A humbled Darren Lehmann has bluntly admitted his “headbutt the line” philosophy for Australia will no longer be tolerated by the game at large, and pointed to the example of New Zealand’s cultural regeneration as the way forward for his team. In response to the question of whether he was the right man to mentor the team, he replied: “I need to change.”
Speaking for the first time since the Newlands ball-tampering fiasco that has seen Steven Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft all banned for up to 12 months and barred from captaincy – for life in Warner’s case – Lehmann began with a prepared apology to the cricketing public. He then offered grave and remorseful reflections on the episode and the consequences for the team.
While exonerated on the specific ball tampering plot by Cricket Australia’s investigation, Lehmann is fully aware that a “culture review” of Australian men’s teams may well conclude with his removal, after the “headbutt the line” attitude he had fostered became mutated into a mindset where undiscovered ball tampering was seen as just another way of doing so.
But he will now try, alongside the new captain Tim Paine, to depart from the previously snarling and disliked visage favoured by Lehmann ever since he took over as coach in 2013. There is some irony in Lehmann’s mention of New Zealand, given the hyper-aggressive way in which his side attacked them both verbally and with the ball during the 2015 World Cup final.
“I’m not going to resign as was said. We need to change how we play and within the boundaries we play. Obviously previously we’ve butted heads on the line but that’s not the way to go about us playing cricket moving forward,” Lehmann said in Johannesburg. “The thing for me would be if we take a leaf out of someone like say New Zealand’s book the way they play and respect the opposition.
“We do respect the opposition but we push the boundaries on the ground. So we’ve got to make sure we’re respecting the game, it’s traditions, and understanding [how] the game holds itself around the world. I acknowledge James’ comments into the review of the culture of the team and the way we play our cricket and we are all open and ready to assist in this process. The team has been received quite negatively in recent times and there is a need for us to change some of the philosophies about the way we play.
“It was a grave mistake by three young men and we have to try and win the public back now and play the type of cricket that they expect us to play. We have to look at how we go about that, as a coach and support staff and playing group, and make the game better for everyone to play and enjoy watching us play. The whole group’s upset and we understand the enormity of it and the public perception. So for us, it’s just trying to win the fans back over and play the best cricket we possibly can.”
By joining Sutherland in stating that the use of sandpaper at Newlands was not a common practice in the team, Lehmann said he had also initially been misled by Bancroft, Warner and Smith as to what exactly had occurred, initially being told, as was the case in the Bancroft and Smith press conference, that adhesive tape had been used.
“The first I saw of it was on that screen. I was obviously straight on the walkie-talkie and said something to Peter [Handscomb],” Lehmann said. “There were a couple of expletives in there. Then I spoke to the players at tea time and I said we’ll deal with it at the end of play, which happened during the process.”
“At the end of the day it was obviously a discussion point in the change rooms. There has been a lot of talk about the Cape Town change rooms. But there is a couple of change rooms, there is a lunch room, there is a viewing room, there is a hallway. That conversation took place by those three and it happened.”
Lehmann also clarified comments made earlier in the series where he stated that “techniques” were used by both sides to rough up the ball and hasten reverse swing that may or may not be approved of by the ICC. “Reverse swing obviously plays a big part in South Africa, the way the wickets have been,” he said. “Making sure you’re keeping one side of the ball dry, throwing it into the pitch area, as you guys would know anyway and making sure the other side scuffs up naturally. Every side uses that.”
As Smith began his long journey home, Lehmann reflected on what the team had lost. “We’ve lost a great young man that’s again made a mistake,” he said. “We all love him, the public love him. At the moment obviously it’s hard for him and his family. I feel for him. He’s going to come back a better person there’s no doubt about that, and to see the hurt in him over the last three or four days… I’ve spent a lot of time with him, just being around him, you feel for him.
“It is hard to describe to be perfectly honest. Disappointed, embarrassed, hurt for the game. I worry about the three guys immensely. We love all our players and they are going through a really rough time, as you’d imagine you would be in this scenario. A lot of things have been said about myself and my family, which is expected in this time. So it has been really tough for everyone involved, including fans and people back home and around the world.”
As for the Test match to come, Lehmann said there was no point pretending the team was going to be at its best mentally for the task, particularly Matt Renshaw, Joe Burns and Glenn Maxwell who all arrive on Wednesday night, but it needed to be the start of a new era. “Training was cancelled because we’re just trying to get through all the issues at the moment to be perfectly honest,” he said. “We’ll train tomorrow afternoon, those other guys arrive tonight, so we’ll get together and have a chat about the game and get them up as best we can.
“We know we’re not going to be 100% mentally right, but we’re representing our country and we’ve got to start the ball rolling by playing the best cricket we possibly can. That’s going to be a challenge for the group but I’m sure Tim [Paine] will do a fine job. They’re playing for Australia, so that’s important.”
For how long Lehmann is a part of the team’s new approach remains to be seen.