Test cricket: Analogy for Australian values, or tool of hegemony?

Tony Smith

Steve Cannane First Tests: Great Australian Cricketers and the Backyards that Made Them, Sydney, ABC Books, HarperCollins, 2009 (256 pp). ISBN 9-78073332-114-6 (paperback) RRP $32.95.

Marc Dawson Australia Versus England: 1000 Memorable Ashes Moments, Sydney, ABC Books, HarperCollins, 2009 (240 pp). ISBN 9-78073332-546-5 (paperback) RRP $24.95.

Ashley Mallett Thommo Speaks Out, Crows Nest, Allen and Unwin, 2009 (288 pp). ISBN 9-78174175-435-3 (paperback) RRP $35.00.

Sport is crucial to Australian national identity in domestic and international stereotypes. Enthusiasm for playing and following sport is a central assumption of Australian cultural values. Rodney Smith (2001, p. 32) notes research that found sport to be the most common source of national pride among Australians, easily outranking achievements in science, the arts, democracy and world influence. Further, sport and religion were the most popular ‘leisure time group activities’ each attracting some quarter of those surveyed (Smith 2001, p. 41).

Myth generation and hero production have been dominated by the summer sports of swimming, tennis and cricket, and of these three, the team sport cricket carries perhaps the richest allusions. Long serving Prime Ministers Menzies, Hawke and Howard were cricket ‘tragics’ who sponsored matches by touring parties against a Prime Minister’s XI. An interest in the English game was understandable for Liberal Party founder Sir Robert Menzies, who was regarded by critics as being British to the bootstraps. Labor’s Bob Hawke played at a reasonable standard and during the International Year of Peace, suggested that international tensions would ease if the Chinese played cricket. Liberal John Howard regarded captaincy of the Australian team as the most important job after the prime ministership and ardently admired Don Bradman.

When Labor claimed Government in late 2007, there was speculation that it would drop a question about Bradman from the controversial citizenship test. New Prime Minister Kevin Rudd revealed that there had not been such a question but that Labor would retain information about Bradman in the resource booklet provided to test applicants. Perhaps cricket persists in popular notions of Australian values because of an assumption that the game has an ethos that provides everyone with a ‘fair go’. Cricket is used analogically to suggest that everyone who enters the game—cricket or Australian life—in the correct spirit becomes a member of royalty, albeit of an egalitarian, republican kind, like the players in Cricket Kings, a novel about club cricketers who ‘have a go because it’s actually what makes us a bit better than what we are’ (McInnes 2006, p. 259).

Mostly long hops with the odd yorker

The place of cricket in Australian cultural values might be widely accepted, but most cricket writing ignores the game’s socio-political context. Three books appearing in 2009 by Steve Cannane, Marc Dawson and Ashley Mallett illustrate the limitations of the broad range of cricket writing while posing some serious questions for deeper exploration.

Most cricket writing ignores the game’s socio-political context.

Cricket enthusiasts crave information about their idols. Trivia and anecdotes suffice, as long as it brings fans closer to the centre of the action. In First Tests Cannane explores how his subjects began playing the game. This approach has immediate appeal in that all Test players began just like the fans did—as children. More critical readers will be pleased that Cannane moves towards a conclusion that is challenging and thought provoking. He interrogates some two dozen male and two female Test cricketers either by interview or through existing records. By recounting tales of backyard and street matches, Cannane reveals some of the diverse and ingenious ways that future Test stars overcame lack of resources and opportunity and, sometimes, lack of encouragement. While fans will find the inside dope about makeshift bats, improvised pitches and broken windows familiar and fascinating, the general reader should find the snippets of oral history interesting too.

Some subjects were farm children (Charlie McCartney, Alan Davidson and Doug Walters) and several moved around with schoolteacher parents (Bill O’Reilly, Richie Benaud and Belinda Clark). All were prodigious and played against more senior players, often showing the benefit of uncompromising competition from older brothers. Some had humble socio-economic backgrounds. Victor Trumper grew up in Surry Hills, described by Cannane as an ‘overcrowded, disease-ridden slum’ (p. 12). Cannane says that Arthur Mailey was lucky to survive in Waterloo. Two of Mailey’s siblings did not (pp. 27–28). While local sporting teams were sources of pride and identity, cricket did not provide an income directly. Some later players were handed jobs that enabled them to continue playing, but the era in which sport could provide a way out of poverty for some individuals would not arrive until stars became nationally marketable and it was impossible for local teams to survive. Since the final decades of the 20th century, cricket has been dominated by ‘the power of the media-sport complex to trample the local interests that once made sport so crucial to working and minority communities’ (Miller et al. 1999, p. 496).

