Sandpapergate and mass departures: Australia’s year of chaos

The Cape Town ball-tampering saga was the beginning of the end for a host of hugely significant figures in Australian cricket as the country endured its toughest year in living memory.

Australian cricket review 2018

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It had all begun so well. The Australian cricket team started 2018 with an innings and 123-run victory over England to seal a 4-0 Ashes triumph.

There were smiles aplenty as the Sydney sun shone down brightly on Steve Smith and Darren Lehmann’s men after they’d made relatively light work of the old enemy. There was even time for a “classless” trophy presentation to follow – featuring a giant blue hand decorated in the Aussie flag and holding up four fingers next to the St George’s flag of England that featured a clenched fist to resemble the four-nil score line.

However, that was all a big masquerade by Cricket Australia. Behind the scenes the wider public were starting to grow tired of the way the Australian cricket team acted on and off the field. Whether it was the crude sledging or the ongoing arrogance of certain members of the team, tensions were starting to boil up.

There was talk of exhaustion in the camp as an unrelenting schedule that included a full Ashes series of five Tests, five ODIs and a T20I tri-series was then swiftly followed by a four-Test tour of South Africa. And it was beginning to take its toll on several high-profile members of the side – not least captain and vice-captain Smith and David Warner.

Smith citied potential burnout as his reasoning behind skipping part of the ODI series that proceeded the Ashes, while Warner was thrust into the captaincy for the T20I tri-series as both men continued to live their lives firmly inside the international “Cricket Bubble”.

Inside that “Cricket Bubble” the side had begun to develop a win-at-all-costs mentality as the demands of international cricket and a wider growing arrogance led to exaggerated aggression, and at times a sense of invincibility.

While no-one ever expected the Australians to cheat as blatantly as they did on that infamous Saturday afternoon at Newlands in late March, there were earlier warning signs that their conduct had started to spiral rapidly out of control. Not least, the continuing on and off field angst between the Australians and their hosts South Africa which had begun in Durban with an ugly staircase altercation between Warner and Quinton de Kock that set the tone for the poor behaviour that followed throughout the series.

However, things certainly hit the nadir during the third Test in Cape Town. Not only did Warner instruct Cameron Bancroft to use sandpaper to alter the condition of the ball, but then when Smith and Bancroft subsequently tried to cover up the tampering they also lied to the Australian public.

The backlash was severe. “Sandpapergate” spared no one. Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull felt the need to get involved and the incident made worldwide news. Smith and Warner were immediately stepped down from leadership duties while investigations commenced. They would later both be handed one-year suspensions from CA while Bancroft was handed nine months.

Coach Lehmann was spared the axe but resigned days later, while CEO James Sutherland quickly announced there was to be a review of the “culture and conduct” of Australia’s professional cricket teams.

Newly reinstated wicketkeeper Tim Paine was handed the permanent Test captaincy, with Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Marsh appointed his joint vice-captains. Meanwhile, long-time candidate Justin Langer replaced Lehmann as head coach. Langer’s first task was to preside over a 5-0 ODI series loss in England as Australia’s one-day side lived up to its ongoing mediocrity of recent years.

Without the batting prowess of Smith and Warner and, at times, a host of leading fast bowlers due to injury, Australia were being shown up as the ordinary side they’d now become. A T20I tri-series final was lost to Pakistan in Zimbabwe to continue a difficult beginning to the Langer-reign before a sense of pride was restored with a hard-earned Test draw against Pakistan in Dubai. Despite that draw the series was lost with a 373-run defeat in Abu Dhabi as familiar batting struggles were again very evident.

four nil
All smiles! Australia begun 2018 with plenty of cheer only for things to quickly turn sour in March.

 

While the team were trying to win back the public with their new-found respectful behaviour, a host of changes were happening at the boardroom level. In June, James Sutherland announced that he was stepping down as CEO after seventeen years at the helm and he was replaced by former CA director Kevin Roberts.

Roberts was a long-time ally of CA chairman David Peever and it appeared the pair would continue working together when Peever was voted back in for a second term just days before the findings of the cultural review were made public to the state boards in late October. However, just one week into his three-year tenure Peever resigned after increasing pressure from New South Wales chairman John Knox.

Former captain Mark Taylor followed shortly after, resigning from his position on the board despite being many people’s choice to succeed Peever as chairman. That role eventually went to Earl Eddings who had originally taken up the role on a temporary basis following Peever’s swift exit.

Two more high-profile names followed Peever and Taylor out CA’s Jolimont headquarters on November 7th when Roberts used his new-found authority to fire both Pat Howard and Ben Amarfio. Howard, the Head of Team Performance, was due to leave after the 2019 Ashes but was shown the door early and replaced by former Australian cricketer Belinda Clark – who took the role on an interim basis.

Amarfio, meanwhile was the CA General Manager of Media and reportedly had to be escorted from the building by security after being made aware of his dismissal. He was replaced by Anthony Everard in a reshuffle of the CA media arm.

Much like the boardroom, things on the field continued to be rocky as the ODI side, now led by Aaron Finch, were beaten 2-1 at home to South Africa. They finished the year winning just two of their 13 matches and with only five months left to finetune for next year’s World Cup, their hopes of retaining the trophy they won in 2015 look particularly slim.

The Test side has also endured a tough year too. After beginning the year with back-to-back wins in Sydney and Durban they won just once thereafter. That win came in Perth during the ongoing series with India where Australia find now themselves unable to regain the Border-Gavaskar Trophy after the visitors secured wins in both Adelaide and Melbourne. They finish the year with three wins, one draw and six defeats.

