By Michael Rudling
It is the best passage of Ashes cricket in decades. The unmovable, unshakable Steve Smith ducks and weaves and whacks rocket after rocket from quick young debutant Jofra Archer.
Archer cracks one into Smith’s arm; Smith smashes one through the covers. It is team sport reduced to a simple, one-on-one cage fight between the two most exciting cricketers on the planet. Just as the tension swells to a crescendo, the unthinkable happens. Archer releases a 92mph bouncer, Smith misjudges it, and it strikes a sickening blow to his neck. The ground falls silent. Smith is ok, but he has to leave the field, and misses the next Test.
Most of the crowd applauds, but a small minority jeer the concussed batsman as he stumbles off, and they are met by disapproving grumbles from across the Cricketing landscape.
“A draw for the second test but it was a total Ashes foul for the crowd at Lords to boo Steve Smith” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison wrote on Facebook, later adding that “the crowd could learn a thing or two from Steve Smith and I look forward to him answering his hecklers with bat and ball in hand to bring home the Ashes.”
The British Sports Minister Nigel Adams agreed, telling the Sydney Morning Herald “It’s distasteful [to boo Smith] and we have to remember that the Aussie players who got themselves into trouble have been punished and done the time.”
“Done their time”, of course, is the real issue. Three Australian cricketers, Steve Smith, David Warner, and Cameron Bancroft all served bans from international cricket following their roles in the ball tampering scandal in South Africa last March. Bancroft was caught on camera applying sandpaper to the ball, following instructions from Warner, facilitated by Captain Smith. The current Ashes series marks the Test return for all of those players.
The ball tampering scandal shook the cricketing world, making mainstream headlines and causing a re-evaluation of the “spirit in of cricket”. Speaking of the incident, Morrison’s predecessor Malcolm Turnbull said “this cheating is a disgrace, we all know that, it is a terrible disgrace”. Writing for Wisden, perhaps the leading authority in cricket writing, Lawrence Booth wrote that the scandal was “one of those perfect storms that cricket throws up.”
Whilst some questioned the severity of the bans, especially after Steve Smith broke down in tears during a press conference, the feeling that these banned players were the new villains of Test cricket was unanimous.
Bancroft has avoided heavy jeering on his return to Cricket, primarily because he always walks out to bat with Warner, and his opening partner is used to the boos, thrives on them even, having been the pantomime villain of Ashes cricket since punching Joe Root in 2013.
Smith has taken the brunt of the taunts from the English fans, though they don’t appear to be getting to him; he has scored 142, 144 and 92 in the Series so far.
Of course, booing a man after he’s been injured is, to use the Aussie PM’s terminology, a total foul, but England fans are being criticised for booing Smith generally, despite the fact that jeering from fans has been part of the Ashes for 130 years.
Six years ago, England cricketer Stuart Broad was caught at first slip. the umpire judged it not out, and Broad stood his ground. Despite the fact that Broad hadn’t broke any law of cricket, the Australian Courier Mail branded him “Stuart Fraud” the “Pommie cheat”, and the Australian fans booed the bowler for the entirety of England’s tour there that winter. The boos for Broad continued in the 2017/18 Ashes, nearly five years after his initial discretion.
The Australian fans, especially in the infamous Bay 13 at the MCG, are notorious for their abuse of England players; they used to chant ‘kill, kill, kill’ as fast bowler Dennis Lillee ran in in the 1970s. Almost every Ashes series has had a villain that’s taken some grief from home fans, be it the pig released on to the outfield labelled ‘Beefy’ in 1982/83 to comment on Ian Botham’s weight, or the famous ‘he bowls to the left’ song about Mitchell Johnson in 2009 and 2010/11.
Why then is the current booing receiving so much attention? The players who took stick in previous series had done nothing wrong beyond playing for the away team, so surely it should be fair game to boo players who actually cheated and were banned.
Its not like Smith is the first player to return from a ban, when Mohammed Amir returned from a 5 year ban for bowling no-balls at set times in a spot-fixing scandal (a more serious crime than Smith, though Amir was 18 at the time and influenced by senior players, whereas Smith was 29 and the Australian captain) there was little reaction to fans shouting ‘no ball!’ during his bowling return in England.
Perhaps part of the outrage with Smith comes from the focus of new Australian coach Justin Langer and captain Tim Paine on creating a new culture of ‘aggression not abuse’ rather than the old ‘win at all costs’, so any reference to the scandal is unwelcome.
Another issue is that Smith was clearly and publicly devastated by the ball-tampering affair, so personal chants do seem uncalled for. I was at the final day of the Edgbaston Test (where Smith won the Test with twin centuries), and chants of ‘We saw you cry on the telly’ from the famously vocal Eric Hollies stand were uncomfortable, even if they didn’t affect the batsman’s output.
Attacking Smith for a personal breakdown is wrong, as is jeering him after a very serious injury. But it needs to be remembered that Cricketers are always booed, it is part and parcel of the narratives that shape all sport at the highest level.
Let the Barmy Army boo Steve Smith. It adds to the battle of Ashes cricket, and he’s averaging 126 in the series, it really doesn’t bother him.