Cannane organises the cricketers into five eras. The ‘self-made men from Trumper to Bradman’ he terms ‘The Originals’. The Depression kids who played in suburban streets had the ‘Hard Road’, while the unique characteristic of players of the 1950s and 1960s was that their imaginations were influenced by radio coverage. The stars of the 1970s and 1980s were from the ‘suburban sprawl’ that spurned ‘a nation of cricket pitches’. Those who dominated the 1990s were products of ‘the TV Age’. Some of Cannane’s boundaries are debatable and the data is short on dates of birth, but the eras recognise broader socio-historical influences.

Cannane found that many great Test cricketers attributed their dominance to unusual practice conditions: Bradman used a stump for a bat and a golf ball rebounding from a tank stand, Davidson threw rocks on the way to school and Neil Harvey a wet tennis ball on Fitzroy’s cobblestones. Children today live in crowded circumstances with little backyard space. Streets and parks are seen as unsafe, so children spend much leisure time inside with electronic activities. Cannane asks whether the demise of the backyard spells ‘the beginning of the end of Australia’s cricket dominance’ (p. 6).

The subtitle of Marc Dawson’s book, 1000 Memorable Ashes Moments suggests that his focus is pure nostalgia. In an examination of Bradman biographies, Brett Hutchins (2000, p. 38) shows how nostalgia has affected our reading of the past. Our memories have been manipulated so that Bradman has become ‘a symbol of a nostalgic retreat and retrieval in the shift from cricketing amateurism to professionalism’. Nostalgia is ‘an active cultural practice we do to our shared past(s)’. Any reader who longs to remember events and players of the 20th century will find ample material in Dawson’s collection. Indeed, cricket organisers are increasingly providing for the nostalgia buffs. During the 2006–07 England tour of Australia, there was an Old Australia-Old England match at a South Australian winery and 17,000 fans attended an Ashes Legends match in Western Australia (pp. 233–234).

Cannane reveals how future Test stars overcame lack of resources and opportunity.

Dawson reminds the reader of some remarkable cricketing feats. Cricket is a game of records constantly being set and broken by individuals, partnerships and teams. For example, it was not until 1971 that an Australian opener carried his bat through an innings at the Sydney Cricket Ground and not until 1972 that an Australian team lacked a player from New South Wales. Records have been maintained despite changes in the game that make fair comparisons impossible. For example, Bradman’s legendary batting performances were achieved in days when wickets were uncovered and so likely to deteriorate in rain.

It seems odd that Dawson has included moments from tour games other than Ashes Tests. He includes matches by MCC tourists against Australian states, by Australian tourists against English counties and even some one day internationals. Interestingly as tours become shorter and more condensed, county and state matches are disappearing. One Australian selector has suggested that one day matches are a better preparation for Tests. Once, Test players turned out occasionally for their local cricket clubs but if this selector is correct, then players contracted to the Board might soon be unavailable for state sides.

Dawson notes some ephemera such as Dennis Lillee’s use of an aluminium bat (p. 168) and a survey claiming that 40 per cent male readers of a national magazine would give up sex for a month should Australia regain the Ashes (p. 236). There are also administrative innovations which are important for the future of Australian cricket. The 1964 team was the first to fly to England, a sign of busier schedules and shorter tours (p. 141). These events must prompt the curious reader to inquire further about incremental changes increasing the dominance of commercial imperatives and the reduction of trust as an important element of cricket’s ethos. Dawson notes that the first series to be televised was in 1958–59 (p. 135) but it is left to Jim Maxwell’s Foreword to note the introduction of radio broadcasts in 1924–25 (p. 8). The Adelaide Test of that series lasted seven days, prompting curiosity about changes in the lengths of matches, and about when rest days in the middle of Tests were abandoned. These are important considerations when comparing performances.

Payments for players need chronicling, along with the various team sponsors. The modern game is characterised by sponsorship agreements and the placement of logos in the grass, on the boundaries, on sightscreens or on the batsman’s leading shoulder. The only mention of the ruckus caused when players accepted contracts to play with World Series Cricket comes when Dawson describes the 1977 tour as being among Australia’s worst performances (p. 164). The 1978–79 series, won 5–1 by England, was seriously affected by the split, but this receives scant mention.

