Waugh lifts lid on Test 'bubble'
Former captain Steve Waugh says Australia's current crop of Test stars may have become 'out of touch with reality'
31 October 2018, 10:00 PM AEST
Former Test captain Steve Waugh has shed light on the 'bubble' that develops around top-level touring teams and which was identified in the newly released culture review as a potent factor in the ball-tampering scandal that unfolded in Cape Town last March.
Speaking prior to the release of the 145-page independent report authored by the Sydney-based Ethics Centre, Waugh claimed he could understand how the national men's team reached a point where their decision-making became clouded partly due to the unrelenting reality of life on the road.
The ex-skipper, who oversaw one of Australian cricket's most successful eras but also one that was scrutinised for an on-field combativeness that pre-dated the current corporate culture, suggests it's vital that players develop interests unrelated to cricket when engaged in lengthy international tours.
He also reaffirmed his belief in the power of unifying symbols to create a sense of shared purpose and an understanding of ethos and tradition, citing his deification of the Baggy Green cap for which he was recently criticised by his former on-field deputy, Shane Warne.
Waugh, whose record of 41 wins from 57 matches represents the best strike-rate of any men's Test team skipper (min 10 wins), echoed some findings subsequently contained in the Ethics Centre report when he noted Australia's men's team had "just in recent times got a little bit out of touch with reality".
"Maybe that was best summed up in the press conference immediately after (the ball-tampering incident at Newlands) when Steve Smith maybe inadvertently said, 'look, it won't happen again under my watch and we'll fix it up'," Waugh told cricket.com.au.
"I don't think they realised the gravity of what they had done, and I think that showed that they gradually got away from reality and people's perceptions of what was right and wrong.
"Maybe this is a good time to (hit) the reset button.
"I know that all kids watching that around Australia, in any sport, would say 'now I know that if I step out of line there's going to be a heavy penalty'.
"So I think Cricket Australia did a positive thing – even though it was a harsh penalty, it sent out a strong message."
Among the prevailing cultures that the report ventured had contributed to a "win without counting the cost" environment in Australia cricket was the "gilded bubble" within which the men's team exists.
"There is a broad consensus that elite, male players occupy a 'gilded bubble' – blessed with wealth and privilege and cursed with long periods of absence from loved ones, isolation from the rhythms of ordinary life and exposure to cut-throat competition which is unforgiving of poor performance and that makes little allowance for individuality unless it serves the task of winning," the report found.
Waugh, who played 168 Tests and 325 one-day internationals during his 19-year international career, learned early in his touring life that long periods of isolation coupled with endless introspection created an unhealthy detachment from the real world.
A passionate amateur photographer who seized every opportunity to explore his immediate surrounds, especially in subcontinental Asia for which he developed an enduring affinity, Waugh encouraged his teammates to escape the confines of hotels, cafes and shopping malls whenever feasible.
The 53-year-old believes that need has become heightened among today's younger players who are fast-tracked into development programs and coaching academies from school age, and are at risk of developing tunnel vision whereby cricket assumes disproportionate importance.
It's a system he's seen evolve since 1984, when he began his first-class journey, to the present day with his son, Austin, representing Australia at the under-19 World Cup in New Zealand in January-February.
"I'd been there before in those early days and the dark tours to Pakistan and places where we were struggling, and we were purely thinking about cricket," Waugh recalled of his introduction to international cricket when Australia were regarded as easybeats.
"I'd get back to my hotel room, and it can be a depressing environment.
"In those days, there was no (mobile) telephones, there was no iPads, you couldn't FaceTime home.
"You were stuck in a room thinking about cricket and if it wasn't going well, the demons started playing out inside your head.
"So I said, 'I don't need this, I've got to get out and have another interest when I'm away playing cricket'.
"In my career, I think I averaged 10 better on away tours (than at home) and a big part of that for me was getting out, meeting people, relaxing, and not thinking about cricket 24/7.
"I think it can be an issue these days, and I look at the under-17s and under-19s, they are full-time professionals even though they are still at school.
"They train four or five days a week.
"It's great that they're getting coaching but I think there's so many people involved in the game these days and they've got to be accountable for their position, it seems that there's so many extra sessions that these players are doing.
"I think that we've got to get back to maybe a bit more basics, a bit more fun, a bit more centre-wicket practice, and a bit more of the old-fashioned way.
"Maybe we've become a bit too over-analytical."
While he struggles to reconcile how a decision could be reached to take sandpaper onto the Test match playing field as part of a calculated plan to alter the ball's character, Waugh concedes he carries some insight as to how individuals might arrive at that ethical crossroad.
Having forged his competitive steel in the hearth of so many hefty defeats throughout his Test cricket apprenticeship, Waugh was as driven to win as anyone to have taken the field for Australia before or since.
And he understands the "siege mentality" that can all-too-readily fester within a group that's being challenged by a superior opposition, and pressured by expectations and distractions off-field.
"You're close together, which you've got to be on away tours, and you don't like letting too many outside influences come in because you've got to concentrate on what you're doing," Waugh said.
"There's a lot of pressure, and if there's a negative vibe that starts in the side, or if people start to split up and go different ways then, quite easily, you've got an environment which is not cohesive, and one where people are thinking the wrong things.
"They're starting to think negatively, and thinking the world's against them.
"All of a sudden you get this feeling 'well, let's do something about it', and that's maybe what happened in South Africa.
"Where things were going against them, there was a lot of stuff going on off the field, they thought 'well we're almost entitled to do something ourselves to get back at them', and maybe that's what happened."
As part of the process towards restoring cohesion within, and faith towards, the national men's team, a players' review conducted concurrently with the culture examination has framed a new 'players pact' that articulates the values and ambitions of all Australia cricket teams.
During his tenure as captain, Waugh maintained a similarly strong attachment to the Test team's Baggy Green Cap as a manifestation of the privilege and responsibility that came with being an elite cricketer, and also to instil a strong sense of fraternity among those within the 'bubble'.
It was extended to include a dressing-room agreement that each member would don the cap for the first session of every fielding stint, and even saw the Baggy Green worn in public such as a courtside appearance at Wimbledon which Warne, among others, has described as "embarrassing".
But Waugh defends his idolatry of the headwear that he saw as a sort of talisman, serving as a ready reminder to players of the honour with which they had been bestowed, and of the obligation that accompanied elevation to such a privileged cohort.
"It's about symbols, and I know that schools have badges … that the kids are proud of," Waugh said, shortly before beginning his 'Captain's Ride' fundraising event for his charity foundation.
"I think it's something that you can be proud of, and it's something that unites us.
"There's only one or two people I have heard who took exception to us wearing the Baggy Green in the first session (when fielding), and I think that was just to make themselves heard.
"In general, I think people love representing something and having something to stand by and the Baggy Green Cap is a great symbol.
"It gives players that feeling of being special and being part of an elite club, and I think the opposition definitely notice when you're wearing it, so that straight away is an advantage to have.
"These days the players only get one for their whole career.
"Thirty years ago you got a Baggy Green every tour, so now it is special and unique and it's something to really value."