Pride and the Australian Test team

Bernard Whimpress[1], reprint from The Journal of the Cricket Society Vol 25 No. 3 Autumn 2010, pp. 18-24.

Pride is both a virtue and a vice or, as when I was growing up and attending a St Joseph’s Convent School, it was one of the seven deadly sins along with lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath and envy.

   Pride, according to Aristotle, was a ‘crown’ of the virtues. Pride is the virtue associated with self-respect. Pride can be confused with arrogance but there are differences. Virtuous pride is rational. Arrogance is irrational. The good pride (it has been said) ‘requires one to think highly of one’s accomplishments and abilities. But the accomplishments and abilities need to be worthy of praise’.[2]

          Pride as a virtue builds self-esteem, it involves making a positive assessment of one’s life, taking credit for one’s achievements but also wanting to make continual improvements.[3] It means being able to take a good hard look at oneself and not finding oneself wanting.

          There is, of course, the other pride, the vice, the deadly sin, the exaggerated love of self, vanity, hubris, which leads to other vices such as lying, cheating, presumption, ambition, boasting and so on. This pride is often considered the most serious of the deadly sins and is contrasted with the virtue of humility. In Biblical terms Pride comes before the Fall. He who humbles himself shall be exalteth. He who exalteth himself shall be humbled. The meek shall inherit the Earth. One can see the advantage of a Catholic education.

What I have been dealing with so far in a philosophical/religious sense is pride as virtue and vice among individuals. What I wish to turn to is a third form of pride and its application to a group or team, in particular the Australian Test team over the last fifteen years. But first let us go back to when Test cricket began.

          Pride in Australian cricket began before ‘Australia’ existed, in the very first Test win by 45 runs at Melbourne in 1877. Pride in Australian cricket extended with the first Ashes victory by 7 runs at The Oval in 1882. Pride was maintained by both England and Australia through the value of the Ashes contest which remained the battle for world supremacy in cricket until the West Indies and South Africa began to flex their muscles in the 1960s; the Ashes was then an important subsidiary battle until 1989. Mainly this was pride as a virtue. Individuals and teams respected themselves and their opponents.

          There were occasional chinks. There’s a story of Warwick Armstrong reading a newspaper on an English Test field and claiming he did so to discover who Australia was playing. That was arrogance. Bradman’s merciless run-scoring, Bodyline and its threat to Empire unity, and Ian Chappell’s ‘ugly Australians’ all represented (in different ways) a loss of respect.

          Chappell, who had a strong pedigree in baseball, undoubtedly brought the sharp chit-chat from that sport into cricket, but older players like Brian Booth have contrasted gamesmanship and sledging which has been defined as ‘the practice (in cricket) among bowlers and fielders of heaping ridicule on the batsman’. Booth remarked that in his era (1946-77) ‘aggression was not verbally directed personally at players’ and that comments were ‘pointed’ but not ‘prolonged’.[4] It could be argued that the Australians became ‘ugly’ after two ugly series losses to South Africa in 1966-67 and 1969-70, and to England in 1970-71. The aggression was a way of fighting back. The phrase ‘Nice guys run last’ was adopted from American football. As Booth noted at the end of his playing days, a ‘win-at-all-costs-attitude’ was developing.[5]

          Greg Chappell took over the Australian captaincy from his brother in 1975-76 and a rampant Lillee and Thomson crushed a talented West Indian line-up which scored briskly but lost a series 1-5. It was the last time the phrase ‘Calypso Cricket’ would be used to describe the Caribbean players as Clive Lloyd as captain fired steel into his team.

          Around thirty years ago I was driving a cab when I picked up a late night fare from a party in the Adelaide Hills suburb of Blackwood. The passengers were four members of the West Indian cricket team. Gordon Greenidge sat in the front alongside me and for some strange reason Joel Garner sat in the back with two others. Obviously someone at the party had made a comment that the West Indians had thrown one of their one-day games to make the series, which they were dominating, more interesting. Perhaps Greenidge received this comment because he was most vehement in his denial and turning to those behind said something like, ‘These people don’t seem to realise we have professional pride.’ And then he repeated those last two words ‘professional pride’.

