After the South African cheating scandal of 2018, winning slipped down to No. 2 on Australian cricket’s list of priorities.
No. 1 was earning back people’s respect, changing the way the team played and overhauling its players’ reputations as a bullies on the international stage.
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Since the dark days of sandpapergate, newly installed coach Justin Langer and skipper Tim Paine have done a mighty fine job of doing just that.
A series loss to India on home soil two summers ago was met with admiration for the way Australia competed without big dogs David Warner and Steve Smith, both banned for a year for their dressing room brain snaps at Newlands.
An enthralling Ashes series in the UK further enhanced Paine and Co’s standing in the eyes of many — but as Langer predicted, it only takes one misstep to bring everything crashing down.
“Sandpapergate said our culture had to change. But one thing is for sure. It will only take one piece of bad behaviour for people to say, ‘There you go, that’s the Australian cricket team. Their culture is still s**t’,” Langer said in early 2020.
His troops have largely avoided such a pitfall — until now.
Paine’s unedifying sledging tirade against Ravichandran Ashwin late on day five of the third Test against India — which the tourists somehow saved for a draw when all the odds were against them — shows Australia’s attack-dog mentality still simmers beneath the surface.
The Aussie captain called Ashwin a “d***head”, said nobody in the Indian team likes him, made fun of his IPL career and talked up his own batting average on the subcontinent as tempers frayed.
Matthew Wade also channelled his inner Michael Clarke, following Paine’s lead by telling Ashwin not to “end up with a broken rib”.
Australia was expected to win the Test easily but Ashwin and Hanuma Vihari’s exceptional rearguard frustrated the hosts until the very end on a hot day. Paine’s angst was understandable, but his failure to contain his emotions was “unacceptable”, as he himself admitted on Tuesday.
Langer told his players in fly-on-the-wall documentary The Test while there’s room for “banter”, there’s no place in their game for abuse. As Kerry O’Keeffe pointed out in commentary for Fox Sports, Paine’s outburst certainly wasn’t banter.
Paine couldn’t control his emotions on a tense final day in Sydney.Source:AFP
One session is not enough to suggest Australia’s culture is as toxic as it was in the days when players thought it clever to smuggle sandpaper onto the field, but it does show the culture may not have changed as much as some would like to believe.
Day five in Sydney provided us with evidence when things go against the Aussies, their newly established nice-guy persona makes way for something more abrasive — an aggression they are trying to leave behind in the post-sandpaper era.
English fast bowling legend Darren Gough certainly thinks that’s the case. “This is when it happens with Australia. When they feel they’re under pressure, they go for it,” he told talkSPORT.
“They go for it like nothing else, like no other team in the world and it just went a little bit too far.”
In a piece for iNews, English cricket writer Chris Stocks added: “The mask of respectability that has been worn as a badge of honour since the Cape Town ball-tampering scandal two years ago has finally slipped.
“The problem at the SCG was that there was not only one example of bad behaviour but several, all of which a fair judge would argue had ‘crossed the line’ — the metaphorical gauge Australian cricketers use to judge their own conduct and, even more zealously, that of the opposition.”
Plenty of critics hit out at Paine’s conduct, including Indian legend Sunil Gavaskar and former England skipper Michael Vaughan, who said the Aussies had returned to the “old days”.
“Let’s be honest the captain of Australia since sandpapergate has led this team with great distinction, attitude & never once has he crossed the line of negativity in my eyes,” Vaughan tweeted.
“But his language behind the stumps & sledging today was back to the old days!! Very very poor!!”
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The Indians refused to give.Source:Getty Images
Journalist Daniel Cherny also pointed out on Twitter Paine isn’t always the good guy he’s been made out to be since taking over the captaincy.
“Paine criticised the curators two years ago after a loss and the officiating two weeks ago after a loss,” Cherny said. “Now this ugly chat when things have gone against him. It’s a trend.”
These “old days” Vaughan refers to are exactly what Australia is trying to distance itself from, but as Paine proved, that’s easier said than done — especially in the heat of battle when a match is slipping out of your grasp and you don’t know what to do about it.
Finding the balance between being respectful but having enough mongrel to win cricket matches is a tough one. In the past couple of years, Australia has managed it well but on this evidence, it’s still very much a work in progress.
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