If you get a moment, it is worth watching some video of Steve Smith’s press conference after Australia lost at Galle.
His team more than lost, it was wiped off the field by Sri Lanka in less than half the allotted time. It was urgent and relentless, a slow-motion avalanche, people running in treacle but without the time to think.
In the presser, Smith looks poleaxed. Stunned. A fortnight ago he had never lost a match as captain, was handed the trophy for the best team in the world, and was probably hopeful that this series would be a formality.
Several times, he seems close to tears. His voice is quiet but not monotone, emotion bubbling through the surface.
You can speak of coddled athletes, or the triviality of sport, but such public humiliation would kick a hole in anyone.
Smith is freshly in the aftermath. He is deeply affected. For me, sitting two metres away, it is a strangely intimate moment.
When you get up close to pro sport, things change. Distance lends the aspect of perfection.
As fans we have our athletes beamed to us via television’s warming glow, we sit in the stands and see them run out onto the crisp green of the arena, and their existence is one elevated far beyond our own.
They take centre stage in a mighty drama, they perform for their people, they are rendered almost holy by the power of mass adoration.
To them, we are amorphous, no more distinct in sound or shape than the ocean breaking on a shore. To us, they are marvellously distinct, burning bright under floodlights, imbued with every quality we could wish for humans to exhibit, inferred wishfully by us thanks to their most minor gesture.
Turn the ideal into the real, and that distance abruptly shrinks to nothing, a rabbit-hole fall that can leave you dizzy.
In Sri Lanka, Australian cricketers scatter their kit by the boundary line like any park equivalent. Pads and gloves dry in the sun. Chris Rogers’ arm guard was the only piece of foul ancient equipment to become famous, but it was only one soldier stepping forward from the deepest ranks of rankness.
Up close, you can see the lines on every face, the crisping of the skin thanks to years of sun. You notice the frayed medical tape, the acne scars, the psoriasis patch on an elbow.
You hear the ordinary chiacking and flat jokes, the manila-folder uniformity of the bloke-heavy environment.
The press conference, before a match or after a day’s play, is mostly for all parties a piece of administrative tedium. It is also occasionally a place where truth quietly manifests.
Your scene: the end of a day at Galle. You are in a dingy room at the fag-end of a stand that does not have much grand about it. The walls are grubby and painted nausea-yellow, the floor is tired ceramic.
A long table by the wall still holds the heat trays from lunch: the odd bit of vegetable has fallen into the hot water to create curry’s homeopathic equivalent, which sits there basting the air with the waft of stale steam.
When the cricketer of the day enters, his spikes clack and echo on the tiles. He sits at a trestle table covered in cheap white cloth. A dozen or so chairs dressed in the same garb are arranged to face it, like a sample slice of a terrible wedding.
None of this is anything against Galle. The richer venues in Australia or England offer corporate conference-room decor, all carpet tiles and grey panelling, equally uninspiring and uninspired. Less wealthy grounds as often as not use their indoor nets.
Wherever it is, the journos scatter a sackful of phones and dictaphones onto the table. The central nest of microphones is a neo-futurist floral arrangement. Rows of cameras on tripods stand behind the chairs as though on guard duty. Deserters will be shot.
The player enters flanked by a media manager, who sets any ground rules and invites a question. One most days there is a pause, a hesitance to break the ice. Then it begins.
At a big event, the room holds dozens. Journos raise hands, fingers, eyebrows. The media manager is orchestral conductor, sign-language interpreter, traffic cop. They communicate with gestures who is now in the queue, what the order will be, when to speak.
On this tour the Australian media contingent numbers eight. The same cadre trailing the team from day to day, match to match. Whichever player is given press duties knows the faces he will see.
This makes it weirder. Sitting in a corner of this room, arrayed opposite a sole cricketer within arm’s reach, we ask questions in a conversation more awkward than any in-laws introduction. Like the newcomer to that scenario, the cricketer searches for the answers least liable to draw trouble.
The amplification is tremendous: within seconds a player’s words will be online, within a day in newspapers, in a year some pop up in books, and in a decade or two the most durable quotes may still be used against their authors.
All of that coming from this drab chamber, this endless hybrid of cafeteria and school multipurpose room, practice facility and church-hall mingle, a spot in Brisbane where you might attend a real-estate seminar, or Galle with all the atmosphere of a 1920s hospital.
Today the player is Smith, clattering into the room while the Sri Lankans are still being handed prizes on the field.
The ice breaks harder on bad days. Not that we are partisan, but because the small gathering makes it personal.
Smith does not have any answers, and it is unreasonable to expect him to. He’s shattered, mouthing words for their own sake.
I wrote yesterday of spin, of how lost Australia’s batsmen have been on this tour. Of Smith’s repeated references to disregarding turn.
“The guys have been working on it in the nets, it’s a tough one,” he says now.
“We haven’t been good enough with it and we have to find ways to cover that ball that doesn’t spin.”
Except he said the same before the match, then was out to a ball that did not spin. As was Usman Khawaja. As was Peter Nevill. As was David Warner. And what are the other batsmen’s names?
“We have to find ways of doing it differently.”
Smith comes back to this a number of times. But when you do not act on a sentence, it becomes a mantra, a burble of syllables to soothe the brain. There is no sense telling yourself to watch the ball if you have your eyes shut.
He tries a find-the-positives exercise: “We came out today and took the game on a little bit — a couple of the guys went over the top, showed a bit of courage, got the field back, sweep shots, reverse sweeps, it unsettles the bowler a little bit.”
A day when Sri Lanka’s spinners laughingly dominated, sensing opportunity in every Australian shot.
When the pushed-back field had three close catchers all day, including the one who got Smith. When paceman Vishwa Fernando did not bowl at all, and Lakshan Sandakan got a charity run because the others spinners were grabbing all the wickets.
“I thought some of the guys’ plans today were pretty good, and the way they executed them was good. It’s just about doing that for longer periods of time,” Smith says.
A day when Australia lost 7 for 129, was bowled out just after lunch, and Smith himself gathered the most runs on the day with 29.
None of this is said to bag Australia’s captain. It is to sympathise with him, a leader stranded without answers.
The internet is rife with people who think they have one: that these players just need guts or commitment or a log-cabin sauna retreat with Allan Border or to airstrike the IPL or DDOS the Twitter servers or some other bluster.
But it is just noise. Chairman of selectors Rod Marsh laid it out before this match. “What else can we do, really? We send them off to India, we send them to other parts of the world where the ball turns, we played Australia A in India last year and they batted well against good spin bowling. But it gets to a Test match…”
Ellipsis, because we do not need the rest. You have long since joined the dots. The truest line amongst Smith’s offerings: “It’s been too long now, 15 or 16 games since we’ve won in the subcontinent, so whatever we’re doing it’s not working.”
It is not. These Australians just do not know how to play here. A few of the past greats were good enough to adapt. Most were not. Even the best suffered many losses. These cricketers are not they.
There are two options: the current players eventually figure out the conditions, or they never will. In the meantime, the chaotic play rolls on. The scorecards act as transcripts. Dramatic failure is at least as compelling as success.
It is easy to get caught up in that intensity. Drama is the reason you watch the show at all.
But from the tawdry comedown of a cluttered lunch room, you sometimes get reminded that the characters are just actors once they get back to the wings. (ABC)