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Don Bradman in middle, front row of the Bardsley-Gregory cricket team, Circa 1930s (image via commons.wikimedia.org).

Media editor Dr Lee Duffield says the story from South Africa about fair play, abuse and rorting the rules had some beginnings on a dusty cricket pitch in a famous old town.  

AN OLD TIMER told a story on the radio about how he was a child at Gundagai playing barefoot cricket with his mates down at the park.

Four or five cars pulled up and some strange men got out and came over to ask if they could join in.

The boys found themselves having a hit around with the Australian cricket team on their way from Sydney to Melbourne for a Test match.

That was 1937 – nearly half-way into the history of Australian Test cricket after the first game against England in 1876 – and Don Bradman would have been there.

HAS AUSTRALIAN CRICKET TURNED TO ASHES?

The story has some power in Australian culture that would help explain the disgraced ex-Captain Steve Smith breaking down as he addressed media on Thursday — when he started talking about children’s cricket and family.

Australian cricket and the great repute it enjoys may not have turned to ashes in the last week but the team getting caught ball tampering, as a concerted action involving the captain, holds the country up to world ridicule and at best will take a long time to live down.

There are dozens of angles in the torrent of reactions and commentaries, including this one.

IS SOUTH AFRICAN CRICKET WORSE?

The Australian Cricketers’ Association came out with a statement on Thursday, accepting the sanctions with reservations and saying that Cricket Australia should have referenced 'contextual factors including the environment in South Africa during the series and the impacts on individual players'.

If the players had thought of Don Bradman facing down the bodyline attack in 1933, they might not have bitten when the South Africans started goading them.

This South Africa team do look like a bad lot.

The captain, Faf Du Plessis, was penalised for ball tampering both in 2013 and last November.

One of the players and one or two others were involved in a row with the Australian Vice Captain David Warner, like the start of a brawl, after the first Test on 5 March -- just as we saw on TV.

The star bowler Kagiso Rabada, victorious in the second game, put on one of the worst displays of out-of-control spite on the pitch – yelling in the Australian batsmen’s faces and bumping Smith’s shoulder, not that much short of a blow -- just as we saw on TV.

With existing penalties under his belt, he was suspended for the remaining two Tests but made a contrite statement that he would have to amend his behaviour and was let off.

The South African crowd thought this was hero material. Fresh from abusing the visitors from the stands the first two times, they cheered him madly at the start of the ill-fated third Test on 22 March.

Pasty-faced, beer-gutted, foul-mouthed yobs, drunk or sober, do not a good cricketing legend make. (Are these the tough South African farming guys the Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton wants to bring in to bolster our manliness?).

News.com summed up:

'Australia’s disastrous tour has seen physical confrontations, abuse of wives, sledging by spectators and a whole lot drama …'

HOW DO PLAYERS REACT?

I was preparing notes to write here that maybe the Australians might stop reacting and take a moral victory like Don Bradman in 1933, or otherwise just come home.

But then Australia got caught resorting to extreme must-win measures and put themselves in the wrong.

Maybe they should have got the lesson that grown-ups were certainly teaching those boys in Gundagai back in the 1930s: If some clowns are getting up your nose you don’t bite — you wait.

TROUBLE A LONG TIME COMING

Continuing with the historical approach here might give some useful further explanation.

Spool forward from the “Gundagai test match” into the 1970s and something new was afoot.

English Test spectators, as I remember from watching Dennis Lillee at The Oval in 1972, still behaved fairly sedately, consulting their Wisdens and all that — they’d go bad later on.

Whereas already if you participated on The Hill in Sydney, you would see Aussie crowds egging on players as they started off today’s brand of full-on sledging.

That extra-competitive, aggressive Australian strand would get sudden impetus that decade from an unexpected source, the entry of the media and gambling tycoon Kerry Packer — his World Series brought the first big money into the game.

A commercialisation deal was forced with Cricket authorities that opened the code to bidding for television rights, advertising for cigarettes, alcohol and gambling, and endorsement deals for the players.

Make no mistake it has all found favour with the fans.

It has gone further with the razzamatazz commercialisation in India – go-go girls, player auctions, multi-million dollar contracts, grafting scandals – and with the advancement of the popular Big Bash series in Australia.

“MUST WIN” AND MONEY TAKE OVER THE GAME

Without doubt, the change has found favour with the fans, but the market dynamic is that they must win — no-wins equals failing crowd attention and less money coming in.

The question this week is how it affects players and standards.

Joining some British journalists to watch the 1989 arrival of the Australian team in London, it was suggested to me this moustachioed, jostling, jocose group was somehow not like "real cricketers”.

It was a formidable team with solid men in it like the Captain, Allan Border, but mixed, the money was flowing, maybe a qualitative change was well on its way.

As it says in the song, when the pay cheque comes we’d all be out to have spree -- except this is no longer just for the end of a shearing season but every day.

MAKING SENSE OF THE BALL TAMPERING

We might say good luck to them and forget all about modest Don Bradman, except that we now have to make sense of the ball-tampering on Saturday, 24 March — and its aftermath.

Quick recap: The Australian bowler Cameron Bancroft was caught on television roughing the ball with yellow paper, panicking and attempting to hide it in his trousers. The Captain, Steve Smith, took responsibility and together with David Warner, they received suspensions of nine months to a year, fines, a commitment to community service — and they got sent home. Warner was banned from the captaincy or vice-captaincy for life. The Coach, Darren Lehmann, criticised for not knowing what was going on, resigned his job.

Bancroft and Smith, separately, gave airport media conferences, apologising and saying they hoped to redeem themselves.

Sponsorship and endorsement contracts and playing contracts in India were being withdrawn from the three players at enormous financial cost.

IMPACTS ON THE PLAYERS

The effect on Steve Smith raised questions about ruinous impacts in the corporate and money-driven shape of elite sport.

Here is a man of 28, old enough if mature enough, but otherwise not; fixed on the sport of cricket after at least five years in the big time almost assuredly a multi-millionaire — though hardly up to the kind of responsibility put on him in the modern context of cricket as high stakes commerce.

He’d had some advice and rehearsal but speaking while still shocked and after the long flight was a tough ask.

It did not look like a captain who had been prepared for the role of standard setter and, ultimately, leader of the players; not one to manage a subordinate like Warner, singled out by Cricket Australia as the instigator of the rule break.

David Warner himself has long been seen as made from different fibre to the rest – tougher, an aggressive player if an outstanding batsman – with a history of off-field altercations.

Unlike the other two, he saved his immediate comments for a social media post and brushed aside journalists at Sydney airport — eventually fronting up with his apologies the next day.

The Sydney Morning Herald classed him as part of

" ... a rotten Australian team culture, one that had happily endorsed and encouraged Warner -- nicknamed "the Bull" -- as its state-sanctioned attack dog and instigator of confrontation.'

WHAT FUTURE?

Cricket like other main sports may be in line for more public regulation to tame excesses, such as – a weak initiative -- the partial-ban imposed from this week on TV gambling advertisements during the early part of night games.

Yet the new corporate order overall provides much for all parties — promoters, officials, media, players, punters.

The question is the impact on persons and on the quality of the game as it gets more and more professionalised — you just have to check your values.

Media editor Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

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