“Berating and belittling” opponents is out of bounds in the new era of Australia’s cricketers according to their new captain Tim Paine, who has admitted that the side previously led by Steven Smith had at times been trying to live up to the perceived, ugly image of the national team rather than being themselves.
The incoming coach Justin Langer has on several occasions spoken of the difference between banter and abuse on the cricket field but Paine, who was thrust into the captaincy amid the Newlands ball-tampering scandal that saw Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft banished from the team, has gone to another level of frankness to explain what would no longer be part of Australia’s tactical repertoire.
Paine said that although the team had discussed pulling back from their aggressive ways prior to the South Africa series, they seemed to be set on an unpleasant path from the time that they took on a particularly hostile and “win at all costs” posture ahead of the home Ashes summer “because that’s what it feels like the public want”. Australia face England again in a looming ODI series with a vastly different understanding of the public’s expectations.
“We border-lined on abuse and going too far,” Paine told Wisden Cricket Monthly. “We don’t want to be abusive by berating and belittling our opposition like at times we’ve attempted to. We want to be more respectful and we think we can still play hard and successful cricket doing it that way. Banter is part of the game but abuse isn’t. We want to be known as a competitive and hard team but we want to do it in a way that our fans and our public like. Through a really dark period is a silver lining that we get to reset that.
“Under Steve, a few of us had sat around a few times with myself and a couple of the other guys and spoke about the need to change the way we were going about it at times. We felt we were getting a little bit too aggressive. We don’t want to pretend we are like ex-Australian cricketers. What we probably got caught up with over the years is trying to play a way that people have always perceived Australian teams to be, and that doesn’t suit this current side.”
With the benefit of several months’ hindsight, Paine observed that a mentally stretched team’s best hope of winning the Test series in South Africa may well have been to take the opposite approach, conserving mental energy by avoiding unnecessary confrontation and concentrating all their efforts on bat and ball. This, however, would have been a major departure from the team’s recent history.
“We should have recognised that guys were knackered and some of that energy could have been saved through not getting involved,” Paine said.
“[Sledging] really does take its toll after a while, both on and off the field. Then there is media around it, you are in trouble with the umpires, there are meetings you need to go to for that. So, it spirals on and on. Whereas, if we can play the game hard and fair then all that extra stuff, you can save mental energy.
“There are going to be times where it is going to get heated, but as Justin has said, we know what is right and we know what is wrong. We’ve just got to stick to that. Do we want to play exactly like New Zealand did then? No. We want to play a way that suits our team and the individuals in our team. We want to create an environment where people can play their cricket and be themselves.”
The sharp change in the team’s attitude can be illustrated by Paine’s own words in the days after the ill-tempered Durban Test that started the series, and where the Australians felt they had landed a knockout punch by winning the opener. As the man who separated David Warner from Quinton de Kock, Paine heard what was said between the two, and at the time drew a distinction between efforts to make the South African batsman “uncomfortable” and his riposte.
“From where I was, which was right nearby the whole time, there was nothing we said that was inappropriate,” he said. “We were trying to make it an uncomfortable place for Quinton to bat, no doubt, but we didn’t cross the line. We spoke about cricket stuff and a few little things with his fitness. Our stuff is the way we’ve always played our cricket. Certainly it’s hard, and we like to make them feel uncomfortable out there. But we don’t cross the line and bring people’s wives and family into the cricket game. And we’ll continue to do that for as long as we play.”