Steve Smith's Men
Published 1 November 2018 by Hardie Grant
Read from 1 January to 4 January 2019
“...Bancroft did what any kid shoplifting a Milky Way would do: he shoved the evidence down his pants...it can seem absurd to imbue this action with such drama. But altering a ball can alter the course of the match, the worth of a legacy, the history of the game. This ball would alter some of the world's most prominent careers.”
After lunch on the third day of the third Test Match in a series against South Africa in March 2018, Australian cricketer Cameron Bancroft was busted by South African television cameras altering the condition of the ball. What followed brought down Australia's venerated men's cricket captain, his deputy, their coach, and the house of cards that was Cricket Australia.
Sports writer/broadcaster Geoff Lemon's account of 'how the hell it came to this' is superbly researched and crafted. Steve Smith's Men isn't about what happened in Cape Town, so much as it is about what allowed, enabled and encouraged it to happen. Lemon examines the politics and culture of Australian cricket with an emotional intelligence that the sport (and the world) needs more of.
I've long enjoyed Geoff's cricket writing, not just for his poetic turn of phrase and ability to resist dramatisation, romanticism and cliché, but because he strikes me as a magpie among seagulls in the cricket media. Where others flock and flap their wings over the latest hot chip, Lemon edges cautiously towards an unnoticed tidbit that hints at something beyond a headline or grab. His insightful character assessments of Smith and Warner reflect careful observations collected in this manner over many years. He is fairer and franker than most, and succeeds in humanising both men without ever placing himself at centre-stage. Meanwhile, his documentation of an extraordinary few days in cricket from the perspective of a small but dedicated caravan of cricket broadcasters gives fellow cricket-tragics (and those intrigued by the life of the travelling sportswriter) a glimpse of the creative resilience required to live life on the road.
Lemon dissects Australian cricket's failings in twenty-four sharp chapters, each adding more depth to our understanding of how the hell it came to this. His documentation of several Australian cricket tours is astounding in both detail and observation - now there's a tour diary I'd pay good money to read! Steve Smith's Men will run you through the full gamut of sports-induced emotions: I felt angry, sad, disappointed, amused, perplexed, cheated and hopeful. Indeed I was compelled several times to read passages aloud to my significant other after laughter erupted from within - "he jangles about the field like a sack full of coathangers" (to describe Nathan Lyon) now has a home in my kitbag for future use!
I was, of course, reminded of Jock Serong's brilliant The Rules of Backyard Cricket, which could easily be a fictional companion book to this book if your little cricket-loving heart could take it. I'll be coming back to Steve Smith's Men, likely more than once, but hopefully not in the aftermath of another scandal.