Australia celebrate beating Pakistan, Sydney, January 11, 1973
© Fairfax Media/Getty Images

Essay

Man, manlier, manliest

If you are an Aussie cricketer who doesn't guzzle beer and sledge non-stop, do you even exist?

Geoff Lemon |

"…it's the Australian way to go out all guns blazing and to play to win. If we lose a few friends, as long as we lift that trophy then everyone's happy."

Thus spake Mitchell Starc in the days after the 2015 World Cup. His team had indeed lifted a trophy. They had sung songs while Brad Haddin persistently baptised the thing with sponsor beer, puzzling over how to drink from a gold sphere that did not follow the spatial conventions of any cup known to his purview. The team had been ruthless and abrasive in getting that trophy, up in the faces of New Zealand's batsmen as they were dismissed.

In contrast the Kiwis saw off retiring Australian one-day captain Michael Clarke with handshakes. New Zealand captain Brendon McCullum declined to discuss the unpleasantness on the grounds that it might divert attention from Australia's victory. His decency was almost painful. His opponents were unrepentant. They hadn't wanted to give New Zealand a sniff, and not one waft had been released. It was full rage from the first over, when McCullum's stumps had been smashed while the pre-game volley of chirps still echoed. If Starc had walked into a church that sunny March day, he would have sledged God.

Haddin found it all amusing in an addled radio call the morning after. "They were that nice to us in New Zealand and we were that uncomfortable. I said in the team meeting: 'I can't stand for this any more. We're going at them as hard as we can.'" He was joking with a station that treats seriousness like typhoid, but his comments were received in a context of broader disapproval. The debate ran laps: was sledging the hard-edged legacy of true-blue battlers, or immaturity embarrassing a nation represented by fluorescent ferals? "Cocooned in sycophancy," wrote Greg Baum in the Age, "the Australians seem not to grasp nor care how poorly this behaviour sits with the other half of a cricket-following public they repeatedly and ever more deeply divide."

Toughness is equated to manliness. Most aspects of sporting endeavour - competitiveness, anger, determination, endurance - are seen as expressions of male primacy

Half of the divide sees that uncompromising behaviour as toughness. Toughness is equated to manliness. Never mind the ways that women go about winning, or Ellyse Perry bowling through a World Cup final with a broken foot, or biological theories that women are better able to manage pain. Most aspects of sporting endeavour - competitiveness, anger, determination, endurance - are seen as expressions of male primacy. But what were the practical arguments for sledging when the Black Caps' surge to the final had been marked by courtesy? The one hand was Grant Elliott's, outstretched to a prostrate Dale Steyn, the other hand was Haddin's, clapping with its fellow in a beaten Martin Guptill's face. Australia won, but nothing suggested their unsociable demeanour was a factor.

Daniel Brettig's Whitewash to Whitewash measures Australia's slump between the home Ashes wins of 2006-07 and 2013-14. Central was their spiteful 2008 Test against India in Sydney. Expecting to be praised for winning a thriller, there was instead a public backlash that left the team stunned, led by Peter Roebuck's foray onto the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald to excoriate their on-field gracelessness. Wary in the aftermath, players became more circumspect. They also became less successful.

By their 2013 tour of England, stocks in both departments were abject. Once the team's carefree boy-child, Clarke grew grumpier by the day. Two winning positions were rained into draws and one was a fifth-day loss. With their underdog status and a thrashing at Lord's, Clarke had to grit his teeth and appear gracious en route to a 3-0 loss that never deserved the margin. It was a pride-swallowing tour de force: even the punchy David Warner, locally seen as the nasty troll who tried to eat poor woodland elf Joe Root, had to smile and contritely bear English jibes at press conferences and from grandstands.

Being a pretty boy is a crime that only truckloads of runs can absolve

Being a pretty boy is a crime that only truckloads of runs can absolve © Cricket Australia

Three months later everything changed. In England the team had lacked bowling, but when Mitchell Johnson trampolined the ball off a Brisbane pitch at Jonathan Trott, Clarke finally had a weapon. By day three Warner spoke with relish of English batsmen with "scared eyes". Last rites came at the end of day four: an apocalyptic hailstorm before James Anderson and the stump microphone both heard Clarke's signature line. "Get ready for a broken ****en arm," came the snarl, and the Captain Grumpy transition was complete: not just a response to losing, but taking the attitude with him as he rode to ascendancy. His building anger was allowed to spill, tinged with revenge, salted with relief, dyed a delicate red by the righteous rush of vengeance.