Dawson notes that in 1982 the giant electronic scoreboard at the Melbourne Cricket Ground began operations. Not only did it quickly become a screen for advertising and encourage ground announcers to fill every break in play with jingles, but it also signified diminishing trust between players. On the 1970–71 tour no Australian batsman was dismissed leg before wicket (p. 152). Australian players have long implied that they had scant respect for umpires in India and Pakistan, and some years later, neutral umpires were introduced. It would be good to know when this significant change occurred. The reliance on slow motion replays meant that the addition of a third, off-field video umpire was inevitable.

Dawson reminds the reader of some remarkable cricketing feats.

Two players featured in Dawson’s Moments are Ashley Mallett and Jeff Thomson. Mallett’s Thommo Speaks Out is a biography of variable quality. There is too much repetition, too many typographical errors and some glaring contradictions. The book’s undoubted value lies in the way that Thomson’s career illustrates a changing game. Bob Stewart and Aaron Smith (2000, p. 278) suggest that ‘sport has been transformed by the process of postmodernism, which commenced in the middle of the 1960s when it threw away many of its moralistic pretensions and repressive formality, and locked itself into the corporate world’. It is depressing to think that the permeation of sport by business might represent its only possibility for progress, but Stewart and Smith argue that the ethos of amateurism was only ever a rhetorical device for enabling the domination of players by officials, in the same way that workers are dominated by bosses in the capitalist system generally. Postmodernism, they argue ‘removed the traditional metaphysical, mythical and social barriers that were thought to have divided commerce from sport’ (p. 300).

Mallett (2009, p. 1) describes Thomson as ‘the fastest bowler to draw breath’. Thommo’s personality was such that he wanted to bowl fast and would not be disciplined by coaches and captains suggesting that he needed to temper speed with accuracy. This uncompromising attitude led to his forming with Dennis Lillee a partnership that terrorised England’s batsmen in the 1974–75 series. As well as securing nine wickets in the First Test of the series, Thomson struck several batsmen debilitating blows which had the English press questioning whether the Australian bowled to intimidate and injure rather than to dismiss batsmen.

Thomson loved the beach and was not a strong scholar. He and mate Len Pascoe were respected for their abilities in the Bankstown area but were also famous for lacking dedication to practice. After leaving school Thomson worked at various jobs until approached to move to Brisbane (p. 66). Thomson noted that many players were agitating for ‘a better deal from the (Australian Cricket) Board’ and he considered offers from English counties (p. 97). His reputation was such that when Australia toured England in 1975, it seems that very slow pitches were prepared to dampen his speed (p. 125).

A Brisbane radio station offered Thomson a ten-year contract worth over $600,000, causing speculation that he could become Australia’s first millionaire cricketer. Later Australian Captain Greg Chappell speculated that ‘one day, big companies could own all Test players’ (p. 146). Some months later, agents for Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket (WSC) began approaching players and the team on the 1977 tour of England became divided between those who signed and those who remained loyal to the Board (pp. 167 ff.). While Thomson was keen to join the WSC ‘circus’, he could not escape his radio contract and stayed with the Board. The next year, Thomson attempted to exploit an apparent loophole in the contractual arrangements and retired from Test cricket. He then signed with WSC, but the Board took him to court (p. 199). His contract was enforced but the Board and WSC made an agreement a year or so later. Thomson believed that he had been made a ‘scapegoat’.

Biographers traditionally ask former Test players about the modern game. Thomson’s view of 21st century players is slightly surprising: ‘Trouble is cricketers are getting so much money these days complacency sets in. They are going to get a truckload of money whether they perform or not’ (p. 241). Mallett, a contemporary of Thomson’s in the Test team, argues that England’s elite youth players are ‘pampered’ while Australia’s rising stars are found ‘menial jobs’ while at the Cricket Academy. He suggests that as a result Australia had ‘lean, mean and committed cricketers, hungry for success’. Perhaps this is a residue of the backyard influence.

Hard questions on an unresponsive pitch

Cannane’s fears about the future of Australian cricket focus on the possible lack of prodigies bred in harsh childhood conditions. Others identify serious sociological problems. Jon Gemmell (2007, p. 34) notes that while ‘nearly half of the Australian population are either immigrants or their offspring … cricket has failed to embrace and incorporate this new diversity’. Such sports might once have provided ‘an historic antithesis to English class privilege’ but incidents of racism suggest that cricket ‘remains a fortress of white masculine values’. As the ‘sport of Empire, cricket carries with it traits that are particularly British and appeals to certain sections of any community, notably, in Australia, the historic white settlers’.

Biographers traditionally ask former Test players about the modern game.

