The role of cricket in Australian society is unique. In a sporting-mad nation with a saturated sports market, cricket is probably the one true national game. Unlike the football codes which are scattered, with strongholds of support in separate states, or soccer, where the best Australians mostly play in overseas leagues, cricket has unifying appeal.
Just as the world assumes all Brazilians are by dint of their genes good soccer players, the same could be said of Australians and cricket. Cricket has the summer to itself, and kids from northern Tasmania (such as Ricky Ponting) have as good a chance to captain the national team as kids from the Shire in New South Wales (Steve Smith). Don Bradman stands imperiously alone atop the pantheon of cricketing and possibly all sporting heroes in Australia.
This national significance goes a long way to explaining why a ball-tampering incident at the weekend has such resonance. Australia is gripped by a scandal – the national team stands accused of cheating. The captain has admitted to hatching a plan during a Test match in South Africa to rough-up the ball to gain unfair advantage.
The significance of this crisis could be lost on some friends of Australia in major countries, such as the US, China, or Indonesia; but certainly not on those in India. Because cricket is Australia’s national sport, it is closely associated with our view of ourselves.
Australians like to think of themselves as people who play hard but play fair, who are as likely to chip you on the field as to have a beer with you off it. But even though outsiders may see the amateurish attempt to scuff one side of the ball to make it swing more as a minor incident, it is the sneaky, premeditated way in which it was done, and the equally ham-fisted way of fessing up to the cheating, which has hurt this country the most.
The Australian cricket team is Australia, so the way in which its players carry themselves influences how Australians view ourselves. The shame they have brought on themselves is the shame they have brought on the country. It is that serious.
Because cricket is the national game, it has domestic political significance. It’s no coincidence that the three longest-serving prime ministers (Robert Menzies, Bob Hawke, and John Howard) all had a great affinity with the game.
The same can’t be said for the revolving door of recent PMs (Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd, and Tony Abbott). I’m not saying that a love of cricket is a recipe for political longevity, but in my unscientific observation, it may well help.
At a minimum, a love of cricket assists in connecting the political class with the hoi polloi. There is a PM’s XI that plays touring sides, and Bob Hawke’s iconic photo of having his glasses broken while batting against the press team probably did more for his electoral appeal than his economic reforms.
Even Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, not a cricket tragic by any means, dutifully performed the role of cricket commentator, as all Australian PMs must, when he dropped by 2017 Sydney Test.
Turnbull was quick to comment on the ball-tampering scandal, noting that those wearing the baggy green cap of the Australian test cricket uniform are held in the highest regard. He also noted that the Australian cricket captain is considered as, if not more, important than the PM.
And if that widely held assumption is true, what does this action say on behalf of Australia?