Steve Smith’s men – Geoff Lemon

20190625 Steve Smith's Men

The moment you pick this book up you notice the texture of the printed title, it looks and feels like the sandpaper that caused all the trouble and the crash and burn of Australian cricket in South Africa that March day in 2018. Geoff Lemon has covered the team for many years and this is his analysis not just of what happened in Cape Town but also just how did the Australian national team come to be in this mess in the first place. However as Lemon points out at the start of chapter three

This book is not a detective story. It won’t give you every detail of what happened in the Cape Town dressing rooms…

… Only once careers finish will talk begin. Someone can write the comprehensive history then.

What Lemon does do is look deeply at the team and make as good attempt as can be done now as to what happened and why.

For those people who don’t know the background to this, Cameron Bancroft was seen rubbing the ball with sandpaper to roughen it and make it swing more during the Test Match against South Africa. More details can be found on the BBC website here which details the bans given to Bancroft and also the captain Steve Smith and his vice-captain David Warner after this incident.

However this isn’t just about cricket it is also a look at the psyche of a team that formed an effectively closed group and how harmful attitudes were just amplified as there was nobody from the outside to point out how the worst things became normal and then continued on a downward spiral egged on by certain members. As such it can be read as a useful resume of just how groups can deteriorate if left to their own devices. As Lemon points out the team became self selecting, performance on the field became secondary to being mates and being seen to fit the culture that had been created. At times it reads like a real life Lord of the Flies, and just as self-destructive, no matter how good you were you wouldn’t get in the national team unless you were one of the gang and that gang was so tight knit that they rejected all suggestions that things might be wrong.

Things had been going wrong for years and Lemon looks back over that time not just at the team but also at the governing body, Cricket Australia, to try to track why Australia had become the most disliked team in world cricket. Chapter 21 “Australia’s Cricket Culture” starts with five pages of quotes all riffing on the theme that they “never cross the line” meaning that they play hard but not beyond limits, the problem was that the Australian team wanted to set the limits and wanted them further in the distance for them than their opponents. Although stressing that this was a much older problem Lemon decides to focus of the England tour of Australia over 2017/8 to emphasise the build up to the South African debacle. This was a pretty bad tempered few months with Australia emerging the clear victors so they should have gone to South Africa on a high especially given their record in that country, but things started to go wrong soon after they arrived at the first test match. The sledging on both sides was distinctly unpleasant, Warner had taken considerable offence to references to his wife and this had led to a fight almost breaking out after they left the field which unfortunately was caught on camera. That it was Warner, who is probably the nastiest sledger in world cricket, who took offence is ironic in the extreme but that set the tone for what was to come. The Australians claimed that the attempt to alter the ball in the third test was the first time it had been done but nobody believed them so the one caught along with the captain and vice captain had to go, not because of the cheating, but because they were caught out telling bare-faced lies that just kept the story going. If they had just held a press conference at the end of the day and admitted to what had been done then there would have been fines from the match referee but probably not much more.

The book is not only incisive but funny and difficult to put down, the one problem with it getting a wider readership may well be the frequent use of expletives, the ‘f’ and ‘c’ words appear a lot. Now that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Lemon is trying to show where things had got to and on-field abuse hurled at the opposition, known as sledging, is often quoted verbatim and this may put off some readers. I think he was justified in the use of language because of the story he is trying to tell and it is a thoroughly good read.