In an infamous year of discontent, Cricket Australia found itself again reeling on the eve of what is usually a celebrated occasion on the annual calendar, after the small square of sandpaper that caused such controversy in South Africa in 2018 continues to grate at the soul of Australian cricket.
An unprecedented embarrassment at the time, anger exploded again the day before the Adelaide Test courtesy of David Warner’s extraordinary public complaints of his treatment. In an escalating scandal, hours before the second Test against the West Indies began, the batter’s wife Candice accused CA of putting their family “through hell”.
“We’ve lived with this pain, through this pain since 2018,” she told Sydney radio station Triple M. “And it gets to a point where enough is enough. Dave’s statement was very powerful and it has to be. We’ve been through hell. To put our family, also his teammates, through everything again and the disappointing thing for David is this has been dragged out so long.”
Her interjection follows Warner’s decision to withdraw on Wednesday from an independent review into whether CA should lift a lifetime captaincy ban against him. The process began informally in February but only became official when he made an application for a review of the decision, which included character references from Greg Chappell and current Australia captain Pat Cummins, in late November.
But a clash over how an independent review should proceed has sparked a significant crisis in a year where CA has plunged from one controversy to another.
From the messy end to Justin Langer’s tenure as coach to a protracted saga involving the worth of its broadcast deal with the Seven network, from the failed defence of the T20 World Cup to the abysmal crowds at last week’s Perth Test, there have been repeated challenges.
It is said that success papers over the cracks in all teams. While the national side’s form in the traditional format is strong, the latest explosion makes clear the fault lines in Australian cricket stemming from the Newlands Test remain fraught.
In a Test where Steve Smith, punished as a co-offender alongside Warner in Newlands, returns to the captaincy as a stand-in for Pat Cummins, the spotlight is again squarely on the Australian team.
Both Warner and his wife have said his decision to withdraw is in part due to a desire to shield his teammates from further cross-examination. But having made clear his anger so publicly, Warner will bat with and field alongside teammates who have repeatedly made clear their angst at being associated with the scandal.
Just 18 months ago the Australian bowling attack of Cummins, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Nathan Lyon issued a statement to the “Australian public” stating they knew nothing about the use of sandpaper until they saw images on the big screen in Newlands.
Declaring they “pride themselves on their honesty”, they said they were disappointed their integrity was in question and “felt compelled to put the key facts on the record again”. Tasked with bowling the West Indies out twice over the next five days, and then backing up against South Africa for three Tests in a short window, they must feel dismayed yet again.
Irrespective of who is at fault for sparking the latest explosion, the body language of the Australian team will be scrutinised at length over the coming days at Adelaide Oval.
The Warners and CA expressed their disappointment in contrasting ways on Wednesday night about the independent panel’s desire for the hearing to be public. Warner expressed unbridled anger at what he said was a determination to rake back over the still smouldering coals of the debacle in South Africa. CA, too, clearly hoped any hearings would be held behind closed doors, as has traditionally been the case for the national body.
But CA and the Warners are not the only parties with reputations to consider. CA’s integrity department – led by Jacqui Partridge – and the panel comprising Alan Sullivan, Robert Heath, Jane Seawright, Leon Zwier and Adrian Anderson are professionals who have built their own reputations.
Hearings that shut out the public, even those investigating corrupt behaviour or cheating, are a regular occurrence. But to borrow the word “cleansing” from Warner’s angry account of how the proceedings have unfolded, the spotlight of public scrutiny enhances integrity, something the independent panel would be mindful of.
It is disingenuous to suggest the panel not consider the Newlands Test as a baseline for a character test if the aim of the review was to test the genuineness of Warner’s remorse and improvements in his behaviour.
Clearly those who encouraged Warner and issued character references believe the opener has made steady ground. He might have proven an outstanding captain. But no panel worth its salt will issue a rubber stamp without a thorough examination.