Sorry not sorry

The Smith-Bancroft press conference didn’t just unmask Tapegate, it exposed the culture that leads to the kind of sad events we saw at Newlands

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Steve Smith: in the spotlight (Photo: Naparazzi, 2014)

“Can you turn these lights down a bit please?” asked Steve Smith. With his baggy green pulled tightly down over his face, he knew he was in fire a rough ride. Might as well do what he can about the brightness, even if he could do nothing about the media glare. ‘Control the controllables’ as the mantra goes. Next to him, Cameron Bancroft’s thousand-yard stare told its own story.

Press conferences can often be tedious affairs, especially those after a routine day of cricket, thanks to the media coaching that the modern player undergoes (“right areas… the boys worked hard… we’ll come back tomorrow…”). But when they follow the extraordinary, and especially when they involve players on the defensive, they can be thrilling.

Some of the best examples of spicy pressers are those that involve the non-apology. The handbook goes like this:

  1. Try not to actually apologise
  2. Call on your old ally rhetoric
  3. Focus on the future

Smith-Bancroft Episode II, the dark sequel to November’s first outing, followed this script perfectly. While their efforts are unlikely to help them paddle their way out of shit creek, they did give us several valuable insights.

Too late to apologise

As far as this third Test match is concerned, the stand out statistics should be 141 and 9/110. Instead, the number we are left with is 490.

That’s how many words Smith and Bancroft used in answering the questions put to them by the hungry press pack before they uttered the one that really mattered: “sorry”.

Up to that point we had heard all of the following twice: “regrettable”, “embarrassed”, “promise”, “poor” and “won’t happen again”. Contrast this with the first email in the series James Sutherland is having to send to the Australian Cricket Family.

“To our Australian Cricket Fans” it read, “we are sorry.” All killer, no filler. If Smith, Bancroft and co weren’t already crapping themselves, they surely did as soon as this popped into their inbox. They got round to it eventually, just 489 words later than they should have.

Say it like you mean it

Those attempting the non-apology escape act play a dangerous game. The less they try to say, the more they end up giving away. The more they concentrate on the overall message and tone of their answers, the more the language that brain unconsciously ferries to mouth betrays them.

The overall theme of the rhetoric is minimalizing the heinous crime that they have committed using convoluted phrasing and ameliorating vocabulary. You see, it’s not really their fault.

Bancroft wasn’t really colluding with Smith and others, he was “in the vicinity of the area”. Furthermore it wasn’t really his fault, he was “in the wrong place at the wrong time”. Smith can’t really be held responsible, because he was sorry for “trying to bring the game into disrepute”.

In general “it’s not on” as per Smith. Protagoras, Plato, Aristotle eat your heart out.

Livin’ in the future

The final device at the players’ disposal is to move the audience swiftly on. We shouldn’t worry, it’s all in hand. Smith assures us that “it won’t happen again”.

But more than that, this is actually an opportunity for them. While Bancroft wants to “do my best to move forward and play cricket”, Smith insists that “we’ll learn from it and move past it”.

Fret ye not, everyone is going to come out of this stronger. The future’s bright, the future’s green and gold. Phew.

***

This wriggling and squirming is all very amusing and hefty bans and fines for all involved will surely follow. But there is another aspect of what was said that should give us more pause.

Seeping out of the cracks of the press conference transcript is an unsightly pus from the increasingly infected core of the cricketing body. The players’ mindset and language is subtly influenced by the climate of the game at the highest level, manifesting itself in a melange of pseudo-corporate guff.

“Leadership group” is a phrase that has now secured its place in the cricketing lexicon, but for all the wrong reasons. Whatever happened to talking about ‘senior staff’? The thought of Lehmann and friends going through trust exercises and thought-showering strategic pathways is as tragic as it is humourous.

However, the most alarming terminology of all is when Smith and Bancroft talk of the “opportunity” and “risks” associated with their ill-conceived plan.

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Cricket and ‘business’ – a volatile mix

The reality is that, for better or worse, all sports now operate in a modern, commercial, connected world. But there is a difference between running an individual sport ‘like a business’ and ‘as a business’.

The former is admirable: taking the best lessons from the commercial world, adapting them and applying them as appropriate to a sport to ensure its survival. But you are still running a sport.

The latter is very different. That is not about finding a middle way, it is about operating a commercial business, making profits and keeping shareholders happy. It just so happens that the business in question is a sport loved by millions across the globe.

Boom and bust has a much shorter half-life in business than it does in sport. Losses today can be recouped tomorrow and then some. But in cricket, and sport more generally, there can be no hedged bets, no speculate-to-accumulate ethos.

Respect and integrity are not financial instruments, they are grown slowly rather than earned overnight. And once earned they can disappear in a flash. Just ask Smith.

That’s why the now morally-bankrupt Australian captain and several of his associates are likely to find themselves disqualified from any cricketing directorship for the short term at least.

Let’s not watch this Black Saturday and pretend that it is an anomaly. The Lehmann Brothers may have crashed, but there are plenty more Jordan Belforts playing the numbers on 22-yard-long Wall Streets on every continent.

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