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The Steve Smith Saga

by The Ethics Centre
26 March 2018
“It’s just not cricket.”

The words are deeply engrained into the Australian psyche – a response to things that are obviously wrong, unfair or unjust. They’re based in the idea that cricket is a game played by good sports with a noble spirit concerned not just with winning, but with winning honourably. The game has become the gold standard by which to measure what’s ethical. Oh how the mighty have fallen.

In the wake of the ball tampering scandal embroiling Australia’s national sport (and the Australian public at large), it seems not even cricket itself is cricket anymore.

The Ethics Centre has been studying ethical failure for almost thirty years. We’ve worked with listed companies, the defence forces, journalists, doctors and sporting codes. Not surprisingly, we find that when ethics go bad, they go bad in interestingly similar ways.

It starts, of course, with culture – an environment in which small and frequent misdeeds are tolerated or tacitly encouraged. That description fits banks which offer loans to people who can’t afford them just as accurately as it describes a cricketing culture where winning can be achieved at almost any price – sledging, overzealously celebrating send-offs, even physical confrontations have paved the way to where we are today.

The problem with tolerating small transgressions is it becomes harder to spot the big ones. Making the right choice becomes more complicated, especially when everything is a matter of degree. That can be tough in a culture like cricket, where roughing up or dabbing the ball with saliva is par for the course but using sticky tape crosses the invisible line of sportsmanship. To be able to see the difference requires people who are deeply connected and concerned with more than just winning – they’re concerned with winning well.

Australian Captain Steve Smith explained the idea to use a piece of tape to try to affect the ball and help win the test match had been floated by the leadership group before being put into action. The obvious question is: did nobody speak up? Among this group of leaders, did anyone’s conscience twinge at the thought of breaking the rules so egregiously?

The incident in South Africa was an offence against the spirit of cricket. Like the concept of good sportsmanship, this can be a hard thing to pin down. We accept all sort of things in the name of sporting success – sports science, dietary supplements, heckling, and a basket of other tricks. But we expect the leaders of our sporting heroes to know where to draw the line. We have a shared understanding of how the game should be played, a universal rule. It’s not necessarily written down, but it’s commonly understood.

Taking stewardship of ethics is precisely the role of a leader, which makes us wonder whether the current “leadership group” are worthy of the name. Good leaders don’t cheat. They don’t lose faith in their team and try to find ways to succeed in the event their people fail.

They definitely don’t send rookies onto the field to cheat. And they don’t come up with lame excuses for their actions, or defensive arguments for remaining in the team. They do what they think is right, take responsibility for it, and show care and respect for the people they’re meant to be leading.

There’s a saying in sport: winning starts Monday. By game day, all the hard work has already been done. The seeds to victory or defeat have been sewn on the training paddock, in developing athletes to play to the best of their abilities, and all the rest.

Unfortunately, cheating starts Monday too.

Well before Cameron Bancroft walked onto the field with a strip of tape, the test series in South Africa had been marred by a number of alarming incidents on and off the field. These were opportunities for good leadership to intervene. They were chances to right the ship. They were missed.

The path forward for players, fans and administrators seems simple enough – get back to cricket in its purest sense. Reclaim the honour in the game and find ways to instil that purpose in those who don the Baggy Green.

Set a standard: winning comes second to honour and virtue.

That’s cricket.