‘Tell ’em all I’m sorry I screwed up this time.’ The lyrics to Paul Kelly’s How to Make Gravy came blaring from seemingly every speaker in the Wanderers Stadium as Australia filed out to train minutes after Darren Lehmann had stepped off the media stage in tears when announcing his sudden resignation as coach.
Tears had been the theme of the day when their deposed captain, Steve Smith, sobbed in front of the Sydney press. The Bullring does not have the definitive claim on being the most intimidating venue in world cricket but it is certainly in the semi-finals with its steep and daunting grandstands. Here, these lads were as broken as a sports team could be imagined.
Kelly’s classic tells the story of a prisoner apologising for being locked up for Christmas dinner, much like Australia’s truncated preparations for the fourth Test against South Africa: focused inescapably on those not present. Then the songs kept coming, Australian classics both poignant and pugnacious, as the warmup gathered pace.
Don’t Dream It’s Over felt right not only for the title but because the band who own it, Crowded House, are the greatest New Zealand export Australia ever appropriated and 24 hours earlier Lehmann said the Black Caps’ humble style of play was what he was looking to in order to recast his side. Hunters and Collectors Throw Your Arms Around Me returned even the steeliest soul back to Smith in Sydney, as did Nick Cave’s funereal Into My Arms.
It went on. Australian Crawl’s Reckless was a reminder of the foolish incident that got them here to begin with. As the group came to their feet, the energy did too when The Saints were so loud that finally the volume was taken down a notch. Suddenly, it was Australian cricketers looking like Australian cricketers again, hooting and hollering in a fielding game played against the support staff. How relieved they must have felt to be out of a hotel interrogation room.
How the soundtrack came to be does not matter. One player said it was a “stitch-up” rather than a pre‑planned act of defiance but it did, if briefly, create an environment of comfort after a week of anything but. It also did not matter when Faf du Plessis, South Africa’s carefree captain, said his side had suspicions Australia had tampered with the ball before. On any other day that was a headline but it was overtaken when Australia’s coach walked in to have a chat instead of the new captain, Tim Paine.
Lehmann’s tired, red eyes made it obvious what was coming, not even 24 hours after pledging to be the man who could change enough to lead Australia through its toughest period in modern memory. Lehmann said he had it in him to cop plenty but not when watching his disgraced former players face the music at home looking more like extradited criminals than cricketers in the airport arrivals hall.
“After seeing events in the media today with Steve Smith and Cameron Bancroft, the feeling is that Australian cricket needs to move forward and this is the right thing,” he said. “I really felt for Steve, I saw him crying in front of the media and all of the players are really hurting.”
Belatedly, Lehmann arrived at the conclusion that if the culture of the side he oversees was on trial, then it was unsustainable for him to remain: “I’m ultimately responsible for the culture of the team and I’ve been thinking about my position for a while. After viewing Steve and Cameron’s hurting, it’s only fair that I make this decision. This will allow Cricket Australia to complete a full review into the culture of the team and allow them to implement changes to regain the trust of the Australian public.”
Reflecting on his proudest time at the helm, Lehmann pointed to the stewardship in the aftermath of Phillip Hughes’s death in November 2014, adding that it was more important to him than any on-field win.
It was a human response James Sutherland, Cricket Australia’s chief executive, reiterated when having to appear one last time before leaving the country. For his part, he just wants the suspended players left alone to recover from the trauma of the week.
Whether Sutherland has to tap the mat himself is an increasing point of fascination, despite his urging to the contrary. That pressure only intensifies with sponsors jumping ship and broadcasters trying to talk down the worth of the television rights in an effort to take advantage of the scandal. For the long-serving CA chief it really is one unpalatable sandwich after another.
Before the players moved to the nets there was one last tune: Heavy Heart, sung by Tim Rogers. On Friday it will be Paine running the show on the pitch for the first time. If he can do the seemingly impossible and lead Australia to a win to square the series, the team anthem will be sung like it has never been before. But don’t hold your breath.