Michael Clarke, Simon Katich and the futility of winning.

The Australian men’s cricket team has been hit with another round of unwelcome media attention related to the fallout from the Cape Town ball-tampering incident (so significant, it has its own heading on the Australian team Wikipedia page with only two levels of indentation).

As part of the outcomes of the Ethics Centre report into the men’s national team, team leadership including coach Justin Langer and captain Tim Paine are attempting to foster a more respectful manner towards opposition players and reduce the amount of verbal abuse, or sledging, done by the Australians.

Former captain Michael Clarke is, to put it mildly, not entirely on board with this change. In a radio interview, he called for the team to play “tough Australian cricket” because without aggression and sledging, “we’re not going to win shit.” In a similar vein, former test opener Matthew Hayden drew a direct link between the national team’s ability to be competitive on the field and the much-touted concept of “hard and fair” cricket – which translates to verbally abusing their opponents.

Clarke and his supporters are making two absolute claims, both of which are factually incorrect and morally flawed:

  1. The only way for a team to compete and win international cricket matches is to foster a hostile environment towards the opposition, including verbal abuse.
  2. The only metric that matters for the national team is winning matches at all costs.

The first point is untrue, and obviously so. The New Zealand cricket team, the most obvious counter-example, have performed excellently while maintaining a reputation of sporting conduct.

But the underlying concepts of point 1 – which come down to marshaling evidence of high-performing teams who either did, or did not, behave in certain ways – are not as interesting as the underlying concepts of point 2 – which are largely philosophical and moral.

Simon Katich, another former national cricketer who has had ideological differences with Clarke previously, has made the most coherent public counter-argument to Clarke’s remarks. To quote him from his appearance on the radio station SEN:

“Once again we find someone [Clarke] missing the point. What’s been forgotten in all of this is we blatantly cheated and the reason we’re at this point now, and what led us to this point, and we talk about the line that was talked about for so long.

“The point is, we were caught for blatantly cheating and we have to rectify that as quickly as possible and to earn back the respect of the cricketing public in Australia and worldwide. Our behaviour is a big part of that. We’ve been a disliked team for a number of years through that on-field behaviour and it obviously came to a head in Cape Town.”

Katich is explicitly making an important point – behaviour in sport is not binary. Clarke and Hayden both are making a binary argument: either you play “hard” cricket to win, or you play “soft” cricket and lose.

But there is an awful lot of room between verbal abuse and threats of violence towards opponents and fielders golf clapping every time a batter hits a boundary. Implicitly though Katich makes a more substantive argument that the national team has a greater array of responsibilities than merely winning matches for the long-term health of both cricket and our society.

First, the major reason there was an ethics review at all was because the Australian public in general reacted with widespread outrage to the ball tampering incident. Much like the Australian government ultimately derives its legitimacy from the consent of the people of Australia, the Australian cricket team is only the Australian cricket team because the Australian public ‘consents’ to being represented by that team.

Cape Town demonstrated that that consent has limits – outright cheating is out of bounds. So is over-the-top sledging and ‘aggressive competitiveness’. Many journalists covering the Australian men’s cricket team have argued that one driver of the strong public backlash to Cape Town was an underlying sense of dissatisfaction with the national men’s team that dates back to Steve Waugh and ‘mental disintegration’.

This is an existential threat to Australian cricket, not because it might lead to the team utterly collapsing and ceasing to exist, but because lack of enthusiasm could translate to reduced match attendance, reduced revenue to support professional players and grass-roots cricket and reduced numbers of elite young athletes choosing cricket as their sport. In this context, to argue that the only thing that matters for the Australian men’s team is to win matches is self-defeating in the long term.

Second, it is good for society if sport is not only about winning. We should expect and demand that our representative cricketers demonstrate behaviour that is consistent with being a good, moral person.

Behaviour that if replicated by players at all levels of cricket in Australia, would ensure the game is an accessible social activity for people of all backgrounds. Sport is a vital element of a healthy society. It encourages physical activity, helps form social bonds, teaches risk taking in a controlled environment and allows people to learn to accept failure constructively.

Clarke’s vision of sport as ‘winner takes all’ is actively unpleasant for many and would do two things if embraced nationally:

  1. Alienate many people from sport thus depriving them of the associated benefits; and
  2. Undermine the strength of those benefits by reducing sport to just a physical contest.

We should reject that vision of cricket and instead insist that our national sporting representatives live up to their end of the bargain.

After all, they get paid excellent money to play a game for a living, travel worldwide and be respected as highly elite athletes. It is not too much to ask that they behave in a manner befitting moral human beings in return.

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