          This is not the time or place for a discourse on professionalism in sport but in general terms the amateur who played for ‘the love of the game’ had had his day. The Gentleman–Players distinction in English cricket epitomised the old amateur–professional division and its removal in 1962 had a marked effect on the way the newly designated ‘cricketers’ came to be seen. Professionalism had negative connotations until professional excellence in performance across a range of sports transformed its meaning. In cricket the Packer Revolution of 1977 had a further profound impact.

          In the early 1980s the West Indies were at their peak. Professional pride concerns not only a team but all the individuals within it performing to the best of their ability. Not only did they collect most trophies on offer – extrinsic motivation – the players were intrinsically motivated as well. Professional pride was a virtue. The West Indian players were trying to be as good individually and collectively as they could be.

          Team sports must involve elements of groupthink. And the team in order to be a cohesive unit must pull together. In a professional age where individual sportsmen are constantly reminded by sports psychologists of the need for focus and to make positive affirmations it would not be expected that athletes/cricketers would develop irrational ideas about their abilities. And yet when they are part of a team, in a noisy environment, and expected to be constantly geeing each other up, it seems inevitable that they will enthuse each other to think they are better than they are. Pride as a virtue may begin to turn into pride as a vice.

          When Allan Border took over the Australian captaincy in 1984 the team struggled to the extent that in his first seven series he failed to achieve a win and in his eighth he defeated New Zealand 1-0. No wonder Bob Simpson was hired as Australian coach to develop skills as well as attempt to instil pride into the team. Towards the end of his ten year tenure Border led a good side but was unable to achieve greatness because of his inability to defeat the West Indies despite running them perilously close in 1992-93.

          A changing of the guard in the modern game occurred at Kingston, Jamaica in 1995 when Mark Taylor’s Australians finally toppled the West Indians after nearly two decades of dominance and one remembers Richie Richardson’s graceless remark after the Kingston loss that the Australian side was the worst (on paper) that he had faced. West Indian pride was hurt on that occasion but as Tony Cozier noted it was a comment that smacked of the kind of over-confidence guaranteed to bring sporting champions to their knees.

          The on-field game has been more-or-less controlled by the Taylor, Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting-led teams ever since. Taylor, who started his Test career in a more successful era, was readier than Border to attack with the superb resources at his command. When Taylor retired in 1999 it was customary to think of him as one of the great captains in the tradition of Richie Benaud and Ian Chappell. Many observers, however, were then reluctant to acknowledge that his successor, Waugh, was in the same league as a tactician. He was viewed merely as the inheritor of an excellent side.

          Waugh did inherit an excellent side but he made it even greater. He raised the bar higher with his emphasis on attack from the first ball of games and in his remorseless efforts to win. When he achieved 16 Test victories in succession he surpassed the 11 wins in a row of Clive Lloyd’s West Indians in 1984 and the previous Australian record of eight successive wins by Warwick Armstrong’s team in 1920-21.

Professional pride was at the forefront of these successes by Taylor and Waugh teams but pride as a vice was an unseemly legacy of the eras. Not because the Australians were bad losers but because they could be bad winners. I suppose the underarm ball in 1981was the ultimate example of bad winning but there were others. Taylor did little to eradicate the Australians’ propensity to sledge opponents. Moreover, the excited jigging led by Shane Warne on the balcony of the pavilion at Trent Bridge after winning the Ashes in 1997 was one of Australian cricket’s less edifying moments.

          Waugh recast the sledge as part of a deliberate policy which he termed ‘mental disintegration’ whereby the team aim was not merely to break down an opponent’s technical deficiencies but any perceived mental deficiencies as well. ‘Pride’ and a hard-line professionalism were joined in a new way. Constant appealing for dubious catches and lbw decisions pressured umpires and detracted from the manner of Australia’s victories. When the side was clearly skilful and played brilliant cricket it needed to win with a better spirit.

