Daniel Brettig, courtesy of ESPNcricinfo, where the title is “Lehmann at heart of cultural contradiction”
As hard as the Cricket Australia chief executive James Sutherland tried to be clear and strong about the gravity of events at Newlands and the governing body’s need to put things right in the minds of the game’s followers at home and around the world, there was an inherent contradiction between his words and actions.
In the early moments of his address at the Johannesburg Holiday Inn, Sutherland spoke stridently about how this was about far more than the ball-tampering incident itself. “It’s about the integrity and reputation of Australian cricket and Australian sport,” Sutherland intoned. “Ultimately it’s about whether Australians can feel proud of their sporting teams. That depends as much on the way players conduct themselves as much as it does about winning or losing. All about how we play the game.”
All fair enough, and more or less exactly the message that had been flowing through to CA from every possible avenue over the past three days. But the goodwill that Sutherland was seeking to build fell flat almost immediately at the moment he followed up the announcement about sending home Steven Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft with a rather abrupt change of pace: the coach Darren Lehmann was to stay.
Even as Sutherland was leaving the conference room, questions were already being asked as to how three players had been summarily removed from the team for ball tampering without any apparent recognition or remedial action to address the culture that had brought them to that point. No-one over the past five years has been more closely associated with that culture than Lehmann, who personified the sunny public face but ruthless approach to opponents that had them referred to as a “pack of dogs” by Faf du Plessis in 2014 – Terriers then, they have been Rottweilers in 2018.
While it is quite plausible that Lehmann did not know of the ball-tampering plan hatched between Warner, Smith and Bancroft, he most certainly knew about it at the moment the young opener was shown doing suspicious things on the Newlands big screen. After all, there was the walkie-talkie conversation with Pete Handscomb, who then spoke to Bancroft on the field. His subsequent actions strongly suggested the message was anything but “go and volunteer this to the umpires, you’ve done the wrong thing and you’d better ‘fess up'”.
And even if Lehmann had not been witnessed in this exchange, the question of the team’s culture still hangs very much over his head. All the players involved and sent home have been closely mentored by Lehmann over some or all of the past five years, from the moment he bluntly and simply told Warner, in front of the rest of the team, words to the effect of “screw up once more and you’re gone” on the same day he became coach in England in 2013. That day was also Smith’s first as part of the Ashes squad, having been added to the squad at the last possible moment. Bancroft, of course, made his debut during the most recent Ashes summer, by which time the team ethos had been well and truly entrenched, much as Lehmann had become – flagging his departure at the end of the World Cup and Ashes double in 2019 would mean seven years in the job.
Yet in admitting that Australian cricket culture had moved so far from where it should be, Sutherland also obfuscated when asked how it could be possible that the avatar of that movement could be left in charge to oversee its correction. In relation to Lehmann, he had not even thought about it. “I haven’t gone into any detail to be honest,” he said. “I’ve arrived in South Africa earlier this morning.
“Iain Roy hasn’t even been in the country for 24 hours and has worked very hard on that. I think first things first, we’re trying to deal with reporting issues and then sanctions and we understand the urgency around that. The need for all of you and others to know where we’re up to, that’s the real focus right now. Later on, we’ll work through process around that review that I mentioned earlier.”
Ah yes, the review. There have been a great many reviews in Sutherland’s time as CEO, including no fewer than three all at once in 2011 – Don Argus on team performance, David Crawford and Colin Carter on governance and the former head of strategy Andrew Jones on financial modelling. All of these reviews delivered clear outcomes but, as with the delays inherent in charging and sanctioning Smith, Warner and Bancroft, they were exemplars of an organisation that venerates “process” above decision-making. Having floated the idea of an independent review “into the conduct and culture of our Australian men’s teams”, Sutherland essentially conceded this was little more than a thought bubble thus far.
“I think we haven’t had a chance to really consider properly how that will be dealt with,” he said. “I think by the time we get to our next board meeting face to face we’ll have that considered and be working through that. As I touched on earlier on, in the short space of time since Saturday we’ve been very focused on getting to the bottom of what happened Saturday to take the necessary action that we deem appropriate which is obviously, first things first, making reports and sanctions to come.”
The Australian Cricketers Association president, Greg Dyer, has been quick to note that any such review should not stop at the teams but also look at the administration. “This assessment must include all contributing parties to this culture, players, coaches and administrators, programs and systems, behaviours and accountabilities,” he said. “Australia’s core values of respect, integrity and fairness must be brought to bear on the game of cricket through such a process.
“The ACA offers its full endeavours to an independent cultural examination, diagnosis and ultimately remedy which must occur in the days, weeks, months and years ahead. Australian cricket must remind itself of its purpose that cricket is a teacher of an important Australian life lesson and that is to play with honour first and always.”
Those sorts of reminders have become increasingly few and far between. Any past focus on the spirit of cricket within CA has in recent years been obscured beneath an evermore aggressive pursuit of market share. The off-field actions of the governing body’s marketing, digital, commercial and sponsorship arms have gained them about as much love and respect from corporate partners and “stakeholders” as the Lehmann era has from cricketing opponents: not much.
“I regard the spirit of cricket as being extremely important and as we know, those of us that know the game and love the game know that it’s beholden on everyone who plays the game to uphold the spirit of cricket,” Sutherland said. “The responsibilities of the captain are higher than on anyone and the leaders as well, but certainly that is something that is really important to the game of cricket and in some ways separates it from other sports, and that’s part of what hurts right now.”
That hurt, though, was not deep enough to ask serious questions of Lehmann, not without first initiating a review which will take time as the problems of Newlands cool and the players face most of the opprobrium and career costs of an episode that could not have taken place without the dressing-room culture fostered by the coach. The lack of decisiveness in this respect actually brought a sharp contrast with the aforementioned day upon which Lehmann took the job, at another press conference devoid of backdrops, in Bristol in June 2013.
On that day, Sutherland *had* announced the summary sacking of a coach, Mickey Arthur, with the following words: “This has been a difficult decision to make but one that we feel is necessary. We are looking to establish a high-performing Australian cricket team that is consistent over a period of time. To achieve that, we need all the parts moving in the right direction. Recent on-field results have been too inconsistent. Discipline, consistency of behaviour and accountability for performance are all key ingredients that need to improve. And we see that the head coach is ultimately responsible for that.”
Of all the ironies in that five-year-old statement, none could be more painful than the fact that Arthur was replaced due to the difficulties created by his imperfect attempts to change the culture of the Australian team. This time around, the man most associated with maintaining its increasingly dated brutality has somehow managed to sidestep accountability, at least for now. Not for the first time, Arthur can feel himself very hard done by, and Lehmann the archetypal “Lucky Man”.