At 4:45pm on a Friday, James Sutherland rubbed his weary eyes and slunk deep into his leather chair. For a fleeting moment, Cricket Australia’s CEO fantasised what life would be like out of the media spotlight, should he have stuck with life as a well-paid chartered accountant.
Sure, his past career had taught him the financial implications of decision-making – confidence in numbers was never something he lacked. However, heading up Australian cricket’s peak body was a lot different to crunching digits at Ernst & Young. Here numbers were only half the battle – and no CA program could prepare you for something like this. For without warning, two tectonic plates had crashed together, violently – and the fault-line was already splintering its way through the national side.
Sutherland sighed, poured himself a stiff drink. Eight years in the job – and fuck me, things aren’t getting any easier!
By now, The Choke was no secret, having been leaked to the public weeks earlier. And it was up to the statesman-like Sutherland to assure a worried Australian public that everything was ok. Slapping the duo with an arbitrary fine was pointless – these blokes are loaded, I’ve seen the bloody books! – he knew it had to be settled in-house. He knew he had to get the blokes in the office, talk it out, calm the pending storm.
He’d organise an 8:00am meeting for tomorrow at Cricket Australia’s Jolimont headquarters. It’d just be the three of them, and they’d settle the differences there and then. No dramas, he told himself. Be good to nip this one in the bud.
Knocking back a final swig of Johnny Walker Blue Label, Sutherland wiped his lips and made for the door. Tomorrow would be an interesting day.
* * * * * * *
Just remember, they don’t have to be mates; they just need to get on, Sutherland thought to himself, hands in pockets, peering through his office window at the two players who were making their way out of the car-park – Pup in his flashy Aston Martin, Kat in his everyman Commodore.
The meeting had been awkward, but necessary. Clarke, a nervy, excitable type, did most of the talking; Katich stood resolute, brooding, offering the occasional grunt. Sutherland played mediator, insisting on a truce “for the good of the team; for the good of the country.” And to their credit, both parties had agreed to drop the issue and shake hands, pledging to cease the hostilities and “just get on with things.”
After all, success was what mattered most; personal differences aside, each were bound by the Baggy Green.
* * * * * * *
A believer in fiscally conservative government and free market enterprise, Sutherland was also a stoic realist. If the CA chief knew anything, it was that the non-confrontational, tactical nature of the sport lent itself to occasional flare-ups of the tongue, dressing-room disagreements and long-held grudges. As a former Victorian fast bowler, he’d seen it first-hand. Unlike rugby league – where ‘mateship’ is forged through the selfless exchange of blood, sweat and tears – cricketers could stand beside each other in the slips cordon for years and still never really know each other.
God, ‘mateship’. What does that even ‘mean’?
Since that meeting several weeks earlier, Kat and Pup had become colleagues, no longer blood brothers. They would ride the emotional Test Match rollercoaster on individual terms and share in its aftermath, the glorious, beer-soaked ecstasy, separately. Now they were simply fellow employees of an organisation – the Australian cricket team.
Katich, the less gregarious of the two, had since harnessed all his energy into scoring runs, consolidating the top of the order in a post-Hayden/Langer era. He had become the solitary, clock-punching office worker, silently plowing his trade while the flashier around him garner the headlines. Just going about the job; just getting it done.
Clarke, meanwhile, continued his rapid ascent to the throne. His star was brightening; he was hitting runs on the field and impressing onlookers off the field. Journalists were writing favourable columns about The Next Australian Captain.
It was becoming apparent who was the least dispensable.
* * * * * * *
As the weeks dragged on, Sutherland had a sixth sense that things were not right. With trepidation, he turned to his insiders, who told him that while things looked to have simmered down, yawning cracks were developing below the surface.
Since the first ball was bowled back in 1877, Australian cricket had survived on hierarchy, a trickle-down system based on an inherent respect for experience. But The Choke had challenged all of that, and more. Now in one corner sat the young brigade – Johnson, Clarke, Siddle and Hughes – and on the other, the wily, battle-hardened veterans. It was an unspoken animosity – and it was yet to rear its head in the form of physical or verbal confrontation. The players still celebrated together, still shared the spoils of victory. But it was there, it was apparent.
And it was irreversible.
By now the 2009 Ashes series was now just a month away. Sutherland prayed that on-field success would bring the team closer together. He’d hate to have to revisit this chapter again.
By Dave Edwards