Aussies are showing mentality that led to Sandpapergate – BOOTH

Abuse an opponent one day and say sorry the next? The Australian cricket team are showing the same mentality that led to Sandpapergate and it all just feels so tone-deaf, says LAWRENCE BOOTH, Editor of Wisden

  • More commentators have called out team’s behaviour than Sandpapergate 
  • But it remains to be seen if the Australian side have the self-awareness to listen 
  • If Steve Smith always scratches a guard, someone should have had a word
  • Writing ‘elite honesty’ on dressing room wall invites ridicule but Australians are desperate to massage their public image after shame of events in Cape Town 

You have to hand it to the Australian cricket team. No sooner have they got everyone hot under the collar than the protagonists are back in front of the media, ignoring Ronald Reagan’s old advice about never apologising, never explaining.

And so, not long after the fifth day at Sydney, where India’s all-time-great rearguard ceded column inches to the mouth of Tim Paine and the boot of Steve Smith, those protagonists were wheeled out to reclaim the narrative.

In England, we’re less good at this stuff: a whiff of scandal is usually met with silence. But then, right now, English cricket isn’t on red alert about player behaviour. 

Tim Paine (left) and Steve Smith have come in for strong criticism after the Sydney Test

Paine said ‘at least my team-mates like me d***head’ to Ravi Ashwin while he was batting 

Australian cricket, on the other hand, is still dealing with the ghosts of Sandpapergate: when Paine says boo to a goose – one of the nouns he aimed at Ravichandran Ashwin from behind the stumps – everyone is spooked.

And that’s the problem. My own view is that Paine’s trash-talking was no worse than crass, and that Smith was not cheating when he marked his guard at Rishabh Pant’s crease during a break in play. He was being absent-minded, yes, and certainly thoughtless. But cheating? No.

Yet such is the cultural baggage the Australians have carried around since events at Cape Town in March 2018 that they are obliged, for a while longer, to be whiter than white – or face trial by social media.

Part of this dynamic is their own fault. So desperate were they to massage their public image after the sandpaper nonsense that they overdid it. 

Daub ‘elite honesty’ on the dressing-room wall, and you invite ridicule. Insist you’re clambering on to a pedestal, and others will await the fall.

Which leads to the obvious question: why bother sledging and scratching in the first place when you must know, deep down, what the reaction will be? It just all felt so… tone-deaf.

If Smith really does scratch out a guard when he’s not batting, ‘every single game, five or six times a day’, as Paine suggested, shouldn’t someone have a quiet word because, y’know, the world is watching and it’s not two years since you returned from a ban? Whether the Australians like it or not, perception matters.

One thing is for sure: had an Indian fielder done the same thing, not everyone would have been so quick to psychoanalyse it all away.

Paine has been hailed in some quarters as showing strong leadership for apologising because he ‘fell short of my expectations and my team’s standards’ – as if the bloke who called Ashwin a ‘dickhead’ was some other guy he had no control over, and not in any way reflective of Tim Paine.

Tim Paine (pictured) and Australia are showing a mentality that led to Sandpapergate

If that’s strong leadership, then the bar is pretty low: abuse an opponent one day, say sorry the next, move on, not much to see here.

It’s the mentality that led to Cape Town. This time, more Australian commentators have called out the team’s behaviour than they did during the build-up to Sandpapergate. But will the team have the self-awareness to listen?

Should things get tight during the decider at Brisbane, we may find out sooner rather than later.

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