          Pride gave way to arrogance most infamously at Kolkata in 2001 when the first 16 match-winning sequence came to an end. Australia enforced the follow-on after India trailed by 274 on the first innings. The Indians had reached 3-115 in their second innings when captain Waugh lost the plot. He set an absurd off-side field to Sourav Ganguly for the bowling of Jason Gillespie without anyone on the leg side, which led one commentator to suggest that he was providing a photo opportunity for his next book. Whether Waugh was trying to undermine Ganguly is uncertain but he forgot that Ganguly’s partner V.V.S. Laxman had made nine centuries in successive games for his state and was about translate domestic success to national success. Laxman did so by taking the attack apart as he and Ganguly added 117 for the fourth wicket. Then Laxman and Rahul Dravid added 376 runs for the fifth wicket and Harbhajan Singh bowled Australia out in the second innings for a remarkable 171 run victory. Pride the vice was followed by the Fall.

          Waugh-led teams were never again going to match that run and it seemed unlikely that any other team would either. At this time the 2001 Australians had their admirers as the greatest side ever – better than Don Bradman’s 1948 Invincibles, better than Lloyd’s West Indians, better than Armstrong’s 1920-21 Australians, and better than the Joe Darling teams at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. Towards the end of his period Waugh’s major ambition was to whitewash England in the 2002-03 Ashes series. But after winning the first four Tests England won the last match at Sydney despite a heroic century from Waugh himself.

The Ashes became a contest in 2005 because leading into the series England had shown that it was a fine, well-balanced side. England won its first series against Australia in eight attempts because it out-batted, out-bowled and out-thought its opponents most of the time. That Australia was only a whisker away from not only retaining, but winning the Ashes, says much for team pride as a virtue. The series was played in fine spirit yet before and after there were other messages. A Glenn McGrath prediction that Australia would win 5-0 was unrealistic boasting and general Australian supporter reactions that the result was an aberration echoed Richie Richardson’s 1995 reaction to defeat mentioned earlier.

          Ricky Ponting won the Allan Border Medal and was a Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 2006. The awards were for 2005 but no doubt Ponting was smarting over being the Australian captain who had lost the Ashes. However, his side began to establish a new ascendancy. In 2006-07 Ponting’s team achieved only the second Ashes 5-0 result but it is silly to think that this proved the previous series was an aberration. That would be an even greater arrogance.

          Remarkably, Ponting’s Australians continued their winning ways and equalled Steve Waugh’s 16-match winning streak in the New Year’s Test against India in Sydney in 2008. The Australians celebrated on the ground at the end of the game but it was a dubious win. Bad umpiring decisions went against the Indians by a margin of about seven to one and Man of the Match Andrew Symonds’ admission that he had been out at 30 before going on to 162 not out inflamed tension between the sides. A little humility was called for.

          One can see the various forms or pride come together in changing attitudes to the baggy green cap. Australian journalist, author and broadcaster Mike Coward has reported on the growing reverence for the cap under the Test leadership of Mark Taylor, Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting with Allan Border crediting Waugh with ‘rekindling the spirit of the Baggy Green’. As Coward points out, views are mixed on the romanticising of the cap which draws a multiplicity of emotions. Richie Benaud, Ian Chappell, Bill Lawry and Jeff Thomson, for instance, see the team and playing for Australia as important, not the cap. For Bob Simpson it was just a cap and never a baggy green in the 1950s and 1960s. Brian Booth respects the cap but warns against its glorification, Doug Walters wished he had worn it more often, and Greg Chappell sees it as a powerful symbol if not with the focus of today. Of the modern players, although he introduced the practice of wearing the cap in the first session of a Test match, Taylor preferred to wear a white floppy hat most of the time to guard against skin cancer, while Shane Warne and Mark Waugh were reluctant to wear the cap. Those in favour included David Boon, who saw it as a ‘tangible representation of the privilege of playing for Australia’ and Justin Langer who thought it was ‘symbolic of everything great about Steve Waugh and Australian cricket’.[6]

