With the Cricket Australia scandal over ball-tampering during the March 2018 test in Cape Town, South Africa, rapidly receding in public consciousness, it is perhaps time to recall an experience I had seventeen years previously—soon after I began working in the Military History Section of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. I had not been there very long when the news became public that the Australian cricket team was planning to make a visit to Anzac Cove in May 2001, while en route to England for an Ashes test tour, to enable players to ‘spiritually connect’ with their “heroic” forebears on Gallipoli.
No sooner was the plan announced there was speculation that the visit was merely a publicity ploy to divert attention away from scandals plaguing the national team, from enquiries over high-level match fixing, to the off-field antics of various members. It was with this perception playing out in the arena of public opinion that I received a request one day to engage in an on-air interview with a Sydney radio station, about a cricket match recorded as having been played by Australian troops during the Gallipoli campaign of 1915.
Although my official role at the War Memorial was as Historian for Post-1945 Conflicts, my knowledge of Australian military history extended far wider—including the Gallipoli campaign. For example, I knew about the circumstances behind the cricket “match” held on 17 December 1915 upon the stretch of flat ground within the Anzac beach-head known as Shell Green. In particular, I knew that it was only a ruse intended to deceive the Turks in the opposing trenches into believing that the Allies were not going anywhere, when in fact they were in the process of evacuating their troops and withdrawing back to Egypt.
My mistake was in making this point to the radio interviewer, because within a very short time I found myself on the receiving end of a phonecall from an enraged CEO of Cricket Australia, one James Sutherland, who was keen to point out that he had obtained the support for the idea from the Chief of the Defence Force—then General Peter Cosgrove (long before he became Governor-General)—and he (Sutherland) was personally offended by suggestions that there was any element of subterfuge involved in the forthcoming cricket tour of Gallipoli.
In the event, the pictures eventually sent back showing the Australian cricket team on Gallipoli were as bad as—or even worse than—could be expected. There were the team members, tricked out in digger slouch hats, duly posed in a staged recreation of the sham cricket game briefly played out 86 years earlier. What was the point of it all? Any infusion of the Anzac spirit into the national team was never likely to be lasting, as demonstrated by the constant spate of controversy ever since.
Image [left] of the original Shell Green cricket match of 17 December 1915 (until interrupted by Turkish artillery fire), and [right] the May 2001 staged re-enactment by members of the visiting national Cricket team.
Regrettable as the latest controversy is for the reputation of Australian cricket, it seems to me (as someone never inclined to be impressed by those seeking to assume the mantle of genuine heroes) that Cricket Australia’s problems are very much of their own making. The culture that has now been exposed has its genesis in the national team’s management and administration, and any solution will only flow from change at the top.