Clarke was responding to years of emasculation. In male sport, losing means a lack of potency. The Australian team, so accustomed to power, had been unmanned. Sledging wasn't a cause of success, it was a consequence, but when winning allowed that unpleasantness to return, the unpleasantness seemed bound up in the winning. We know the gulf between causation and correlation, but we also know the lure of an obvious pattern. From that moment you felt Clarke reconnecting with something lost.

He was looking back to Steve Waugh's era, the end point of emergence from a previous slump to become the world's best, and vowing to spare nothing to stay there. "Mental disintegration" was the mantra; the on-field hostility of Waugh's team showed their commitment to it. Even Matthew Hayden, unusual in Australian circles for piously crossing himself after each century, would stand at gully, praying for the strength to hurl six more hours of abuse at visiting batsmen.

Real men cop a bouncer without flinching. Real men don't flounce about congratulating their opponents. Real men don't have opponents, only enemies

Johnson was looking back too. Or more appropriately, he was providing the means for everyone else to look back, a human View-Master packed with a reel of burnished brown-gold 1970s film. As he ploughed through the summer it became a throwback tour: a thunderbolt bowler with a handlebar moustache terrorising hapless Poms. It wasn't just nostalgia, it was retro-kitsch: Johnson, a more fragile soul than the likes of Jeff Thomson, playing dress-ups as the nasty enforcer. The connection was powerful nonetheless, given that the '70s and edited highlights of the '80s form the high point of Australia's cricket memory. However much we admire the dominance of Bradman's era or the spirit and flair of Benaud's, Ian Chappell's age is where the nostalgic heart resides, the soft-fondant centre of our game's sporting myth. Bradman was sober and fastidious, Benaud's refinement made him an unlikely man of the people. Only after their careers did Australian cricket become inextricable from intense notions of masculinity.

This age was defined by West Indies pace attacks and the men who stood up to them. The game became one of physical brutality and instinctive bravery. Images of batsmen's bodies laced with bruises are imprinted on our minds. Chappell stood as though blasted from primordial rock, staring down Michael Holding, Kerry Packer and Bradman himself. Dennis Lillee and Thomson were wicked of arm and spiteful of temperament, Thomson publicly lusting for carnage, Lillee raging ungently through each game. There was a physicality so visceral it hinted at the sexual: shirts draped open, dense moustaches and sweaty brows, long hair and headbands, gold medallions laid on chest thatch like a novelty jeweller's display, dressing-room photos of barely dressed players lounging insolently and heedless of the camera. There was Rod Marsh crouching like an angry wombat behind the stumps. Doug Walters and Terry Jenner playing cards and sucking down cigarettes like old war vets at an RSL. Then came Allan Border, topping even Ian Chappell in the hard-bastard stakes, and David Boon, as likely to retreat as a household brick. We had Dean Jones nearly dying in the Madras heat, and Steve Waugh who would one day break a guy's leg with his face. These were Real MenTM, and their success was slated home to the designation.

Manliness 101: sideburns, moustaches and carefree nudity

Manliness 101: sideburns, moustaches and carefree nudity © Fairfax Media/Getty Images

Of course, even the hardest bloke enjoys a beer at the end of the day. Right, men? Sure, in some countries beer is a soft drink, and it is amusing how many cultures claim distinction on the basis of liking booze. But the amber fluid is the quintessential accessory of designated Australian manhood. It is hard to look at cricketing lore and escape it. Not so much in the early days, though Warwick Armstrong downed double whiskies before batting to assuage his malaria. But the '70s seemed all about carting eskies full of tins and watermelons full of spirits down to the ground, cricket enthusiastically adopted as a pretext for slamming beers, in the broader social context of drinking games, skolling songs, bragging rights and bloke slogans like "Eating is cheating!"

