The Roar: Nice guys finish last

Australia versus New Zealand on the world stage has become a a regular occurrence. Cricket, netball, and rugby World Cup finals have all seen these two nations face off in the past year. Now they’re back at it again in the cricket.

Everyone loves an analogy and the Australia versus New Zealand rivalry is ripe for the taking. The unassuming, gracious Kiwis against the Australian bully boys. David versus Goliath. Goodies versus baddies. Simple.

This caricaturisation reached peak momentum during the cricket World Cup final in March. The internet was awash with images of Australia’s Brad Haddin and James Faulkner giving New Zealand batsman Grant Elliott a good old-fashioned send-off. This was in stark contrast to an image doing the rounds of Elliott consoling a distraught Dale Steyn following the semi-final clash with South Africa. The message couldn’t have been clearer.

Only there was a catch. Australia won.

There was no fairytale ending for the good guys. The ruthless, clinical, killing machine of Australian cricket swept to victory in a one-sided final. In the build up, Haddin told the world that he was spurred into sledging Black Caps skipper Brendon McCullum because he was “too nice”.

It was all a little bizarre, but it worked. Australia had the mental edge. McCullum was bowled in the first over, and the Aussies romped home.

Fast forward a few months and Australia are one up in a three-Test series after another dominant display over New Zealand. Business as usual, it seems.

Only I’m worried. On last week’s result, perhaps I shouldn’t be. But I am. I’m worried about all this talk of a new, ‘nicer’ Australia.

Mitchell Starc’s ball-throwing indiscretion aside, Australia are now, apparently, settling down into a new era awash with pleasantries. Michael ‘get ready for a broken f*cken arm’ Clarke has gone, as has Brad ‘New Zealand deserved to be sledged’ Haddin, while David ‘it’s not sledging it’s banter’ Warner is now all grown up.

There are traces of the old aggressive streak still about, such as Mitchell Johnson’s gentle chiding of McCullum pre-Test, Starc’s hot-headed throw, and new boy Joe Burns’ confident warnings to New Zealand’s bowlers to “get it right”.

All in all, however, Australia appear to be steering towards a whole new rosy era of ‘niceness’. New captain Steve Smith has already castigated Starc in public for his moment of anger. I can’t think of anything worse.

Growing up an English supporter in the nineties and early noughties, those athletically skilled specimens from Down Under pierced fear in our hearts. Tales of the fire-breathing, sword-swallowing Merv Hughes were used as deterrents for bad behaviour as a child.

“Write your thank-you letters or Merv will get you,” we were warned.

Steve Waugh’s captaincy throughout the nineties was notorious for his ‘mental disintegration’ tactics. Waugh himself was never shy of a sledge or two and thrived off the aggressive mythology that enshrouded his team. He thrived off it because it worked. In his own words, “We’re not here to win friends, mate.”

They were winners.

Australians sledge, they won’t think twice about giving you a send-off in the heat of the battle, and, unless your surname is Gilchrist, they never, ever walk. This is the Australia that won three World Cups on the trot and held the Ashes for 18 years. They were connoisseurs of what was ‘too far’ and what was within the limits.

There is nothing wrong with a little on-field gamesmanship. Anger, frustration, and competition is part of the game. Personal attacks and physical harm are not.

The laws of cricket are meticulous and those employed to enforce them are often equally so. To be successful in business you don’t need to be a lawbreaker, but you do need a killer instinct.

The same goes for cricket; it’s said that 80 per cent of cricket is mental. To fail to exploit this side of the game is criminal. Too often players back away from engaging in mental disintegration for fear of reprisals in the public eye, and pundits giving them a scolding. Ironically, many of those pundits, often former Test players themselves, engaged in far worse in their day. It’s funny what an ironed shirt and crisp suit do to a man.

Chris Rogers, commentating on the recent Test, told viewers of the ferocity of sledging in Melbourne grade cricket. “Probably the worst I’ve ever had,” the former opener said.

Here’s arguably one the strongest club competitions the world over, and the breeding ground for one of Test cricket’s great openers. Correlation doesn’t mean causation, but it doesn’t mean coincidence either.

When Australia landed on England’s shores earlier this year however, within the space of just a few weeks, something extraordinary happened. Australia were ‘out Australianed’ by England. A mean, lean, hunting machine, England’s seamers, tore into the Australian batsmen. Verbally, physically, off the pitch, on the pitch – Stuart Broad, James Anderson and Ben Stokes were arrogant, unpleasant and manipulating. And they stuffed the Australians.

For decades, Australian cricket thrived by being ruthless. There’s no place for physical harm or personal attacks, but the psychological element of cricket is often severely underestimated. Australia, when they understood this, had the advantage over the rest of the world. Go hard on the pitch, leave it all out there, and when all is said and done, have a beer.

“No more Mr Nice Guy – it’s time for the Black Caps to get angry,” wrote Fairfax’s Jon Pierik of McCullum following the Test. He’s right, because nice guys finish last.

Isabelle Westbury is a freelance broadcast and print journalist with a focus on politics and sport, especially cricket. She has written for a number of publications including The Guardian, The Times, The Independent, The Mail on Sunday and ESPN Cricinfo. She is also a broadcast journalist for the BBC, calling on both men’s and women’s domestic and international cricket matches. She studied at Oxford University, and is now Middlesex CCC women’s cricket captain. She barracks for Essendon, mainly due to the legal intrigue the club provides. Isabelle tweets from @izzywestbury and can also be found on her website – isabellewestbury.com

• A version of this article was originally published in The Roar on 13 November 2015. To access the original, please click here.

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