Editors Note: Mike Atherton’s deeply moving yet honest article in the Australia about the high cost of the fall from grace for the Australian Cricket Captain called “Smith’s tears a jolt to senses for every father” is reprinted here as a salient reminder to all fathers that our our children take more notice of our actions than our words.
The Australian 12:00AM March 31, 2018
There was something deeply moving about Peter Smith, standing there at his son’s back. The father of the former Australian captain, Steve, wasn’t going to let his boy face the music alone after landing at Sydney airport. He stood behind him, supportive but in the shadows, and when the tears came, he moved gently to put his hand on his son’s shoulder. Then he moved away again, when it was clear his son wanted to try to finish what he needed to say.
Smith junior had just about been holding things together until the question came about the kids. He apologised to them first of all, and then moved on to explain how they should think about the consequences of actions upon family members and, half turning to his father, he said: “to see the way my old man has been….” And then the tears came. Floods of them, before his father helped usher him away.
It was a difficult watch, even, one assumes, for those who have taken apparent glee in the downfall of an Australian team and an Australian sporting hero. The contrast with a few days before, when in the immediate aftermath of the Test in Cape Town, Smith had not recognised the apparent seriousness of the situation and talked of continuing in the job as if nothing had happened, could not have been clearer. After hubris comes the fall.
Almost every sporting hero owes a debt to his or her parents, whether through genetics or, more significantly, opportunity, time and resources, and to read Smith’s recently published autobiography The Journey, is to recognise the extent of that debt in this particular case.
Leaving his job at 4.30 most afternoons, Peter would travel home and then throw balls in the back garden or the cricket club, finding crafty ways to test his son’s reflexes by spinning the ball this way and that.
This was a daily ritual that lasted until 16, when Steve passed on into the system, although the link was never broken — his father was seen giving his son ‘throw downs’ recently ahead of the South African series. That dedication helped produced an Australian batsman who has better Test figures than anyone else bar Don Bradman, although no one is talking about that at the moment. To read the book is to recognise the best kind of parental support, giving, supporting, challenging but never exploitative. But a parent’s job is never done: Peter will have to support his boy again in these most difficult days to come.
In those hours in the back garden, Steve would never have thought about leadership, or decision-making, or the responsibility a captain has for his team and the game beyond; or the puzzling relationship Australia has with its sporting heroes; or the game’s ethics; or how something that has gone on since the game began and, in professional times, has been widely practised, could end in such a mess.
Rather the simple joy of hitting ball on bat was all that mattered and in the recovery to come, it may matter more than ever before.
Those who know Smith say that cricket is all that has mattered throughout his short, sweet life and maybe there is a lesson there. An Australian journalist I know well was sent to interview Smith for a lengthy magazine piece some time ago but beyond talk of cricket there was nothing he could latch on to make the piece more rounded, more human. Cricket has been the be all and end all of his life, to the exclusion of everything else. It is easy, in those circumstances, to lose sight of what matters and of the fundamental point that sport is important only because it is not.
There are many others who have lost this sense of perspective, too, in recent days. To watch Smith being bundled through the airport by minders was to think of someone accused of criminal behaviour rather than a sportsman who had made a (big) mistake. To see the sewer of social media rising in waves of indignation, swaying this way and that, changing opinion on the wind at every unverified fact, was to recognise something deeply unpleasant in human nature. Yes, these Australian cricketers messed up big time; yes, they had it coming, but the reaction has been beyond the pale.
More than 30 years ago, another Australian captain, blond and youthful, departed the scene in tears. Kim Hughes stepped down in 1984 and was unable to finish his prepared text, but it was nowhere near as hard a watch as Smith’s mea culpa. This was because Hughes stepped down for cricketing reasons, unable to cope with the pressure of the job, the results, and the sniping of elders.
Smith did not just look beaten, but utterly broken by his failure to measure up to the task. Not just broken, but bewildered, too. There was one moment when he referred to himself as the Australian captain still.
“I take responsibility. I am captain of the Australian team,” he said. Not any more, and not ever again. At least, in time, cricket can return to being a simple game for him: bat on ball, runs to be scored, decisions left to someone else.
The closest to Smith’s breakdown that I have seen was when Hansie Cronje fell apart during the King Commission, after being revealed as a match fixer. This was sadness of a devastating kind, too. Of course, Smith’s transgression cannot be considered in the same parish as Cronje’s — not in the same universe, even — and in that gulf between the nature of the offence, and the level of the outrage, there are questions to be answered, too.