The only thing, as a modern-day Macauley might observe, more ridiculous than the British public in one of their periodic fits of morality is the Australian public acting in just such a fashion. To which we might also add that the spectacle of Australia melting itself in an orgy of cant and humbug cannot avoid being hilarious.
Thus far, the ball-tampering scandal rocking Australian cricket has resulted in the dismissal of Steve Smith, the country’s captain, David Warner, his deputy, Cameron Bancroft, the latest Australian opening batsman, and Darren Lehmann, the team’s coach. Given how high this goes, there’s an argument for James Sutherland, the chief executive of Cricket Australia, falling on his stumps too. But why stop there? This is a matter of culture, we are told, as well as one of integrity and all Australians are implicated. So I see no reason why Malcolm Turnbull, the Australian prime minister, should not resign too.
That would be a suitably ludicrous coda to a scandal that is much more entertaining than it is scandalous. A measure of schadenfreude is not just allowed, it is entirely appropriate. This is not just because the guilty men are all Australians - though it is partly that, of course, and especially so in the case of Warner, the Australian’s Australian in excelsis - but because while the gulf between how the Australians think of themselves and how they are perceived by everyone else has often been wide it has not always been as unbridgeable as this.
Cricket can sustain its hypocrisies so long as they are treated with a measure of knowingness. The Australian’s weakness has been to believe completely in their own estimation of themselves. English cricket has no shortage of villains - pious hypocrites and racists such as Plum Warner and Gubby Allen spring unprompted to mind - but they can offer no lessons to their Australian counterparts whose combination of piety and self-regard has frequently matched anything Lords and MCC can provide.
It’s not about the bloody ball, of course. Just as cricket’s surging popularity in the nineteenth century owed something to its attractiveness as a vehicle for gambling, so cricketers have always sought to manipulate the ball by means both legal and questionable. Granted, the premeditated aspect of taking the field with sandpaper for the purpose of roughening the ball the better to discover some reverse swing makes this a somewhat different case than some. Even so, the manner in which so many people have been shocked by this is itself quietly shocking. There will be little sympathy for the Australians in Pakistan.
But not as shocking as it has been entertaining. Twas ever thus, admittedly. When the Australians complained about Bodyline - Bill Woodfull telling the English that “There are two sides out there but only one of them is playing cricket” - it is important to remember that these complaints largely rested on the unhappy reality that Australian cricket was at that time almost completely devoid of fast bowlers. The Aussies had no complaints when Ted McDonald and Jack Gregory tore into England in 1921, any more than they did when Lillee and Thomson terrorised batsmen half a century later.
Australians have always prized toughness and hardness, of course, except on those occasions when they have been on the receiving end of those qualities. Still, Australian cricket is soaked in swagger. Steve Waugh stressed that his goal was his opponents’ “mental disintegration”. Sometimes this takes on a boorish quality, as was the case this winter when Nathan Lyon expressed the hope the Ashes series would end many English careers. (It is difficult to think of many English players who would speak of even Australians in quite this fashion). The Australians have often been good enough to back-up their talk; it hasn’t often made their talk any more attractive.
In South Africa this month, the Australians have complained about being abused by the local crowds. They have, remarkably, contrived to do so with a straight face forgetting, doubtless, the manner in which cricketers visiting Australia have been barracked and taunted by Australian crowds for more than a century. As so often, however, the Aussies don’t like it up ‘em. They see nothing funny - nothing at all - in the biter being bit.
Equally, the Australian reaction to Stuart Broad’s failure to walk at Trent Bridge in 2013 - the England batsman had got the thinnest edge that could possibly end up at first slip - was out of all proportion to the offence. Doubtless Broad should have walked; to be lectured on that failure by a nation infamous for thinking walking is for pussies and Poms - much the same thing, of course - was laughable. Darren Lehmann, this week newly valuing the importance of culture and the ‘Spirit of Cricket’ - said he hoped Australian crowds would “get stuck into” Broad to the extent the Nottinghamshire man “cries and goes home”.
Even a cursory list of laughable Australian double standards cannot omit the day Trevor Chappell trundled the final delivery of a one day international fixture along the ground so as to ensure New Zealand could not score the six runs they required for delivery. Like Cameron Bancroft he was only following orders, in this instance those given to him by his brother Greg.
So, yes, you may spare the Australians your sympathy. Smith’s tears this week doubtless owe something to the extravagance of the reaction back home; something too to the realisation that it takes very little time to plummet from the pinnacle of the game to its basement. Even so, it all seemed excessive and, if we are interested in being honest, something he might legitimately have been expected to think about before endorsing the ball-tampering plan in the first place. This, after all, was no heat of the moment piece of absent-minded soil-rubbing.
But then if cricket no longer matters enough in England it may matter too much in Australia. Smith was named “Australian of the Year” recently and Don Bradman may still be reckoned the greatest Australian of all time (then again a horse, Phar Lap, may come second in that race). Even so, there is something fine about the manner in which cricket can still unite Australians even if, precisely because it is taken as some kind of measurement of Australian health and manliness, it is afforded more weight than it either deserves or can carry.
It is when the gap between words and deeds is revealed, however, that you risk looking like chumps. Australian cricketing hypocrisy is hardly new but this may be one of the few occasions when even Australians may perceive it. The rest of the world could have told them about it many years ago.
This is not to excuse English cricket of its own sins - the ghastliness of the gentlemen/player divide, the smugness of the games’ ability to civilise duskier corners of the world, the d’Oliveira affair and much else besides - but the English long ago gave up the pretence of being paragons of virtue. The Australians have clung to their delusions and are only now discovering the cost of those deceptions.
It is important that cricket is important but also useful to recall it’s only a game. Even so, yes, this has all been grimly funny. England were dismissed for 58 last week and somehow don’t seem the most ridiculous side in world cricket today. That’s quite something too.