Bitter sniping on the field, stairwell threats off it; barrel-chested send-offs and, most pitifully, South African officials aiding and abetting the misogynistic “humour” of some low-life spectators.
Only those pretending to live in some sort of reality-proof bubble could flippantly discard the acrimonious events that have surrounded the first two Tests in South Africa and expect us to concentrate only on the cricket itself, even as AB de Villiers caressed another sublime cover drive.
Sadly, the conflict has not been removed from the contest but ingrained in it. First in the verbal warfare of the Australians in Durban, then in the reprisals of South African quick Kagiso Rabada whose not particularly fond farewells for the Australian batsmen seem certain to bring his series to a premature end.
Was Rabada responding to Australia’s on-field taunts when he bumped Steve Smith while providing directions to the sheds? Was he responding to Australia’s response to South Africa’s stairwell taunts? Or is he just an old-fashioned testosterone-fuelled fast bowler?
Whatever your view on it, the on- and off-field narratives have collided in South Africa and, regardless of who carries the day, this series will leave a bitter aftertaste.
South Africa’s Kagiso Rabada was cited by the ICC following his Steve Smith send-off. (Reuters: Mike Hutchings)
But amid the daily drama, there was one encouraging and overdue development back in the Cricket Australia (CA) war room.
On Friday evening CA officials were hoping to leave the office early to play a social cricket match. Instead, they found themselves locked in an elongated board meeting where the behaviour of the Test team, including David Warner and Nathan Lyon’s punishable actions in Durban, were on the agenda.
With Australia actively engaged in a high-profile series, you would normally expect an anodyne response from CA generally supporting the team while reminding everyone, yet again, of its commitment to the “spirit of cricket”.
Instead, CA chief executive James Sutherland issued a statement that was remarkable for its forthright criticism — you might almost go as far as condemnation — of his team’s recent conduct.
Sutherland supported the sanctions imposed on his players, reminded them about the standards required in the International Cricket Council code of conduct, the preamble to the Laws of Cricket and — you guessed it! — invoked the need to play within the “Spirit of cricket” including “the need to be respectful to opponents”.
But Sutherland’s most telling line was this: “The Australian team understands that fans expect better.”
This single sentence is important because, for once, a major sports organisation was acknowledging the standards expected of its elite athletes should be in accordance with public expectations, not merely concocted in the heat of battle.
Nathan Lyon was sanctioned for his reaction to Ab de Villiers’ dismissal in the Durban Test. (AP: Themba Hadebe)
Thus Sutherland was admitting that Australia’s behaviour had failed the pub test; that it needed to do more than merely stay on the right side of that ever-shifting “line” chalked out by the team itself to suit its current aspirations.
Of course, merely reminding the Australian team it is expected to play in the way the rest of the nation expects is not exactly giving it a rightly royal public bollocking.
CA approach contrasts NRL’s handling of Lodge return
There will be understandable cynicism about Sutherland’s sincerity given the same statement declared the blame for the acrimonious events in South Africa was shared by the home team and reminded us of Australia’s otherwise good record.
But this was not the usual wagon-circling you come to expect when a governing body is asked to sit in judgement of its own most valuable assets.
CA’s approach certainly stood in stark contrast to that of the NRL, whose mishandling of the Matt Lodge issue was allowed to overshadow the lead-up to the season.
In the Lodge case the NRL took the traditional route by stubbornly refusing to admit it had made a mistake in registering a player with such a chequered recent history. Conveniently, it was not long before documents appeared purportedly “proving” Lodge was a changed character.
Of course, providing proof that Lodge had actually undergone the rehabilitation the NRL and Broncos had previously said he had undertaken proved little that we did not know. On the contrary, it merely proved the lengths to which some were willing to go to argue Lodge’s case.
Thus as the Broncos were soundly beaten by St George-Illawarra on Thursday evening there was an understandable sense that justice had been done, not merely against the club that had cynically engineered Lodge’s premature return, but also the NRL officials who had rubber stamped his comeback.
History will judge whether CA’s unusually robust assessment of its own team’s behaviour was merely for public consumption, or whether it will set a standard for future behavioural expectations and internal discipline that might help avoid a repeat of some of the unsavoury aspects of the current tour.
As it was, Sutherland’s statement was soon replaced on this tour’s rapidly rotating news cycle by pictures of two South African officials posing with “fans” in Sonny Bill Williams masks, part of the obscene vilification of Warner’s wife Candice.
South African cricket officials were pictured with spectators wearing Sonny Bill Williams masks. (Twitter)
In a sense, these foul images took some of the heat off the Australians. The involvement of the officials meant South Africa had abandoned any toe hole they held on the moral high ground after De Kock’s allegedly puerile comments.
Rabada’s serial send-offs weakened the home team’s self-professed victimhood at the hands of the supposedly calculating Australians even further.
But South Africa’s shameful treatment of Candice Warner does not remove CA’s obligation to act forcefully on Australia’s role in the rapidly deteriorating relations in South Africa.
Sutherland’s statement was a very promising first ball. Let us see how the rest of the over plays out.