We didn’t need to get to the end of that episode, let alone seven seasons, to understand that the statement was ironic. What you are doing is not okay. You are not okay, not by a long stretch, and creating advertisements can never whitewash your soul. Does Smith have the facility to grasp the irony in what he has done?
Let’s acknowledge from the start that Steve Smith didn’t need to advertise guts. The bravery of elite cricketers is too often taken for granted. To face 150km/h bowling requires a courage that is only partially disguised by skill. To do so in public is even more gutsy. To do so after seeing Phillip Hughes die adds another layer of physical courage. We admire these people and lionise some, such as Smith, because of their guts.
There are many, many more unanswered questions about the evolution of a culture of cheating within the Australian team.
To put up with all the scrutiny is a deal that only a gutsy person would cut. Cricketers with less guts just don’t make it that far. And to come back from the shame Smith has suffered, while not an act of courage in itself, requires fortitude. Playing for his club, signing autographs and conducting himself courteously, participating in Worland’s mental health outreach program, are all ways in which Smith has sought reconciliation. He didn’t have to advertise gutsy.
Smith has been criticised for receiving payment for the ad. On Friday he said he would be putting some unspecified funds towards Worland’s work. The question of payment is moot. Has he sold out because he pocketed $200,000, or $150,000, or $50? It’s not about the money. The essence of charity is not whether the charitable organisation ends up with funds (no matter how grateful the organisation).
The essence of charity is giving without taking anything in return. There is no quid pro quo, no image rehabilitation, in real charity. Smith would probably have been better off leaving the charity out of this, and going on giving time and money privately. Then he could not have been accused of the hypocrisy of twining together acts of giving, acts of image-making, and acts of commerce.
The real problem with a paid advertisement for Gutsy is that it begs too many questions. It’s like a good person giving themselves an award: we stop praising their qualities and ask what it is they are trying to hide. Advertising turns a virtue into its opposite. Once you advertise your goodness, the audience’s disposition changes from appreciating the guts that were quietly shown to questioning the times where they were not.
Gutsy? Perhaps guts might be shown by answering more questions than the two or three that were allowed during Friday’s press conference. There are many, many more unanswered questions about the evolution of a culture of cheating within the Australian team before the Cape Town Test match in March 2018. Smith batted these away, implying that he was an innocent man who woke up one day and became a criminal – and, by inference, throwing David Warner and Cameron Bancroft under that bus one more time.
“I don’t want to know about it,” was what Smith recollects saying when he knew about the sandpaper.
Smith stated that this was the first time he had been aware of sandpapering the ball, but for how long had he not been wanting to know as the Australian team crept closer and closer to their self-defined ‘line’? And what is Warner’s understanding of his captain’s involvement, not just that day but over time? Does Smith still maintain, for instance, that he was not seeking unfair advantage by looking to the dressing room for advice on a DRS review in India last year?
It would take real guts from Smith to address these and similar questions honestly and extensively, in public view. Is there a demand for it? Many cricket fans are sick of the whole thing and want to put it behind them. Forgive and forget. Others want to forgive, but only after there has been a full accounting, a cricketing truth and reconciliation commission, without which they cannot fully embrace a returning Smith and Warner.
I thought that Smith, Warner and Bancroft were wrongly isolated, wrongly cast out as if those three and that afternoon was the first time anything unlawful had happened; but also that their isolation and even the extent of their punishment could have been lifted in exchange for open and honest answers to independent questions about how deep and long-running cheating had been in Australian cricket – not just in the Test team but throughout the game, in the past as well as the present. But nobody in the hierarchy was prepared to take that risk, so Smith, Warner and Bancroft had to carry the shame on their own. Gutsy did call, but Cricket Australia did not pick up.
The new element to this, which has made the timing of Smith’s television ad as unfortunate as its composition, is Tim Paine’s performance as Australian captain. Slowly and humbly, the Australian team is clawing its way back towards the public’s affections, and Paine is its face. Few doubted his leadership potential, but the weight of captaincy, wicketkeeping and batting, which had been deemed too much for predecessors as gifted as Adam Gilchrist and Rod Marsh, was a worry.
Paine has not only succeeded but thrived. He has reanimated the respect for the (c), and he has done so naturally, without acting like a saint. His actions paint a vivid contrast against a confession manufactured for a television advertisement for a phone company. One is real, and happening on the live theatre of cricket fields where so many have failed, and the other is scripted drama.
Paine is not only doing an outstanding job, he is reinventing that job as he goes. He is elevating the standard required of the captain to a far higher level than in Smith’s time. Here’s a question: can we imagine Paine allying with a phone company to promote their combined moral virtues?
So much lies ahead of Smith, as well as scoring first-class runs again, and pushing someone else out of the team. Should Paine’s XI continue their revival towards a remarkable success against the world’s number one team, it would feel like the most brutal injustice for any of those humble heroes to make way.
Most of us wish him well, but Smith has a lot ahead. This Australian team is improving without him, and he and his mates will need to catch up, not ride in on white horses and save them. From his current actions, it seems that there is a genuine willingness for redemption mixed with a crippling narrowness of mind. It was never poor character that was the issue; it was always that naivety and narrowness, that inability to see beyond the immediate horizon. An England tour awaits. So much is yet to be confronted. Gutsy? No, gutsy hasn’t called yet. Gutsy hasn’t even dialled the number.
Malcolm Knox is a sports columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald.