Australia could not have designed a better way to provoke English interest than this: Steve Smith and David Warner, the headliners of the sandpaper scandal last year, ending their bans and returning to the public eye through the World Cup, then Cameron Bancroft completing the triumvirate by joining the Test squad before the Ashes begin on Thursday.
The reunion leads to questions about the nature of the reform and redemption that we have heard so much about. While the incendiary issue in early 2018 was ball-tampering, the plot to do so was formed during an angry Test series against South Africa in which Australia’s aggression blew up in their faces.
That series followed an equally bad-tempered Ashes in Australia, where some Australian players used on-field abuse as an everyday tactic. Warner, in particular, was instructed from officials up the food chain to get in English faces and, after a 4-0 series win, they thought the approach vindicated. Warner was urged to replicate it in South Africa, with disastrous results.
The tampering exposé also showed potently just how many Australian cricket followers felt distaste for and disconnection from their own national team. This was not criticism on partisan lines. It was a home public alienated by decades of behaviour that could not credibly be defended. Where Smith as captain had brushed off concern, saying he cared only that those within the camp were comfortable with their behaviour, Tim Paine took the opposite tack after his abrupt appointment as Smith’s replacement.
“The first thing is we have to listen,” Paine said in Johannesburg in 2018 while the banned players headed home. “We’ve maybe had our head in the sand a bit over the last 12 months – that, if we continue to win, we can act and behave how we like and the Australian public will be OK with that. What we’ve found out in the past month or so is that the Australian public and our fans don’t necessarily like the way we go about it. It’s pretty simple. We have to listen. We have to take it on board and we have to improve our behaviour in the way we play the game.”
With Paine setting this clear stance from the start the new head coach, Justin Langer, has supported it since arriving a couple of months later while Aaron Finch has carried it on after taking over Australia’s white-ball teams. For the time being it seems to have worked. The four?Test series against India over the last Australian summer was robust, with Virat Kohli especially involved in some exchanges. But judging from player responses and stump microphones there was always a level of good-naturedness.
So can the cultural shift persist now that the three players who triggered it are back in the team? Of course. It is not as though Smith is some force of fury; he is just supremely focused on the job at hand. That is why he still middles shots or takes ridiculous catches after hours of concentration. He was influenced by the mindless chat about on-field aggression being “the Australian way” and lacked the imagination to challenge that.
Acting out that mythology has been unconvincing in the Australian team for years. The former captain Michael Clarke’s “broken fucken arm” line to Jimmy Anderson was as notable for its posturing as its content. The generation after Clarke are not built that way. Their attempts feel equally forced. Even Warner spent a couple of years keeping to himself before he was asked to kick out the jams in late 2017.
Admittedly another former captain in Steve Waugh has joined the team in a vague mentoring role and still trots out the national clichés – “the definition of being ruthless is fulfilling your potential and playing to the best you can possibly play” – while whitewashing his previous team’s conduct – “that’s what I wanted my team to do and, if they said that was ruthless, that was fine by me” – and insists the current crop are much the same.
But Paine’s hold should prevail and those returning players can slot into an environment where this is no longer expected of them. In many ways it should be a relief, given they will have enough to think about just to perform in unwelcoming conditions. Smith has his preternatural focus on his side and privately is pacing the metaphorical halls, desperate to get started.
Bancroft is trying to remain Zen, preparing himself mentally for the crowd response. “People will react how they want to react,” he said during the warm-up match in Southampton. “Hopefully I can use it to give me energy to want to perform well. I can’t control that. I guess the journey that I’ve been through the last 18 months, you get exposed to things like that.”
Warner looks the best equipped. While observers may differ in assessments of his personal qualities, none could deny that stubbornness is one he is blessed with in abundance. The characterisation that he feeds off invective is over-egged but it does seem fair to say that he is able to strive hardest when he has something to push against.
His eye on the past is not looking at last year but at his underwhelming tours to England. “They’re always in the back of your mind. But now it’s just being a bit more hungry and determined to play the longer innings. I think you saw that in the [World Cup], that I hung in there a lot. The old me would have thrown the bat at it.”
Warner’s discipline, Smith’s laser brain, Bancroft’s calm: these are the things the Australian Test team need in the weeks to come, not aggression or presence or any other euphemism. The most egregious thing about sledging has always been its pointlessness. Teams sledge while they are winning; they do not win because they are sledging. Reviving that method would have no value at all.