          Taylor stated that the decision for all eleven players to wear the cap onto the Gabba at the start of the 1994-95 Ashes series was to make them look more like a team whereas already Steve Waugh was seeing the possibility of the cap casting an aura of invincibility.[7] In that progression is a movement from pride as a virtue towards pride as a vice but we should halt a moment. Coward has also taken the testimony of Len Pascoe who on the Ashes tour of England in 1977 doubted whether he was good enough to play for his country but was reassured by team-mate Max Walker: ‘Max told me that when I had the baggy green on my head I would be the best my country would offer and I would play as it would be meant to be.’[8]

          ‘The best my country would offer’ certainly rings out when one considers the selection of Jason Krejza in the final Test against India at Nagpur in 2008. On the verge of losing a Test series pride had to be swallowed. Australia’s spin attack without Warne, without MacGill, without Hogg, without Casson, without Bryce McGain, and after Cameron White was preferred in the first three Test matches, finally turned to Krejza. The poorly-credentialled New South Wales–Tasmanian off-spinner had taken an absolute hammering of 0/199 from 31 overs in the tour warm-up against the Board President’s XI immediately before the first Test but the man nick-named ‘Crazy’ impressed skipper Ponting by calling out from the deep late in the second innings that he wanted another bowl. That sort of response could mean that he is, indeed, crazy or simply that he was prepared to have a go. Having a go is a likeable Australian character trait, pride tinged with humility. It is history now that Krejza took 8/215 in his first innings at Nagpur, among the best and worst of figures. Australia’s newest Test cricketer will never be another Shane Warne but he might be a Bruce Yardley.

Concluding comments

I finished writing this article on 9 November 2008. I wasn’t listening to the radio but it must be about half-way between India collapsing from 0-116 to 6-166 at afternoon tea on the fourth day at Nagpur, giving Australia a chance of winning the match and tying the series. When I turned on the ABC commentary and Jim Maxwell and Mike Coward were flabbergasted by the ‘incredible’, ‘unprecedented’ tactics employed by Ricky Ponting of using second and third-string bowlers Cameron White, Michael Hussey and Michael Clarke in combination with Krejza to improve the over-rates. At issue was the fact that unless they were improved Ponting, as captain, would be suspended for the first Test of the Australian summer. Then came the moral component: isn’t it better for the captain to be sacrificed for the victory of the team? The language was not that far from shouldn’t he lay down his life for his friends?

          Maxwell and Coward were direct in their criticism, as were fellow commentary team members Glen Mitchell and Peter Roebuck but the repetition became boring as they repeated themselves endlessly. The main variation on the theme was a conspiracy theory – that either one or all of team coach Tim Nielsen, selector Merv Hughes and manager Steve Bernard had got into Ponting’s ear at the tea break and influenced his decision. However, such speculation didn’t lessen the offence. It was not for those off-field to have a say. A match was there to be won (they kept saying) and no attempt was being made to win it. There was even a minor precedent during the same series. On the final morning of the first Test at Mumbai, Brett Lee was kept out of the attack to speed up over rates and India easily escaped with a draw. This last session in Nagpur, however, was the time when Australian cricket (or Australia’s captain) forgot all about pride as a virtue and Indian captain M.S. Dhoni and Harbhajan Singh took swift advantage by adding 108 runs in better than even time. This stand became a vital platform for their win and final 2-0 margin in the series.

