Alastair Cook’s 100th Test match was far from enjoyable. His team found themselves facing a daunting 2-0 deficit in Perth. England endured days of fielding as Ryan Harris dismantled Cook’s off-stump, Graeme Swann struggled to maintain his career, and Shane Watson overcame a historically challenging relationship with centuries. The scorching temperatures throughout hovered around 44°C.
In the upcoming week, Steve Smith will achieve the same milestone in front of a crowd that may be equally unsympathetic, in a location far from his home. It seems fitting for a career that has been predominantly associated with one team. Smith needs just 13 more runs to surpass Viv Richards in terms of runs scored while visiting England, Garfield Sobers for runs against England, and Allan Border for Ashes runs. This would position Smith behind only Border and Don Bradman in the first two categories, and alongside Bradman alongside Jack Hobbs in the third.
Leeds is preparing to give Steve Smith a reception unlike anything Border, Bradman, or Hobbs received. With a quick three-day turnaround, the tension and animosity stemming from Alex Carey’s dismissal of Jonny Bairstow at Lord’s will only have intensified. England’s players will fuel it, amplifying the existing animosity towards Smith as the captain involved in Australia’s sandpaper cheating scandal of 2018. During the 2019 Ashes, Smith faced constant heckling from crowds, even during his impressive centuries at Edgbaston. The reception became particularly hostile when Jofra Archer’s delivery struck him at Lord’s, both as he left and returned to the field. By the time he scored a double century in Manchester, the hostility began to wane, and he received a grand ovation at The Oval. His remarkable tally of 774 runs from seven innings, a feat surpassed by only three players in such a short span, earned him respect.
Perhaps it was naive to be surprised when Lord’s booed Smith as he stepped onto the field once again four years later. The acceptance he experienced on the previous tour was reserved for a single moment, and now he faced a clean slate. It was akin to the message asking, “Are you sure you want to overwrite your saved game data?” with the option to proceed. It is fair to acknowledge that Smith’s actions were questionable, and no one is obliged to grant him absolution. However, when Bairstow had his stumps shattered while casually wandering, England supporters connected the two incidents. It reinforced the perception of unscrupulous Australians willing to stop at nothing for a victory.
This connection is flawed. Roughening the ball, according to cricket’s laws, constitutes cheating, whereas executing dismissals within the framework of those laws is the opposite. The argument of the “spirit of cricket” is often invoked as a last resort, inflated when individuals have nothing else to cling to. It is worth noting the greater lack of spirit in jeering an injured player as they leave the field or subjecting a team to a hostile crowd without choice. As an Australian observer without allegiance to either team, the Bairstow incident initially appeared confusing. What was the actual cause of discontent? After days of discussions, certain aspects have become clearer: a sense of deception when targeting an unsuspecting player, a desire for gentility towards those who don’t intentionally err, and a longing for a contest defined by fair play between bat and ball. Accusations of hypocrisy regarding previous actions by England won’t change these sentiments, and a case can be made for the value of leniency.
Equally, it should be acknowledged that leniency is rarely expected in professional sports, and Australia, at all levels, embraces a tougher brand of cricket. In our country, situations of non-striker run-outs sometimes escalate into physical altercations. However, when positioned as the striker, tasked with facing the ball and aware of its trajectory, it is widely accepted that you are fair game until the ball is on its return journey to the bowler. The only questionable aspect of Carey’s action was the nature of his throw. Ultimately, these divergent perspectives stem from different worldviews, and that is acceptable. Both approaches are valid. Unfortunately, amidst the torrent of accusations and opinions flowing in one direction and the rapid transition of puzzlement into defensive anger from the other, the lack of appreciation for these contrasting views has been evident. Even cultures sharing a common language can stumble in their understanding.
This is not a situation where one view can be deemed right or wrong. It is a situation where norms fail to translate. English supporters, players, and coaches may advocate for an approach that took Brendon McCullum a decade of reflection to embrace, but
that doesn’t make it cynical or soft. Likewise, Australians can believe in a more stringent interpretation without being cast as villains.
Above all, these differing viewpoints do not warrant abuse, ridicule, or the label of cheating. If cricket genuinely possesses a spirit of goodness, it should be broad enough to recognize that.