Roderick Easdale: Review of Steve Smith’s Men by Geoff Lemon


The cover of Steve Smith’s Men is festooned with praise for the book from other Australian journalists.

Jim Maxwell, we are told, says it “superbly documents and dissects the fiasco that tore Australian cricket asunder”. Peter FitzSimons called it: “Evocative. Sad. Funny. Insightful. Revelatory. Bloody Brilliant.”

FitzSimons is being generous when he includes ‘revelatory’ for Steve Smith’s Men does not answer the many unanswered questions around the ball-tampering incident at the Newlands test match in 2018.

Lemon does not explore the incident itself, rather he puts it in context by explaining the general background to the incident. The book is particularly adept at dissecting the personalties of the actors in the drama, including David Warner “one of the most complicated humans in cricket”.

Steve Smith, depicted as having little in his life or personality beyond cricket, is “almost impressively dull”. His appointment as skipper continued the policy of making the best batsman leader even though “Ponting lacked tactical range, Clarke was bad at relationships.”

It seemed odd to many that the Australian coach, Darren Lehmann, knew nothing of the ball tampering. Was he really that ignorant? Either way he is damned if he does –condoning cheating– and damned if he doesn’t for having little control over his team. Lemon does not answer that question.

As Lemon points out, Lehmann originally intended staying on as coach and denied Australian cricket had a problem with its culture, then said he was the man to solve a problem which 24 hours earlier he had denied existed. He later resigned as coach only to be re-employed elsewhere by Cricket Australia.

Lehmann will soon take up a head coach position in The Hundred. One of the many alleged justifications for this competition was that it would give head coach experience to English coaches. But all eight head coaches in the men’s version are from overseas, including the disgraced Lehmann. Or is he disgraced? He appears to have come out of the sandpaper episode if not smelling of roses  –white roses perhaps– then at least having evaded blame.

It is the Yorkshire-based franchise Lehmann will coach. Yorkshire was the side he batted so superbly for during many seasons, and captained for a year. That year the defending champions were relegated.

Lemon explains that although Cricket Australia appears to have come down hard on Smith, Warner and Bancroft, it has been lenient elsewhere. Its investigation was very narrow, interviewed few, examined little. Were these three fed to the wolves to cover up a cover up?

Was this really the first time this Australian team tried to illegally alter the ball’s condition? Were only three people aware of such a plan, including none of the bowlers? Cricket Australia seemed to have conveniently pre-determined from the outset that the answer to both is yes.

But Lemon makes clear that the culture problem in Australian cricket is also a result of the leadership of the governing body. “The Cricket Australia of the last few years have been abrasive, selfish and immune from consequence. It would have been a miracle if its cricket team had been anything else.”

Many are lacerated by Lemon, but he ignores that the country’s cricket media were also part of the problem. Too eager sometimes to act as cheerleaders and opposition-bashers rather than objective reporters, they provided too little critical comment of their national team’s toxic culture and attitudes. This also helped the players believe they could get away with almost anything. They almost did.

Steve Smith’s Men by Geoff Lemon is published by Hardie Grant Books


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