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Sydney was a blip. Australia has changed since ‘Sandpaper-gate’

Day five at the Sydney Cricket Ground bore witness to a historic fightback as India batted out the day to secure a draw. Ajinkya Rahane’s much depleted side showed great character, surviving 131 overs against arguably the world’s best attack, which only three weeks earlier had bowled them out for 36 runs.

Despite this, the conduct of Australian captain Tim Paine and former captain Steven Smith stole the headlines from India’s herculean fourth innings resistance. Microphones caught Paine sledging Ravindra Ashwin, saying “at least my teammates like me, d***head.” Smith meanwhile was caught on camera seemingly trying to remove Rishabh Pant’s guard.

In light of these incidents, players and pundits alike have called into question the cultural reform which the Australian national team has supposedly undergone since the sandpaper scandal of 2018.

Among others, Matthew Syed wrote in The Times, “This is same old snide Australia” and Michael Vaughan tweeted that the sledging was “back to the old days.” However, this clickbait narrative that the events of day five are a continuation of a culture within Australian cricket of underhand tactics and abuse falls short of evidence.

Firstly, Smith’s alleged transgression has been blown out of proportion. He quite plausibly denies attempting to remove Pant’s guard. What’s in it for him? Pant just had to take his guard again. At worst it was petty, certainly not scandalous.

Paine’s behaviour, on the other hand, was unacceptable. His language irrefutably passed the threshold for abuse. That said, this language is neither uncommon nor uniquely Australian.

At the start of 2020, England’s Jos Buttler directed even more abusive language at Vernon Philander, calling him a “f***ing d***head,” while in 2019 Shannon Gabriel spoke offensively towards Joe Root. Other examples of vulgarity do not excuse Paine’s, but they do contextualise it. Why was Buttler’s sledge considered an isolated incident but Paine’s a renaissance of the sandpaper days? Paine’s sledge, like Buttler’s, was indeed an isolated incident.

His conduct itself points towards one off day. The day prior he was seen joining in India’s huddle, showing solidarity with Mohammed Siraj who crowds had subjected to racist abuse. The following day he gave a voluntary interview, in which he said, “I let our group down.”

Apologising for wrongdoing makes Paine no saint nor does it undo what he said, but he had already said sorry in post-match interviews. His willingness to make amends the following day in addition to the shame and remorse he displayed could only come from a cricketing culture which understands that abuse is over the line.

Moreover, the long-term picture of Paine’s captaincy shows demonstrable improvement in on- field standards. The number of breaches of the ICC Code of Conduct registers Australia as the best- behaved tier one test team since the sandpaper scandal with only two breaches. England, by comparison, have amassed eleven in the same period. Stuart Broad alone has three.

So, with 34 months of almost flawless behaviour, a more plausible explanation for day five than an underlying problem in attitude exists. Paine’s abusive sledging was more likely caused by frustration from both his individual performance with three dropped catches and his team’s inability to close out the game.

The problem facing Australia is that they have form. The hangover of the sandpaper scandal draws any minor infringement into a long-term narrative of cheating and abuse. The evidence since March 2018 says this narrative is fiction. Sydney was a blip. Australia have changed.

Image: B. Sutherland via Creative Commons