IT IS the epitome of an idyllic cricket match in regional Australia: spectators sit under plane trees around a picket fence and a game played hard but fair; vigorous appeals, hearty applause and the sledging a mixture of mild jabs and quips.
One of the captains competing in this first-grade grand final is Mitch Smith, a laid-back character who, when not on the field, lazes under the clubhouse topless – his shaggy-rug torso and total lack of self-consciousness on full display. He recently ran water on to a field and a rival player quipped: “It’s 30 degrees. What’re ya doin’ wearing a jumper?”
Smith barked back something and ran off the field, no offence taken, seemingly.
No one tried to rattle him by making a lewd remark about someone close to him.
This country cricket scene, as Smith’s South Tamworth beat long-time premiership rivals Old Boys at a sundrenched No.1 Oval in Tamworth, could have been a local match at any oval in any town in regional Australia, from Warrnambool to Wagga.
As Souths batted and bowled towards victory in Tamworth, Australia and South Africa were engaged in the third Test at Newlands in Cape Town. Overlooked by Table Mountain and Devil's Peak, the ground is, like Tamworth’s No.1 Oval, a charming erstwhile throwback, far removed from the high-tech mega stadiums elite cricket is usually played at. But that is where the similarities end.
No one from Old Boys and Souths brought sandpaper on to the field to try and alter the flight of the ball.
Sure, one match was a country grand final and the other a Test duel between bitter rivals. However, in the wake of the ball-tampering scandal, it has become clear that Australians are fed up with the hyper-aggressiveness and win-at-all-costs mindset of our top cricketers.
The team culture which spawned a failed subterfuge that brought shame to a country and created headlines from Mumbai to Hobart must change. But how to restore the pride and respect?
For Tim Grosser, long-serving NSW Country selection chairman for cricket, the ball-tampering incident was the perfect storm of outrageous behaviour which framed in the most dramatic manner his long-held belief that our international cricketers are overpaid, overhyped and overindulged “spoilt brats” who wear entitlement the same way Dennis Lillee wore a gold necklace – gaudily; their global strut an appalling advertisement of Australian sport and culture.
Our Test stars, Grosser told The Northern Daily Leader after news of the cheating scandal broke, should be made to get a “real job”.
“None of them have had a working job – they’ve been playing cricket since they were 16 years old,” he said.
“Cancel their contracts, as far as I’m concerned. Let them start again. My argument has always been that they’re nothing but a mob of spoilt brats.”
Gunnedah-based Grosser sees and judges our international cricketers through at least three lenses: a former first-class cricketer from a bygone era when the game was played for the purest reasons; an elderly Aussie who recoils at the pampered, bubble existence of today’s elite cricketers; and a country cricket official plugged into the sport’s untainted version.
So how does Steve Smith restore his reputation, and make restitution to the sport he has done so much to tarnish?
Here’s a suggestion: make him play cricket in the bush. What better way to fulfill his Cricket Australia-imposed 100 hours of voluntary service in community cricket than playing for country sides?
In doing so, he would experience a sport and communities far removed from fat contracts, million-dollar mansions, first-class flights and six-figure endorsements.
He’d be exposed to a sport underpinned by ethics, where winning without sportsmanship is anathema to the players and the supporters.
It was an environment that shaped Mark Taylor, the Leeton-born former captain, and someone Smith should look to as a model of playing to win, without sacrificing the spirit of the game as if it were meaningless.
Because the spirit of the game is not meaningless.
That’s why it is enshrined in the game’s laws, with its preamble stating: “Cricket is a game that owes much of its unique appeal to the fact that it should be played not only within its Laws but also within the Spirit of the Game. Any action which is seen to abuse this Spirit causes injury to the game itself.”
Blokes like Tim Grosser know this instinctively. South Tamworth captain Mitch Smith and Old Boys counterpart Ben Middlebrook know it, too. As does every country cricketer. And they strive to uphold it, or risk doing their sport, their teammates and themselves a disservice.
Smith, David Warner and ball-tampering co-conspirator Cameron Bancroft know it, too. But they mainlined winning at all costs for so long they forgot it. A stint playing country cricket might change that.
Smith’s emotional press conference at Sydney Airport on Thursday night laid bare a man begging for forgiveness, for a second chance.
It was a touching reminder of what can happen when a feverish winning mentality garrottes morality.
Beside the plane trees lining Tamworth’s No. 1 Oval, away from the big city glare, they love to win as much as anyone. But they know that losing is part of the game.
They also know that good people, particularly young men, can make mistakes. And from that, learning and maturity often flow. As does forgiveness.