          I wondered what other reactions would be. Former captains Ian Chappell, Allan Border and Steve Waugh condemned Ponting but coach Nielsen rose to Ponting’s defence, and Cricket Australia chief James Sutherland reserved judgement. For an action that might be viewed as badly as the underarm ball – in Greg Chappell’s favour he was using lateral thinking and he was ensuring a win – Ponting escaped major punishment. Even Ian Chappell still thought he was the best man to captain Australia. Only Jeff Thomson was unforgiving: ‘I always thought he was an ordinary captain and this proves it.’[9] Late in his life C.L.R. James wrote of a captain that his main function is to lead his side, he should be not only ‘a great cricketer’ but he should also impress people.[10] Where was the leadership in this instance, who was impressed?

          Ponting’s defence that he was trying to play in the right spirit, bowl 90 overs in a day, and resented any inference that he was putting himself ahead of his team makes him sound obtuse. He is not obtuse. When he arrived home at Sydney airport two days later Ponting was quick to say in his press conference that it was important that the Australians put the Indian series behind them, and that he believed that his team was capable of reaffirming its status as the leading nation in Test cricket.[11] He showed how adept he was at moving. No doubt he might have taken comfort from a sentence in Brendan McArdle’s column in the Melbourne Age of 15 November, that stated ‘enough has already been said about Ricky Ponting’s meltdown in India last weekend’.[12]

          Wisely, Ponting didn’t claim that Australia was still the best side in the world. Shrewdly, he intimated that Australia could win every Test it played in Australia this year.[13] If Australia didn’t beat an under-strength New Zealand 2-0 something would be wrong but South Africa would be a different matter. Still it was only an intimation; there was a modicum of humility. Maybe Australia’s captain had taken time to think about virtuous pride. And grace.

          The South Africans won their first-ever Test series in Australia 2-1 but when they had the top ranking to play for at home surprisingly went down to Australia by the same margin. The Ashes would be up for grabs with two mediocre sides fighting for supremacy. A tantalising series saw England triumph at The Oval and gave Ricky Ponting the unenviable record of being the only Australian captain apart from Billy Murdoch (in 1884 and 1890) to lose the Ashes twice in England. However, Ponting’s losing speech at series end was delivered with warmth and humour and was a great credit to him.

          Australia ended up losing three Test series in 2008-09 but it immediately bounced back after the Ashes to beat England 6-1 in the one-day international matches and then go on to take the Champions Trophy in South Africa. Virtuous pride was again in the ascendant and after series wins over the West Indies, Pakistan and New Zealand in 2009-10 likely to remain there for a few months at least.

Bernard Whimpress is a freelance historian.



[1] This essay contrasts pride as a virtue and pride as a vice. It was first delivered as a paper at the conference ‘Pride, Prejudice, Power and Race in World Cricket’ held at the University of South Australia and the University of Adelaide on 26 and 27 November 2008 and finally updated in May 2010.

[2] Landauer and Rowlands, (accessed 2 November 2008).

[3] Thomas, ‘The Virtue of Pride’, (accessed 2 November 2008).

[4] Booth, B., ‘The Curse of Sledging’, Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack Australia 2002-03, p. 20.

[5] Ibid., p. 25.

[6] Coward, M., Chapter 2 ‘Captivated’ in Fahey, M. and Coward, M., The Baggy Green: The pride, passion and history of Australia’s sporting icon, Pennant Hills, NSW, 2008, pp. 5-26.

[7] Ibid., 16.

 [8]Ibid., 25.

[9] ‘Ponting and the over-rate fiasco’, (accessed 9 November 2008).

 [10]James, C.L.R.,  ‘Gower to Lead England’, and ‘The Captain and his Team: An Injustice  to Gower’,  Race Today, May/June 1983 and October/November 1983 in A Majestic Innings: Writings on Cricket, London, 2006, pp. 284-290.

[11] ‘Ponting predicts return to winning ways’, (accessed 15 November 2008).

[12] McArdle, B., ‘Mixed messages raise questions’, Age, 15 November 2008, Sport, p. 10.

[13] ‘Ponting predicts return to winning ways’.


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