By Adam Collins
Steve Smith, David Warner, Cameron Bancroft, Darren Lehmann. Now, add James Sutherland to the list. Or so went the narrative, that the chief executive of Cricket Australia was putting the cue in the rack after 17 years in the job as a consequence of what happened in Cape Town. Headlines screamed of a latest casualty from the calamity.
What it did mean was another eventful week in Australian cricket.
For Sutherland’s part, he said that he had been talking with the board about his departure for the last two years. For at least the last seven, stories have been written about the health of an organisation that relied on having the same executive in charge for that long; far beyond a time that most management consultants, for instance, would say is healthy.
Yet, it has been over the last few years when some of Sutherland’s most lasting legacy items were sparked, not least his delivering of day-night Test cricket. Then there is the Women’s Big Bash League, an avenue for investment and publicity in the women’s game to match. But of course, volatility has been just as much a feature through this period. Like most long-term careers, it is winding down to its end in shades of grey.
“With some really key blocks in place; the MoU (players’ pay deal), pathway strategy and the media rights now done, it just feels like a good time for me to hand over the reins in an orderly fashion to my successor,” Sutherland said when announcing the decision.
“Our business works on a four, five, six-year cycle and it just so happens that right now, putting aside the fact I’ve been in the role for 17 years, we’ve adopted a new strategy, we have the collective agreement with our players in place. We’ve just done a new media deal that puts us in a really strong position.”
From a dollars and cents perspective, that’s not in dispute. Even the disaster of the 2017 pay dispute Sutherland had a degree of cover from due to a member of his executive management team, Kevin Roberts, leading – then botching – the negotiations on behalf of the board. That the same man looks a lock to now replace Sutherland, having been formally made the organisation’s second in command last week, will anger many.
But for all the achievements that Sutherland can point to, he did not deny the fact that the ball-tampering saga influenced the decision to begin his 12-month notice period as Cricket Australia itself undergoes a culture review as one byproduct of the fiasco.
“We’ve had some big things to deal with over the course of the last 12 months, obviously there’s Cape Town but there’s also some key planks now in place that allow me to step aside and for a new chief executive to come in and have a really strong platform,” he said.
One way or another, everything now comes back to Cape Town, a reference point that Australians will be hearing about for a generation or more.
It was certainly so when new captain Tim Paine and new coach Justin Langer took centre stage at Lord’s for a press conference to begin their white-ball tour the morning after Sutherland had pulled the pin.
Upon their arrival, the duo walked a slow lap around the ground. It is one they won’t play at on this tour beyond a warm-up game against Middlesex, but it is where the World Cup final will be played 13 months from now.
“I haven’t been here for eight or nine years since my Test debut,” Paine said before acknowledging they had mentioned that tournament final to each other. A distant goal from here, it is fair to say.
Sure enough, that’s not where the focus was when the pair took questions. What people want to know is how this team will conduct themselves on the field to illustrate that lessons have been learned. For Langer’s part, he doesn’t like using the word ‘culture’. When taking over at Western Australia, another dressing room with serious scarring, he drilled into his players that culture is nothing more than a byword for behaviour.
“All culture is behaviours,” he said at the Home of Cricket, “so we’ve got to make sure our behaviour is good on the field and off the field. Then you’ve got that word culture, an environment for all our young blokes to thrive and be as good a people as they can become.”
He continued to say he believes culture is a “buzzword” before telling an anecdote about a Jonny Wilkinson interview on the Parkinson programme: “He talked about the great changing room that he walked into as a young rugby player,” Langer said. “You’ve just got to create the environment where it’s a great changing room where the expectations are high.”
If quirky stories are to be a consistent feature of the Langer era, off-beat comparisons are bound to be another. When probed about his views on sledging, the former opener went on quite the frolic in arguing that they will cop it for the practice regardless of how they change in the short term. “It’s an interesting word, sledging,” he began.
“In Australia, sledging is actually a good word, like for example, if I play UNO, the card game, with my daughter, there’s lots of banter. We sort of sledge each other, but we don’t abuse each other. And if I play golf with my mum and dad, we sledge each other, but we call it banter.”
Paine sees it more conventionally.
In interviews, he takes the position of near-full contrition for Australia’s “belittling” and “berating” of opponents in the past. There is no discussion of “the line” or anything like it.
“There’s no doubt our reputation as a cricketing nation took a bit of a battering (and) it is difficult for the players to come to terms with what happened,” he said.
“The thing that Justin has spoken about already is the difference between abuse and banter, so certainly we won’t be silent out in the field; we are going to be speaking, we’re going to be trying to put pressure on opposition teams and players like we normally do, but there’s got to be a respectful element to it. We know what’s right and what’s wrong, so it’s pretty simple.”
Simple. Not a word that has been associated with Australian cricket over the last few years.