Indigenous people have always found it difficult to embrace the game’s assimilationist tendencies. Some white settlers thought cricket could civilise Aborigines, but treated players with racist disdain. White coaches and administrators quickly claimed credit for Aboriginal successes, so that the game became a ‘gift from white society’ (Gemmell 2007, p. 40). Furthermore, ‘Australian crowds are virtual no-go areas for Aborigines, hold very few women and only a sprinkling of followers from the new immigrant communities’ (p. 43). Jeff Thomson’s mate, Len Pascoe—originally Durtanovich—was one player who reported being abused on the field because of his ethnic origins. Cricket, like Australian sports generally, has a ‘profoundly masculine inflection’ that helps to retain the hegemony of certain forms of masculinity over others and over femininity (McKay et al. 2001, p. 233).

Alan Bairner (2007) describes how the Irish diaspora embraced the British game. They may have been eager to beat the British at their own game, but could also have wanted to integrate and forget old differences. Players such as O’Reilly, O’Neill, O’Brien, Fingleton, McCabe and McGrath showed that the Irish can be skilled cricketers, but Bairner describes sectarian division in Australian teams. During the 1937 Ashes series, four players were called before a Board sub-committee which apparently believed that the four, all of Irish extraction, were not giving skipper Bradman unqualified support (p. 467). The implications about Irish-Australians might seem bizarre today, but in the mid-20th century, there were real tensions between Catholics and Masons. As Bairner (p. 470) says, while Irish-Australians readily adopted dominant Australian cultural activities, they were determined to play cricket without surrendering their Irishness. This created tensions with those who saw the sport as a means to enforce British protestant dominance.

Cricket has always been interpreted to suit the ideological needs of those who control media. Writing about the images constructed of English cricketers, Duncan Stone (2009) argues that ‘the term “competitive” has, in the northern context, become a clichéd and dangerous assumption for sociologists and historians of regional cricket’. Over the years, stereotypes have been produced of northern professionals playing the game hard and dourly while the flair has been attributed to amateurs from the south. This gave the south an image of playing pure cricket and hence an ethical superiority. In Stone’s assessment this has been a false dichotomy.

While new elites may have emerged here, cricket in Australia currently faces similar problems of interpretation. The game has clearly become dominated by its marketing potential but is rarely mentioned in newspapers’ business pages. There are doubts about the ethics of some leading players whether batting, bowling or fielding, but commentators—many of them former players—divert popular scrutiny by referring to improvements in playing and viewing conditions. Most cricket books reinforce the notion that beneath the commercial imperatives, the game remains in the ‘fair go’ tradition that has coincided with Australian values. Steve Cannane’s First Tests, Marc Dawson’s Memorable Ashes Moments and Ashley Mallett’s Thommo understandably address a mass readership. Yet each, in its own way, draws attention to changes that are fundamental rather than peripheral. Collectively, they should help to dispel some of the myths that inhibit thorough criticism of cricket at the elite level.


Bairner, A. 2007, ‘Wearing the baggie green: The Irish and Australian cricket’, Sport in Society, vol. 10, no. 3, pp. 457–475.

Gemmell, J. 2007, ‘All white mate? Cricket and race in Oz’, Sport in Society, vol. 10, no. 1, pp. 33–48.

Hutchins, B. 2000, ‘The uses of nostalgia: Don Bradman and Australian cricket’, Social Alternatives, vol. 19, no. 2, pp. 35–39.

McInnes, W. 2006, Cricket Kings, Hodder/Hachette Livre, Sydney.

McKay, J., Lawrence, G. Miller, T. & Rowe, D. 2001, ‘Gender equity, hegemonic masculinity and the governmentalisation of Australian amateur sport’, in Culture in Australia: Policies, Programs and Publics, eds T. Bennett & D. Carter, Cambridge University Press, Oakleigh, Victoria.

Miller, T., Lawrence, G., McKay, J. & Rowe, D. 1999, ‘Playing the world’, Peace Review, vol. 11, no. 4, pp. 495–498.

Smith, R. 2001, Australian Political Culture, Longman (Pearson Education), Frenchs Forest.

Stewart, B. & Smith, A. 2000, ‘Australian sport in a postmodern age’, International Journal of the History of Sport, vol. 17, no. 2, pp. 278–304.

Stone, D. 2009, Amateurism and identity in England: How being competitive became the point of distinction between northern and southern cricket, paper presented to the British Society of Sports History Conference, Stirling, UK, April [Online], Available: http://eprints.hud.ac.uk/5428 [2009, Nov 3].

Dr Tony Smith is a Bathurst writer and frequent contributor to the Australian Review of Public Affairs.

View other articles by Tony Smith: