Last month in Cape Town, in a match against South Africa, the Australian Mens Test Cricket Team cheated. On the field of play, a junior player used sandpaper to change the condition of the ball. The vice-captain instructed the junior player to do so while the captain turned a blind eye.

The Australians found themselves behind in the fourth game of the five game series. But the Australians were two games to one up in the series and by all accounts considered their bowling attack to be the best in the world. What a shock then it must have been for those bowlers to see, on the big screen along with all those that follow this game, the ball being doctored for them. If they thought that they were good enough, their leaders didn’t think so. In fact they must have considered them to be so unlikely to be good enough that they opted to cheat. The decision to cheat implies that the leaders of this team had no faith in the bowlers that destroyed England months earlier and had won the first two games of this series. They opted to break the rules with seemingly no regard for the consequences of undermining their bowlers and inevitably being caught. Those consequences were dire. All three players have been banned from playing top level cricket for an extraordinary length of time and the coach has resigned.

So, what were they thinking!? I have no idea but I have an interest in identifying the forces that make good people make bad decisions. Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior is a book that might be useful to Cricket Australia as it embarks on a review of the culture within the team that may have influenced the actions of the players. It raises a few points that all decision makers should be aware of.

The pain of losing is a much stronger feeling than the joy of winning.

When faced with the prospect of losing, we will act to avoid it. And the more we have to lose, the more irrationally we will tend to act in avoiding that loss. The Australians must have felt they had a lot to lose. I wonder if other teams in the same predicament would have felt as scared of losing as the Australians did at that moment. They were two games to one up in a five game series. I am not sure if any other team would consider this situation to be as desperate as the Australians must have.

We like ideas from people like us or people we like.

The Australian coach was an ex-Australian test cricketer from the days when the Australian team was even more dominant, won everything and the ‘mental disintegration’ of the opposition was a stated aim. He was brought in to replace a coach that was not Australian and had never played test cricket. That coach was dismissed after he stood four players down for a game. He had asked all players for written feedback on how they felt the team could improve and four players did not bother to do it. The task was publicly deemed as inane by many ex-Australian players and the coach was shown the door for one of their own – someone who understood that winning now is more important than winning later.

Most of us feel that a sense of fairness is an important part of our decision making process.

But in our insistence for fairness, we sometimes behave unfairly. Tampering with the ball is unfair. But did it require the Australians to cross their line of fair play that they had insisted they would never cross? I am not sure it did. Prior to being caught cheating, playing hard within the spirit of cricket is what the Australians purported to do. They were quick to point out to anyone willing or forced to listen that they would not cross the line to gain an unfair advantage according to the rules and spirit of cricket. They might have ‘headbutted the line’ in abusing and threatening opposing players or inciting crowds to send players home in tears but they would not cross it. The position of their line might have been clear to the Australians but other teams’ efforts to play hard against them were complicated by the Australians complaining when they were abused. Or when they were losing.

Fairness is culturally defined.

Each team will have its own line. As irrational as this seems in the context of an even contest, if a team considers it to be their right to win, it might be that losing is unfair to them. And if losing is unfair, there is no line to cross and all options are on the table to make the contest fair.

Despite the fact that their actions clearly amounted to cheating, the three players implicated in the ball tampering scandal might not have actually crossed the Australian team’s line of fair play. Cricket Australia banned them because they got caught breaking the rules – not because they acted contrary to the the spirit of cricket or the values of Cricket Australia. Cricket Australia’s stated Mission and Values might be worded otherwise but for years leading lead up to this scandal, actions on the field would suggest that Cricket Australia (or at least this Australian team) valued winning above fair play and the spirit of cricket.

Thinking of the bigger picture curbs irrational behavior.

Cricket Australia has announced a culture review. It must have been tough for the three players to listen to recent ex-Australian players (some of whom would have been their heroes) publicly express their shame and disappointment in the actions of the trio. Their actions were shameful and disappointing but were grounded in values that were entrenched in a culture that they had inherited from those that now vilified them.

Crisis is often cause for reflection. Before he resigned, the Australian coach thought that his team could learn a lot from the way New Zealand play their cricket. Ironically, the tragic 2014 death of an Australian batsman on the field played a major part in the development of values that have led to New Zealand’s determined, respectful, and, importantly, winning style of play.

Cricket Australia could follow New Zealand Cricket’s lead but they may be better served by examining New Zealand’s All Blacks’ well documented cultural change. Rugby is to New Zealand what cricket is to Australia. A loss from either of these teams is unacceptable to their respective publics. With all due respect to New Zealand’s cricketers and despite continued good form, their losses are tolerated as long as they give a good account of themselves. Australia’s cricketers are not afforded such leeway.

The All Blacks’ examination of their culture stemmed from their own irrational reaction to a defeat. I have alluded to this cultural change in a previous post and have since read James Kerr’s excellent book, Legacy, that outlines 15 lessons in leadership upon which the All Blacks’ culture thrives. These tenets are summarized by the mantra, ‘Better people make better All Blacks.’ Judging by the results on the field, and results are what the All Blacks are judged upon, better people do make better All Blacks. The defeat that sparked this introspection from the All Blacks happened in 2004. The All Blacks were bundled out of the 2003 Rugby World Cup in the semi-finals and did not even make the semi-finals of the 2007 Rugby World Cup. Incredibly, the coach and captain kept their jobs. Despite the catastrophic failure of 2007, New Zealand Rugby resisted short-term solutions and backed those who believed in the bigger picture to eventually deliver. The All Blacks went on to win the 2011 and 2015 Rugby World Cups. Not many people will be betting against them in 2019. The All Blacks are now in control.

For Australia to regain control of the cricketing world in the long term, they need to change their culture now. Like all teams, sporting or otherwise, they need to paint a bigger picture. They need to paint a bigger picture that the players (and those who they play for) can be proud of, others will aspire to, and removes the fear of losing in playing to win.

Baggy Green