Tuesday 4 December 2018 8:16 pm

Australia v India: Hosts welcome No1 Test side while suffering an “identity crisis” in fallout from sandpaper scandal

I am a sports writer at City A.M, covering football, cricket, tennis and more. Get in touch: felix.keith@cityam.com

I am a sports writer at City A.M, covering football, cricket, tennis and more. Get in touch: felix.keith@cityam.com

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The first Test match of the Australian summer is usually a sacred time. Players, coaches, media and public alike typically home in on the cricket, each brimming with anticipation, excitement and confidence.

But with India in Adelaide ahead of Thursday's first Test of a four-match series, the focus is far from concentrated. How could it be considering the events of the past nine months?

Australia are favourites to win the series and know a 4-0 scoreline would see them knock India off top spot in the Test rankings for the first time since October 2016 and take No1 status themselves.

Yet rather than the normal talking points expected ahead of such a series, the build-up has been overshadowed by other events – namely the continuing fallout from the now infamous ball-tampering scandal.

Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft were all banned for their first-hand roles in the sandpaper incident during the third Test against South Africa in March, but the reverberations did not stop there.

Coach Darren Lehmann resigned and was followed out the door by Cricket Australia’s chief executive James Sutherland, chairman David Peever and high performance manager Pat Howard. A scathing cultural review of the national set-up hit home, calling Cricket Australia “arrogant and controlling”, decrying a “win without counting the cost” philosophy and prompting a “Player’s Pact” and nonsensical new mantras to be adopted such as “elite honesty”.


Fast-forward from 24 March, when Bancroft was spotted by television cameras rubbing sandpaper on the ball, through all the resignations and recriminations, to the present day and the effects are still very much being felt.

Smith and Lehmann have been replaced by Tim Paine and Justin Langer, but debate still rages about what went wrong, how the team should play and where the metaphorical “line” which should not be crossed actually lies.

Former captain Michael Clarke is the latest to wade into the muddied waters, claiming last week that Australia “need to stop worrying about being liked and start worrying about being respected”.

"Langer’s appointment as coach looked at first to be the same old thing: pretend everything’s fine, don’t admit fault and continue as normal,” says Geoff Lemon, author of Steve Smith’s Men: Behind Australian Cricket’s Fall.

“But he was a good candidate and has recognised the need to do things differently. He has backed Paine to change the team, despite having previously been a part of the problem culture himself as a player.”

Divided house

Thrust into a difficult situation, Paine has tried to reverse a reputation for, at best, being ultra-aggressive and, at worst, cheating that his side have developed, promising to shake hands with opponents before each match. Yet the Aussie skipper has also said his side will be “competitive and fired up” and won’t be the “nicest team in the world to play against by any stretch of the imagination”.

“It’s a divided house,” explains Australian cricket writer Lemon. “There are past players’ opinions flying around, people talking about what’s not right – and that’s before the series has even started. It’s a peculiar situation – an identity crisis is the best way to put it. Nobody can describe what Australian cricket should be. Words like 'hard', 'tough' and 'uncompromising' keep cropping up, but does anyone know what they actually mean?”

It’s a good question and not one easily answered. Australian cricket has been dragged kicking and screaming into the spotlight and forced to explain, reconcile and move on. But even now it is struggling to do so.

“Everyone is sick of it,” Paine admitted this week. “There has been so much talk, it’s time for action. There are 11 guys going out and trying their best who will be so keen because of what has gone on.”

Swirling storm

Victory in Adelaide over the weekend would certainly go some way to diverting attention to the cricket, but it won’t be that simple, with the issues extending far beyond the pitch.

Lemon describes Cricket Australia as a “headless chicken”. Despite the appointment of Earl Eddings as chairman last week there is a “power vacuum” in the organisation, with little direction about where they want to go next.

It is amid this swirling storm that Langer and Paine have prepared to face the world’s No1 side, led by the world’s No1 batsman who scored four centuries in eight innings, averaging 86.50, on his last tour of the country in 2014-15.

No Asian side has ever won a Test series in Australia, but with Virat Kohli at the helm, a battery of genuine fast bowlers to call on and an opponent lost in the midst of an all-consuming identity crisis, India may never get a better chance.