Oz Cricket Team’s French Cut

It seems that Australia’s cricketers are just like the country, the opposite of its self-image. The nation that likes to think of itself as a collection of tough, rugged, no nonsense, team-spirited individuals is a land of pampered wimps, overpaid celebrities and a nanny state approach to the perils of life.

Never sure whether it belongs in Asia or somewhere between Florida and Britain, Australia further undermined its image recently when its cricketers ducked a planned tour of Pakistan on security grounds.

Few cricket followers doubt that for some years Australia has had the world’s best cricket team – though they may now be in danger of losing that status. But when it comes to winning friends and influencing people, that team deservedly languishes at the bottom. Its reputation has even united a subcontinent usually engaged in its own cricket wars against them.

But it seems that several of the overpaid, pampered brats on the Australian team were too scared to play in Pakistan and were planning to boycott the tour anyway. Leading the pack of cowards was all-rounder Andrew Symonds, who had earlier said he would make himself unavailable if the tour went ahead. So the governing body, Cricket Australia, decided to cancel almost at the last minute.

Others, including fast bowler Stuart Clarke, expressed relief and made dismissive remarks about Pakistan’s coach, the former Australian bowler Geoff Lawson, who took over recently from Bob Woolmer following the latter’s sudden and mysterious death during last year’s World Cup in the Caribbean.

This is the second time Australia has refused to play in Pakistan. It did so in 2002 when a series had to be moved to Sri Lanka (despite bombs there too) and Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates.

Other foreign teams have had no such qualms playing in Pakistan, which in June is set to host the Asia Cup. India and Sri Lanka have pledged their support and even cricket minnows such as Hong Kong will be sending teams. England recently played a series in Sri Lanka despite recent bombings there.

Pakistani resentment at Australia’s pull-out follows hard on the heels of a very unpleasant recent tour of Australia by India that had the Indian media seething over Australian hypocrisy and thin skin. The series was widely regarded as the most bitter cricket tour since the 1930s, with neutral observers blaming Australia more than India for the course of events. It culminated in claims that Indian bowler Harbhajan Singh had made racist comments about Symonds, who is half-black.

In reality the Australians largely invented the practice of “sledging,” verbal insults intended to distract and enrage opposing batsmen. The Australian team had become so notorious for its crude verbal warfare that even the local fans thought their behavior unbecoming of a sporting nation. Yet when Harbhajan of the normally docile Indian team hit back with some insults of his own the Australians cried, “foul!” They succeeded in having Harbhajan suspended until an Indian threat to cancel the tour made the Australians think again.

It brings to mind Canberra’s diplomatic support for George W. Bush’s occupation of Iraq, which was, until the recent change of government, unrelenting while its actual military contribution was slight – mostly to avoid body-bag reaction at home. Troops are kept offshore or in secure areas far from any real fighting. Only two Australian soldiers have been killed by enemy action in Iraq, compared with nearly 4,000 Americans, 174 British, and 33 Italians.

Those with longer memories will recall that Australia eagerly followed the US into Vietnam until its casualty toll mounted – though its casualty rate (500 dead out of 50,000 who served in Vietnam) was low. On the cricket field as on the battlefield, Australia makes a lot of noise. It likes to hand out pain but is often unwilling to take it.