Saturday 26 May 2018

Piercing English criticism of Australian cricket cheaters isn't just OTT - it's also hypocritical

The Last Word

Former Australian cricket captain Steve Smith. Photo: AP
Former Australian cricket captain Steve Smith. Photo: AP

Eamonn Sweeney

There's a great Monty Python sketch which begins with a customer in a French restaurant politely informing the waiter that there's a bit of dirt on his fork. The waiter hurries off to inform the head waiter who is so upset that he tells the customer he's decided to sack the entire washing up staff because, "We can't afford to take any chances".

"It was only a dirty fork," says the customer. "It was smelly and obscene and disgusting and I hate it," says the head waiter, working himself up into a state of hysteria. Then the manager arrives and bursts into tears at the disgrace this spot of dirt represents before stabbing himself with the fork. The chef comes in and tries to hit the customer with a meat cleaver before fighting with the waiter and falling over the table.

I couldn't help thinking of the dirty fork sketch while watching the press conferences on Thursday which followed the revelation that the Australian cricket team had tried to tamper with the ball in their defeat by South Africa. First came captain Steve Smith who sobbed piteously after confessing his part in the affair and he was quickly followed by team coach Darren Lehmann who choked back the tears while announcing that he'd be resigning from his job.

There was so much emoting going on it was like watching the moment on a TV talent contest when a singer pays tribute to their departed granny. I half expected Smith or Lehmann to break into, The Greatest Love of All, though I suppose the line, "No matter what they take from me, they can't take away my dignity," might not have been particularly appropriate in the circumstances.

I know that we're all supposed to praise any man who publicly bursts into tears and contrast his behaviour with the emotionally-repressed response of traditional masculinity, but I couldn't help feeling that the Australians had somewhat lost the run of themselves.

For one thing, ball tampering, and particularly a scheme so ineptly executed that not only were the Aussies found out almost immediately, but the umpire didn't even change the ball, is hardly the worst offence in the world. In fact, in a world of doping, match fixing and dodgy TUEs, it seems positively innocent.

There have been numerous examples over the years. Mike Atherton was caught at it in 1994 yet his punishment was a mere £2,000 fine and as far as the English media are concerned, 'Athers' remains a good egg. Players from South Africa, India, Pakistan and Australia have also been nabbed in the past. Usually a fine has been imposed. The decision by the Australian cricket authorities to ban Smith, vice-captain David Warner, and the man who actually tampered with the ball, Cameron Bancroft, Lehmann's resignation and the general atmosphere of national shame about the incident all seem OTT.

But not as OTT as the reaction of the English media whose criticism of the Australians verged on the unhinged. "Australia revealed as cheats and stupid ones," wrote former international Vic Marks in the Guardian. "Its arrogant, cheating cricket team is reaping what it sowed," crowed Paul Hayward in The Daily Telegraph which also featured right wing Tory MP Simon Heffer describing Australia as, "one of the most degenerate teams in Test history", and excoriating "Australia's rotten culture".

This is pretty remarkable language and can perhaps be explained by a combination of factors. The English are still smarting over the humiliating defeats they suffered in the last Ashes series and see the current controversy as a chance to cast doubt over the validity of not just that victory, but all Australian victories. There is also a certain type of Englishman who will always regard the Aussies as unruly colonials and for whom a jibe about 'convicts' springs readily to the lips. Yet perhaps the major reason for the ferocity of the English criticism is because they know in their hearts that their own favourite sporting heroes, the ones they have not just worshipped but in some cases have literally ennobled, are widely regarded elsewhere as cheats. It's remarkable to see newspapers which have fallen over themselves to worship at the feet of Brailsford, Wiggins, Farah et al and whose reaction to Chris Froome's suspension for doping has been to wonder what technicality he might use to escape justice, giving the Aussies both barrels.

I suppose it serves a psychological need for the English. Look at how outraged we are at foul play, they're saying. Doesn't that prove that if our own heroes were crooked we'd be outraged at them too? And we're not, so they must be OK. As Brendan Behan sardonically observed they have, "Many things for export, Christian ethics and old port. But our greatest boast is that the Anglo-Saxon is a sport." They were happy enough with Eddie Jones' Australian sporting culture when he was winning matches for them.

Between the emotional incontinence and the hypocrisy, those sceptics who insist that sport infantilises people would have a pretty good case if they made the ball-tampering saga exhibit A for the prosecution.

Mind you, if the Australians are really sorry, they could always withdraw from the next World Cup and let Ireland take their place.

The Last Word: Dull friendlies do little to stir up enthusiasm

Our national soccer team is in a state of drift. There's nothing unusual about the bloodless and boring nature of our friendly defeat by Turkey, such encounters between non-qualifiers in World Cup years are usually dull exercises in futility. Yet there's very little for fans to get excited about over the next year.

OK, there are the Nations League games from September to November but it won't be clear how they affect our European Championship prospects till the end of the qualifiers which don't begin till March of next year. It's going to be pretty hard to work up any enthusiasm for renewed jousts with Denmark and Wales in those circumstances.

It's clear too that the FAI have hitched their credibility to that of Martin O'Neill, whose continued presence as manager will probably have more to do with the Premier League job market than the results of his team. The most disappointing thing about the Turkish match was that O'Neill was under as little pressure as is possible yet his team adopted the usual cautious attitude. If we're not going to let rip in a game like that, what will it be like when there are points at stake?

* * * * *

There is something extraordinarily impressive about the qualifying campaign which has seen the Irish under 17 soccer team reach the European Championship finals in England in May. Ireland won all six of their matches, scoring 18 goals and conceding just one. They were the only team to enjoy a 100 per cent record in the qualifiers, something had earned them a top seeding.

Top scorer in the campaign with eight goals was Adam Idah of Norwich City and formerly of College Corinthians in Cork. Idah also hit a hat-trick in ten minutes for Norwich against Barnsley in the FA Youth Cup as the Canaries went all the way to the quarter-finals before losing to Birmingham City. Funnily enough I can remember Irish manager Colin O'Brien doing something similar for Cork City against Sligo Rovers at The Showgrounds in 1999.

It's 20 years since the incredible achievement of Brian Kerr in steering Ireland to a double in the European under 16 and under 18 championships. We haven't come close to emulating those teams since. Maybe the Cork combination of O'Brien and Idah might work the oracle.

* * * * *

It's been a pretty decent start to the League of Ireland season with no repeat of previous campaigns when Cork City and Dundalk built up early leads. Perhaps the most intriguing contenders are Waterford, currently lying third in the club's first season back in the top flight.

Waterford may be the League of Ireland's biggest sleeping giant. They won six of the eight titles between 1966 and 1973, with Shay Brennan, who won a European Cup with Manchester United, serving as manager for the last two of those triumphs, and had a notably loyal and fervent support. Yet after languishing in Division One for well over a decade, their average home attendance had dwindled to 227 two years ago.

New owner, and former Irish under-age international, Lee Power, has given the club a new lease of life. Among other things he changed the club's name from Waterford United back to just Waterford, their identity when winning those league titles. There were 3,010 at the 2-1 win over Shamrock Rovers at the RSC. Welcome back Blues.

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