to be the pinnacle in terms of payment and prestige, but lines can shift when playing in front of an empty Adelaide Oval compared to a packed Wankhede.
And not only do they specialise in the wrong kind of cricket for Australians to pay attention, they’re modern men who are open with their emotions, drink flat whites and, in Zampa’s case, is vegan.
“Adam Zampa is the weirdest guy,” joked Stoinis on The Final Word podcast impersonating the kind of people who struggle to grasp Zampa as a character. “He loves coffee.”
Cummins is the leader of this group of players who no longer fit the image of Australian cricket as it once was and that has evolved faster than the public have kept up. In the next ten Tests, he and his team could prove that there is another way and maybe even take a few eyeballs off the AFL in the process. Or they could return having lost ten-nil, reinforcing the idea that cricket really is just for Christmas and that PC Pat should just shut-up-and-bowl.