Predictably, the side are currently missing the runs of Smith and Warner. Their current run of nine Tests with just a single century scored is the country’s worst drought in more than 100 years. Taking out the hundreds scored by Usman Khawaja, Shaun and Mitchell Marsh in Sydney in January, only Khawaja has been able to pass three figures since. Collectively, Australia’s batting in 2018 has averaged around 26 runs per dismissal – their lowest since 1978.

Without Smith and Warner, the Test side needed senior duo Khawaja and Shaun Marsh to step up but neither have done enough to ensure Australia regularly post competitive totals. Khawaja has certainly faired the better of the pair with 732 runs at 40.66 in 10 Tests while Marsh has struggled averaging just 25.89.

Pat Cummins has led the bowling with 44 wickets at 19.97, while Mitchell Starc (31 wickets at 33.35) and Hazlewood (26 wickets at 33.26) have endured slightly disappointing returns compared with previous years as Nathan Lyon again led the wickets column with 49 victims at 34.02.

Elsewhere, another farewell was announced in April as a new television deal was agreed with Seven and Fox Sports worth $1.182 billion – replacing Channel 9 who had shown all international cricket in Australia since Kerry Packer led a television sports revolution 40 years ago.

Pakistan v Australia: 1st Test - Day Four
Usman Khawaja plays the reverse sweep during his 141 in Dubai. (Photo Credit: Getty Images)

 

High Point: Khawaja’s hundred saves Australia in Dubai

After a miserable few months in Australian cricket, Usman Khawaja – filling the opening void vacated by Bancroft and Warner – scored a masterful final day 141 to marshal his side towards safety in their first Test since that fateful South African series in March.

Faced with a gigantic run chase of 462 and 140 overs to bat out, Khawaja held out for 522 minutes across day’s four and five, putting on stands of 132 with Travis Head and 79 with Tim Paine as the visitors finished eight down when Pakistan captain Sarfraz Ahmed finally offered his hand to opposite number Paine.

The innings (and subsequent draw) restored some much-needed pride in Australian cricket whilst also putting pay to the theory that Khawaja couldn’t bat against spin bowling in Asian conditions.

Low Point: Sandpapergate, Newlands

While it’s been a year of great lows in Australian cricket, nothing compares to incident in Cape Town when Warner, Smith and Bancroft decided that the only way of getting the ball to reverse swing was to scuff it with sandpaper.

What followed will tarnish the aforementioned trio for the rest of their careers. But at least some good did come out of the episode with the trio being forced to turn out for club sides Randwick Petersham, Sutherland and Willetton.

New Kid on the block: Billy Stanlake

Although the 24-year-old Queenslander, made his international debut almost two years ago, he really shot to promise as a white-ball specialist in 2018.

Standing at 204 cm’s tall, Stanlake made his international debut on the back of some impressive displays for BBL side Adelaide Strikers and has since continued a steady rise in both the T20I and ODI formats.

His pace and awkward bounce have regularly asked questions of opposite batsmen such as when he took figures of 4-8 and 3-21 against Pakistan during a T20I tri-series in Zimbabwe in July.

He also had some success in ODI cricket too, going for just 5.75 in a high scoring series against England which included 3-35 from his 10 overs at Old Trafford.

However, with Hazlewood, Starc, Cummins and Nathan Coulter-Nile all ahead of him in the ODI setup a place in Australia’s 15-man 2019 World Cup squad may be currently out of reach.

Frequent back issues have resulted in Stanlake going down the limited-overs route as he’s yet to add to his two first-class appearances both made for Queensland in 2014.

Fading Star: Shaun Marsh

Could Trevor Hohns and his selection panel finally be running out of patience with the 35-year-old batsman who has averaged just 25.89 this year? – Taking away his hundred in the new year’s Test that average drops to 18.66 in his previous nine Tests.

There are ongoing whispers that Marsh’s Test future could be over if he fails to make runs against India at the Sydney Cricket Ground.

A talented lefthander, Marsh has endured a stop-start Test career since debuting against Sri Lanka in 2011. Five of his six Test hundreds have been made in Australian victories, including two in last summer’s Ashes.

What 2019 holds:

After failing to regain the Border-Gavaskar Trophy in the ongoing series with India, nothing less than an impressive showing against a weak Sri Lankan side in their two-Test series in late January, would be seen as a disaster.

The Sri Lanka series, which includes a maiden Test at Canberra’s Manuka Oval, follows a three-match ODI series against India which will begin Australia’s countdown to their World Cup defence.

India then return the favour by hosting Australia in a five-match ODI series in late February and early March before a potential yet-to-be-confirmed ODI series against Pakistan in the UAE that is expected to accommodate the return of Smith and Warner sometime after March 29th.

The World Cup preparation will then ramp up in May ahead of Australia’s opening match with Afghanistan on June 1st. Should the Aussies progress to the final (July 14th) then they’ll have just nine days rest before playing a pre-Ashes tour match against an Australian A side in Southampton.

The five-Test Ashes campaign, the first series in the new World Test Championship, then begins in Birmingham on August 1st, before rolling onto Lords, Leeds, Manchester and concluding at The Oval on September 12th.

They then round out the year with home series against Pakistan (2 Tests, 3 T20Is) and New Zealand (3 Tests, 3 ODIs).

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