Ignore the fact that Sunil Gavaskar invoked the name of the late David Hookes to support his argument about the behaviour of the Australian cricket team. Let’s just say that was unwise.
But it should not be allowed to obscure his central point which is that the Australians are reviled wherever the game is played because of their uniformly appalling on-field behaviour. They have taken a gentleman’s game and, in the course of three decades, turned it into a game for bogans and boors, where sledging is the norm, civility the exception. That’s the nub of the issue and it took a man of Gavaskar’s standing in the game to say it, and have people sit up and take notice.
And yet, as invariably happens when someone dares slag off Our Boys, the person responsible for the criticism gets pilloried and a section of flunkies in the media rush to the Australian team’s defence. It’s as predictable as the salivating of Pavlov’s dogs.
One of the hosts of radio SEN’s breakfast show yesterday moaned: they’re just being competitive, get off their backs. The Age chided Gavaskar for his “increasingly puritanical tone (which) reached new levels of ridiculousness”. The Herald Sun said Cricket Australia officials were silently fuming at the Gavaskar broadside. If only they got as worked up about the sledging by Shane Warne, the abuse of umpires by Ricky Ponting, the snarling and spitting of Glenn McGrath. Then we might start to address this problem which began in the 1970s when Ian Chappell and Dennis Lillee, and their bristling moustaches, turned the game’s time-honoured tradition of fair play on its head.
From then, all the way through to McGrath and Warne, the Australians have developed this unappealing habit of not just trying to beat the opposition, but browbeat them as well. They are the original schoolyard bullies. And like all bullies, they hate it when someone has the temerity to stand up to them. The portly former Sri Lankan captain Arjuna Ranatunga was one who was not going to be intimidated by the Australians’ tactics, and he didn’t he cop some stick from Ian Healy and others for refusing to roll over meekly. South African captain Graeme Smith was another who was not going to be swayed by the bullying. When he gave South Africa’s Sports Illustrated magazine a glimpse of the on-field behaviour of the Australians, which included the unflattering portrait of Matthew Hayden at short leg muttering and swearing at Smith all day from under his helmet, the South African too became a favourite target for the Australians’ bile. They still have not forgiven him. Witness Shane Warne’s column in The Times this week which again bagged Smith for being a big-mouth (which, all things considered, does seem a trifle rich).
The problem doesn’t just lie on-field either. There was the most unedifying scene at the presentation ceremony after Australia won the Champions Trophy in India last October, when Ponting tapped BCCI chief Sharad Pawar on the shoulder and gestured for him to hand over the trophy. Then Damien Martyn basically shoved Pawar off the stage as the Australians began their celebrations. There was a wave of criticism over the show of disrespect to Pawar, especially from the Indian community. Asked if he would apologise, a mealy-mouthed Ponting said: “If we all feel that’s relevant then I’ll certainly do that.”
This summer, there was one instructional piece of cricket, and sportsmanship, that Ponting and his team should be forced to watch again and again. Perhaps because the gesture was so ridiculously off the wall when measured against the modern-day standard of behaviour it went largely unreported in the mainstream Australian media. They didn’t seem to know what to make of it.
But those who were there on the fourth morning of the final Test match in Sydney this summer will remember Andrew Flintoff’s gesture as one of the most uplifting in recent cricket history. The English had been belted from pillar to post all summer, not just by a superior opposition in the Australians, but an equally triumphalist local media. So when they walked out on to the field on that fourth morning, with Australia needing barely 50 runs to win the Test and whitewash the series 5-0, they could be excused for feeling slightly deflated and down in the mouth.
But Flintoff called his players around and set them up in two parallel lines, forming a guard of honour for retiring stalwart opener Justin Langer to walk through. They then clapped the diminutive Australian out on to the ground and through the guard. It was a truly magnificent gesture and one, frankly, that not even in your most fevered imagination could you envisage Ponting making.
When the Poms happened to have their moment of glory in the Commonwealth Bank one-day finals a few weeks later, beating the Australians 2-0, it was reported that only two Australians – Adam Gilchrist and Brett Lee, two players who it can be said have generally upheld the game’s most noble traditions – went up to the English dressing room and shared a celebratory drink with them. Ponting and the rest of his teammates sat sulking in the Australian rooms.
Yes, Gavaskar was wrong to bring David Hookes into the debate. That will win him few friends. But don’t let that obscure his real message: the Australian cricketers often behave like boors and the world of cricket cheers as one whenever they are beaten. And rather than foam at the mouth at Gavaskar’s observations, perhaps it’s time Cricket Australia and its national team captain did something to improve the Australian team’s increasingly tarnished public image.