Everyone, apparently, is miserable: the Australian cricket team was caught cheating. Malcolm Turnbull was outraged. Julie Bishop heard about it through official diplomatic channels. Newspapers ran sensationalist front pages detailing the infraction and its fallout. Parents (in the presence of news cameras) solemnly explained the incident to their children, and a teacher wondered how on earth she could explain it to her students. One pundit labelled it ‘cricket’s #MeToo moment’.
This scandal differs from the typical cycle of outrage: we’re not angry, we’re dejected. The reporting and comment have been elegiac. Commentators appear to be genuinely upset. ‘I have never seen such emotion and anguish on a national scale,’ wrote journalist Tracey Holmes. ‘Please tell me this is a bad dream,’ former Australian captain Michael Clarke tweeted. Speaking on ABC Grandstand the day after the event, a tearful Jim Maxwell sounded as if he was broadcasting from a funeral. So what exactly is being mourned?
Threaded through the hysteria has been the grim realisation that these cricketers, anointed as representatives of our exceptionalism, are actually pretty unexceptional. Trained to see our sporting heroes as a reflection of what we ourselves would like to be, we’ve stepped closer to the mirror and found ourselves repulsed. We’re surprised to discover that these avatars of Australian achievement are imperfect, unable to embody the myths in which we enshroud them. So, with resignation, we arrive at that depressingly familiar explanation: this is ‘unAustralian’. Cheating, we plead, violates the sacred national quality of ‘fairness’. And fairness, we hope, is a central part of something called – interchangeably – our national identity, our national psyche, or our national image. We see ourselves in the national cricket team because, as historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote, ‘The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people.’
Sports teams are, by this logic, sites of solidarity. However, as a national symbol, the Australian cricket team is at its most potent when blandly compliant with notions of mateship, fair-mindedness and innocuous larrikinism. The appeal of such vapid allegory is that it is rarely called to account (at the end of the day, we might say that we can all agree on fair play). Yet the consequence of making the concept of Australianness dependent on the upstanding behaviour of a bunch of blokes who are good at sport is that when these blokes are caught cheating, this hazy set of Australian values comes under threat. So the country mourns its freedom to tell stories in which it is the heroic protagonist.
It’s typical of smaller nations – of which Australia is one – to hope to punch above their weight, and to be seen doing so. Among our less glorified national characteristics is a mild anxiety about our insignificance in world affairs. We love asking visitors ‘What do you think? How do you like it?’, inviting praise. We take disproportionate pride in actors who start out on Home and Away and end up in Hollywood. Success in sport permits us to beat our chest in the international arena, compensating for deficiencies when it comes to, say, military power or cultural production. We convince ourselves that, on the pitch, our reputation is at stake.
This incident felt especially horrifying because the cheating occurred in sight of cameras, the incriminating images captured for the world to see. Australians seem to take moral issues very seriously when we sense that the rest of the world is watching. How else to explain the contrast between the nation’s passionate display of guilt over a very visible cricketing transgression and its relative ambivalence to profound moral issues such as the government’s callous treatment of asylum seekers or Indigenous Australians? How else to explain Australian sport’s long history of failing to acknowledge its cultures of misogyny, racism, and sexual assault?
George Orwell described organised sport as being driven by the same impulses that fuelled mass nationalism, a part of ‘the lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with larger power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige’. To invest such emotional energy in a sporting team’s integrity might be understandable, but it is also inescapably hubristic. As with the embarrassment and soul-searching that occurred in the wake of recent underwhelming Olympic performances (despite monumental government expenditure), the shock at our cricketers’ ethical failings is nothing more than the shock of recognition – a recognition that we are sometimes defective, often mediocre and always human.
It is notable then, as the country mourns the loss of a model self that never was, that this ideal came to be personified by Steve Smith, a national icon who, until Sunday, was near-universally worshipped. Smith is a preternaturally talented batsman and captain; Australia’s prodigal son. Arriving at the crease, his success feels predetermined, as if he were an automaton made for nothing else. Throughout the Australian summer he drew comparisons to the once incomparable Don Bradman, that other great vanquisher of Englishmen, a towering figure in the national mythos. Like Bradman, Smith has been a great white wall onto which we have projected an image of our best imagined self.
But that image is unmoored from the muddled reality of Australian life. Unable to recognise this, we remain attached to the warm pride invoked by the delusion of audience participation, the illusory rewards of international renown.
Cheating, a clear moral transgression, is incompatible with this illusion. So, to confront this moral failure in the Australian cricket team is to be faced with a more realistic but unwelcome image of the nation. Australian cricket’s transgression is not an aberration, but a symptom – the inevitable product of perpetually describing a collection of physically gifted but otherwise ordinary men as the synecdoche for our national fantasy.
Image: Cricket balls / flickr