The players of the day were famous drinkers: interviews were held in pubs, Walters' best performances came after 5am finishes in the hotel bar, and Marsh started the boozing competition on international flights that would soon see Boon notch his most famous fifty. I would bet Walters a fiver that more Australians know this than any other cricket story; certainly more could tell you Boon's tally than the result of the series he went on to play. Even Geoff Lawson, the teetotal scorekeeper, can only pretend to be reproving. "David Boon did not drink 52 beers," he sternly told Robert Craddock in a TV interview. Then a pause and a grin. "It was 57, and I should know." He went on to speculate what an auction might fetch had he kept the sick bag with the tally written on it. Probably more than a Bradman baggy green.

This is the history Shane Warne wanted to connect with in his ill-fated post-match interviews at the World Cup final this year. "The boys are thirsty, they seem," was his standout line, every question on theme as Warne played stubborn detective on the trail of just how much piss these boys were gonna cut. Here was a man who hadn't fitted the beer-guzzling culture when he started as a player, but now needed to flag his understanding of it as something that men do. Except, victory celebrations aside, that culture couldn't be much further removed from modern professional cricket. Andrew Symonds' taste for drink ahead of team meetings was barely notable by Walters' standards, but it was enough to earn the sack in 2009.

However much we admire the dominance of Bradman's era or the spirit and flair of Benaud's, Ian Chappell's age is where the nostalgic heart resides

This is the big factor in why that previous era is so loved: because the players were so damn relatable. Hard drinking meant they were everymen, while also proving their virility by macho standards. The same goes for smoking and gambling: Jenner's cards, Mark Waugh's transistor tuned to the greyhounds. Walters is the holy trinity: he leaves his deck of smokes, puts down his cards, shakes off the 15 beers from the night before, and walks to the middle to crack a century in a session. Aside from the talent, something about this says to every average punter that this player could have been you.

Even more so for the slightly fatter player: consider the love for Merv Hughes, for Boon, for tubby Warne ahead of modern SlimFast Warne, even for peripheral players like the "Fat Cat" Greg Ritchie or Paul "Blocker" Wilson. Real men. Again, you can see the modern shift: the burly Mark Cosgrove had 10,000 first-class runs by 30 years of age but has barely been a fringe candidate for national duties. Back then, a physique a little closer to spectator than athlete needn't keep you from the game. Not that the above were truly fat, but their frames hinted at a future for those other than supermen. Deep down they all made us feel like we could have done something like this, or at least that our mate from the pub team who once carted four in a row onto the WJ Cox Oval dressing-room roof could have done it. If we squinted, the big time wasn't so far away.

"The world has moved on," as Stephen King's gunslinger from The Dark Tower series so often says, but Darren Lehmann represented a reassuring return to old comforts when appointed coach in 2013. It's partly illusion - Lehmann's playing days aren't that far behind us - but he's far more a product of 1987, the year of his first state game, than 2007 when he played his last. Another of those portly types, he was a masterful first-class player limited to 27 Tests. As coach he's a noted plain speaker, goes universally by the blokey nickname of "Boof", and has brought an attitude to alcohol best described as enthusiastic.

The two B's: Under Boof, beer is now more than ever the lubricant of the Australian cricket machine

The two B's: Under Boof, beer is now more than ever the lubricant of the Australian cricket machine © Getty Images

That's not enthusiastic by Walters' standards, but Lehmann has made a point of stating that problems are now sorted out over a beer. Team bonds are glued by a couple of beers. Players are swilled from psychological dead ends by a chat and a beer. Back to beers after the game to celebrate or commiserate. Beers at team meetings, beers on the bus, beers in the nets, beers at short leg. Ice baths with a few frosty stubbies bobbing about. Pub cricketers the nation over feel better about their standard, and it has emphasised a move back to professional cricketers being normal people. The anti-alcohol focus in Australian Rules football is fetishistic, players suspended by clubs and outed in the media like deviants for drinking a half-pint of beer a week before a game. Lehmann's approach takes that edge out of high-level sport, while reinforcing a culture in which men are men and beer is a way that men get things done.

In a culture so focused on real men, of course there are those deemed not to make the grade. I wrote recently about the cultural construction of the "pretty boy", born of a grim psychology where prettiness is feminine and femininity is weak. It's possible to deflect the designation: Brett Lee was a pretty boy but backed it up with 150kph bowling, a long straight drive and a willingness to wear bouncers for the cause, while Steven Smith and Clarke crushed the appellation with weight of runs.

