Scandal inflicts battering on Aussie national pride
Autumn is gathering over Melbourne, and the fading embers of the cricket season are flickering their last. At the Junction Oval in St Kilda, a venerable old arena where Joe Frazier once fought Jimmy Ellis, this weekend's Victorian final between Fitzroy Doncaster and Danendong heralds the summer game's twilight, before the state religion of Australian Rules reasserts itself once more.
Across the city, at the country's great sporting citadel, out-of-towners still queue for their tours of the MCG, where Steve Smith scored his 23rd Test century a mere 90 days ago. And over in Sunbury, in the north-western suburbs, a strange fascination is still evoked by Rupertswood, the country estate where, in 1883, Melbourne's ladies of high society presented to England captain Ivo Bligh a tiny urn containing the "ashes of Australian cricket".
It will take more than an urn to hold the cinders this time, after a week of sporting self-immolation like no other.
While there are not yet any "say it ain't so, Steve" signs on the streets of Illawong, the quiet, middle-class corner of outer Sydney where Smith grew up and played grade cricket, the scar tissue from the Sandpaper-gate scandal that he helped orchestrate is tangible.
You could hear it, in recent days, in the quavering radio commentary of Jim Maxwell. And you could see it in the full-page advert that Australian businessman Jaimie Fuller took out in the 'Sydney Morning Herald', reminding the country's lapsed idols: "Cricket is such a part of our national psyche that it helps define us.
"This extends beyond just the reputation of Australian cricket, and Australian sport. This is damaging to the reputation of Australians in general. We hold ourselves to a higher standard."
Malcolm Turnbull, the prime minister and leader of a troubled coalition, has had 30 consecutive negative approval ratings, and yet when he described the cricketers' ball-tampering in South Africa as a "shocking affront", there was barely a word of demurral.
The howl of outrage reflects a pining for a lost gravitas, a lost attachment to the Spirit of Cricket document that Australia invoked in 2003 to encourage young players to respect the game.
In the eyes of Steve Georgakis, a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney, with a particular interest in the history and sociology of Australian sport, events in Cape Town triggered a deep crisis of national identity.
"This is a social and cultural issue now," he says. "People have a lot of anxieties about the future of Australia. Society is changing fast, and we don't like too much change.
"The more anxiety we have, we more turn to something that exemplifies the old way of life, like the institution of cricket.
"Traditionally, it is what unites us and shows us what it means to be Australian.
"Today, though, you have the complete commercialisation of the sport - by the junk-food industry, alcohol advertising, betting agencies. There was a backlash against last year's pay dispute, too, which many Australians saw as a case of cricketers being greedy. Put the cheating incident on top of all that, and we have come to the realisation that cricket is as corrupt as anything else."
Part of the blame is borne by Cricket Australia. For years, the governing body allowed unedifying excesses by a brutish sledger, in David Warner, and a braggart coach, in Darren Lehmann, to go unchallenged so long as the side kept winning. They even elevated Warner to the vice-captaincy.
Now, with his complicity in cheating exposed and his lifetime ban from any future cricket leadership roles confirmed, Warner elicits scant sympathy for his downfall.
An emotional Lehmann yesterday announced that he will resign from his role after the fourth and final Test in South Africa this weekend, adding further to fuel to a heated scandal that has caught fire with devastating effect.
A tortured debate is starting to take hold about what Australian cricket can do to reclaim its place in the country's affections. Some call for humility, for greater decency on the field, while Fuller suggests that there will only be genuine renewal once Cricket Australia accepts that there is more to life than victory.
The one certainty is that the egregious actions in South Africa have led, on this side of the Indian Ocean, to a mix of profound sadness and introspection. While Australia's sporting soul is ultimately too strong to break, it has, after this darkest week, been horribly bruised. (© Daily Telegraph, London)