At the approach to the Adelaide Oval’s East Gate is a statue that sums up the Australian fixation with cricket.
Raised on a plinth is a lithe batsman in full swing, sleeves rolled up above the elbows and cap perched neatly above the eyes as he aims a drive towards the city skyline.
It is a figure that would be instantly recognisable to any self-respecting Australian and the adjacent plaque is appropriately understated: Sir Donald Bradman, 1908-2001.
After all, ‘The Don’ is not only his country’s most famous cricketer, but quite possibly the most celebrated Australian of them all.
From Bradman downwards, Australia’s great cricketers have been revered as not just sporting but national heroes – and so when those same heroes prove themselves to be flawed, the sense of disappointment is far reaching.
The ball-tampering scandal, which saw captain Steve Smith, vice-captain David Warner and batsman Cameron Bancroft banned after hatching a plot to cheat by using sandpaper on the ball in a Test match against South Africa in March, shook this proud sporting nation to its core, causing tremors that are still being felt today.
As a new-look team took on India this week in its first home Test since the incident, the BBC’s Stumped programme travelled to Australia to take the pulse of a damaged cricketing community.
‘A tsunami of disfavour’
A further indication of Australia’s obsession with cricket is the extent of the domestic media coverage of the India series.
No fewer than three radio stations and two TV channels are commentating on every ball, while a host of national and local scribes offer reporting, insight and opinion for newspapers, magazines and websites.
One man whose views are valued more than most is Gideon Haigh, author of more than 20 books about cricket, the latest of which ‘Crossing the Line’ charts how Australian cricket lost its way on and off the field in the lead-up to what’s become known as sandpapergate.
“We’d fooled ourselves in the preceding few years as to how good a team we were and how we were faring in the public eye,” Haigh tells Stumped.
“A climate of disaffection grew up around the Australian side. Cricket watchers found it difficult to relate to the players. The constant turnover of players and the attitudes they espoused were not something they were willing to sign up for.
“I think what you saw in sandpapergate was a cumulative indignation expressing itself in a tsunami of disfavour. I think Australian cricket fans had been looking for an issue to rally around and the offence in this case was so egregious that it afforded the opportunity for them to express that.
“I’ve covered many controversies in the last 30 years. I’ve seen Australian teams come in for a lot of criticism, but I’ve never known public opinion to run so unanimously against Australian cricketers.”
Haigh’s book is also deeply critical of Cricket Australia, which has been shorn of several senior figures since an independent cultural review found that its “winning without counting the costs” culture paved the way for the events in Cape Town.
The governing body’s summer slogan of “It’s your game” sums up its “desperation” to reengage with a disaffected public, says Haigh.
“I think we’d fallen into the habit over the last few years at Cricket Australia that cricket was something that we sold to the public.
“The public reminded Cricket Australia in sandpapergate that this was something that they already owned and felt a great deal of proprietorship over.”
‘The ugly Australian syndrome’
While Cricket Australia resets its priorities under a new chairman and chief executive, the players have put their name to a “pact” in which they vowed to “make Australians proud” of the team.
On the eve of the Test match, new captain Tim Paine said that regaining respect was now just as high a priority as winning. But did fans at the Adelaide Oval agree?
“The team has needed to change for some time,” says South Australia Cricket Association (SACA) member Mick. “It’s almost been embarrassing being an Australian cricket supporter – the ugly Australian syndrome. But you’ve still got to play tough cricket and win.
“There was a time when the Australian cricket captain was more respected that the prime minister and I think those days are long gone,” adds Scott, who has brought his kids along to watch the cricket from the grassy bank at the Cathedral End of the ground.
“They’ve got a lot to make up if they are going to get any respect back from the Australian public.”
Others believe it’s time to move on and back Paine’s men.
“This team doesn’t reflect the team that was involved in South Africa,” says Claire, who has moved from her hometown of Adelaide to Sydney, but returns every year for the Test match.
“The people who accepted responsibility for their behaviour aren’t in the team. They should play fair but not be soft.”
Mick’s fellow SACA member Brad holds a similar view.
“The culture had to change but the are a lot of new faces out there, and new faces bring exciting times.,” he says. “One door shuts, another one opens up for someone else.”
‘Doing the right thing’
As Australia’s new breed try to establish themselves in Test cricket, they do so under the watchful eyes of countless Aussie greats servicing the multitude of media outlets.
Resuming his new ball partnership with Glenn McGrath in one of several potential Australia XIs would be Jason Gillespie, who took 259 wickets in 71 Tests.
Now a globetrotting coach overseeing the fortunes of Sussex and Big Bash champions Adelaide Strikers, Gillespie was asked on Stumped whether he felt the need to school his players in the spirit of the game in the wake of the ball-tampering affair.
“You never want to lose that passion and desire,” he says. “All I ever ask of players is to give it your very best and play with a smile on your face because you are doing something you love.
“There’s a lot of talk about it, but if you play within the laws of the game and give it your very best I think you’re going a long way towards doing the right thing.
“I think by playing within the laws of the game you are playing within the spirit of the game. I think they go hand in hand.”
With a World Cup and Ashes series in England on next year’s agenda, Gillespie says it’s not the time for Australia to lose their competitive edge.
“They will be up for the battle,” he adds. “They will play with that pride, passion and energy.
“If they keep it as simple as that they will go a long way to gaining that respect they would like to have.”