Playing it straight: why the reputation of Australia's cricket team has fallen so far

The reputation of cricket was hit for six this week. In particular, the reputation of Australian cricket.

Having tirelessly tried to explain the rules of cricket to my Dutch girlfriend, I understand some of the intricate aspects of the game are not always the most glamorous.

Yet this week cricket made its way from the back pages to the front covers of our national newspapers. The story in question was the lead item on the BBC’s 10 o’clock news, was commented on by Prime Minister, Theresa May and her Australian counterpart, was covered in the press across the globe and was, of course, trending across many social networks.

So what is this story which caused such an avalanche of outcry? In simple terms, someone decided to give one side of a cricket ball a scratch.

In slightly more detail, three Australian players conspired to give their team an illegal advantage by sandpapering one side of a cricket ball with the hope the ball would swing more, making it harder for their opponents to bat against. This all occurred in an already highly charged series between Australia and South Africa.

The impacts of the story have been far-reaching. The Australian cricket team has been castigated by the Australian and international media reflecting the public’s outrage at what is viewed as purposeful and premeditated cheating. Their reputation as a team who play hard but fair has been squashed in just a couple of days.

With Cricket Australia facing a barrage of criticism over their governance of the team and accusations they had overseen an ‘out of control’ team culture, they handed down tough penalties to the three players involved. Captain Steve Smith and Vice-Captain David Warner are both banned from playing for Australia for a year, while junior team member Camron Bancroft who carried out the ‘ball tampering’ act receives a nine month ban.

What’s interesting is the punishments handed out go far beyond any punishment given out for ball tampering in recent years and the reputation fall out has been far greater than for previous similar incidents of ball tampering.

So why is it that Australian cricket has suffered a bigger reputation hit than other cricket playing nations who have ‘bent’ the rules?

While part of the answer lies in the specific and pre-meditated nature of the actions that took place and the rise of digital channels which helped the story snowball, I also think there’s more at play:

1) The Australian cricket team had built a reputation as a team that played hard and fair. They have prided themselves on never ‘crossing the line’. Their players even upbraided others who fell foul of the ‘spirit of the game’. Most notably, the instigator of the current scandal, David Warner condemned the South African captain Faf Du Plessis for a similar but more minor offence stating ‘we [Australia] hold our heads high and I'll be very disappointed if one of our team-members did that.’

Reputation is built by aligning actions with words. In simple terms, what the Australian cricket team said did not match how it played on the field.  They also failed to meet the needs of their most important key stakeholder group, in this case, the cricket loving Australian public. Falling so far below their expectations has undermined trust and led to a massive reputation fall out. I contend this damage to reputation may not have been so marked if it had been another nation’s cricket team.

2) Despite saying they played fair the Australian cricket team made a lot of enemies. The way they played the game was seen by many to be overly aggressive. In particular, their sledging efforts (verbal insults) were not looked upon favourably by some. So now as they find themselves under attack there are few parties willing to advocate for them from the cricketing and wider community. Instead, condemnation has been almost universal with many seeing a distinct element of hubris to the whole affair.

The learning here is they had failed to build reputation equity with stakeholders to act as a buffer in a reputation crisis. There were very few stakeholders willing to give the team the benefit of the doubt and even fewer willing to come out and advocate for them.

The apologies are now coming thick and fast with Coach Darren Lehmann vowing to restore public trust in the team (As I write this Lehmann himself has resigned). As any business who has suffered a reputation crisis will know, this will not be a short journey. If Cricket Australia wants to rebuild trust and restore its reputation with the public and wider stakeholders this will take time. It will need to ensure that it listens and responds to stakeholder needs and concerns and plays by the rules not just talks a good game.



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