But supposed underachievement opens up Shane Watson to all kinds of unrelated abuse around preening, self-absorption, toughness and its absence, and even as the world's top-ranked ODI bowler, Nathan Bracken's style was not sufficiently muscular to redeem his flouncy locks and fancy headbands. (Not like Lillee's headbands, you understand. Those were man-bands.) It's not that being a pretty boy means you can't play. It's just that when you play badly that's the first thing to be blamed.

David Gower would have been spat out in a chewed-up mash had he played for Australia. The look awakes something savage in competitors

Kim Hughes never stood a chance. A man named Kimberley doesn't start ahead of the game, but blond curls and delicate features finished it. David Gower would have been spat out in a chewed-up mash had he played for Australia. The look awakes something savage in competitors who see ruggedness and plainness as authentic and deserving. It's especially bad when the pretty boy gets ahead: when Kim Hughes was appointed national captain over Marsh, the team environment devolved into the petty brutality of a primary school lunch break.

Here was a man whose unbeaten century among some signature West Indies destruction at the MCG prompted Benaud to declare, "You'll see a lot of hundreds in Test cricket, but you won't see too many gutsier ones than that." Yet for years Kim Hughes was associated with weakness because he became teary when resigning from one of the hardest tenures in Australian captaincy.

How many of us have been overcome while speaking? A farewell, a wedding, a break-up or confession, and suddenly your bottom lip seizes, your voice wavers, hot pinpricks stab the corners of your eyes. Sometimes you gulp a deep breath and heave over the obstruction, sometimes it catches your ankle and tips you into the ditch. Admitting failure is hard: so much harder in the glare of public scrutiny, to a room of men who've grown fat on your demise.

In November 2014, archaic staunchness gave way. With the death of Kim's young namesake Phillip Hughes, men of all ages and backgrounds shed tears. Cricket fan Gavin Ford wrote to me on Twitter, "I'm a husk today for someone I never met and it's hard to fathom why." The sentiment was broadly reflected. And so after all those years, given the unprecedented task of being media spokesman at such a time, an Australian captain was allowed to cry.

It took a tragedy to make softness legit - for a brief while - in Australian cricket

It took a tragedy to make softness legit - for a brief while - in Australian cricket © Getty Images

Clarke was too drained while reading a statement shortly after Hughes' death to display much emotion: he kept his head down, pushing through the words in monotone. But during his excellent eulogy some days later, Clarke freely spoke through tears, even if he had to open with a nod to manly tradition by saying that his friend would "definitely be calling me a sook right now".

In this time of reassessment Clarke spoke of the spirit of cricket and the need to guard it. The idea that this might mean a gentler approach did not last. Early in the Adelaide Test after the funeral, Australia's players rushed anxiously to Virat Kohli when he was hit on the helmet by a bouncer. After that, aided by Kohli's own spikiness through the series, normal hostilities resumed. By the World Cup we were comfortably back to that old standard: Australian players are ruthless because they're manly and that's what men do.

In a two-year period, Australian cricket's varied issues around masculinity have paraded past us like a sociological sushi train. Real men have a moustache. Real men drink 50 beers. Real men cop a bouncer without flinching. Real men don't flounce about congratulating their opponents. Real men don't have opponents, only enemies. It's mostly pretty funny, and it even sounds like fun some of the time, but being a real man is also boringly full of things you're forbidden to do.

Masculinity is a performance, and all of us put it on - just listen for the voices deepening and accents broadening as groups gather in the pub, or the tonal refit when your friend gets on the phone to a mechanic. Ask how many of my emails included the word "mate" before I worked in sport. Look at the arcane awfulness of a buck's night, when you realise that probably no one in the room wants to do what all of you are doing.

That's not to say there are no innately masculine traits, or that there's necessarily anything wrong with their existence. But it's useful to be aware of how social constructions are built. We fetishise our past to define what it means to be a man in our present. In wanting to be men, and validated as men by others, we so often adopt a cardboard cut-out masculinity, a hack performance of a hammed-up character. No man is quite that two-dimensional, but in company we're all liable to become Super Mario. Come to think of it, that guy looks a lot like David Boon.

Geoff Lemon is an Australian writer, radio broadcaster, and editor of Going Down Swinging

 

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