The Guardian cricket writer and podcaster Geoff Lemon tells The CEO Magazine about his book Steve Smith's Men, which recently won two of cricket literature's most revered accolades.
His prize-winner comes with the wry addition of a piece of sandpaper on the cover and its contents, while wide-ranging, orbit around the use of that material to tamper with the ball in the Cape Town Test, triggering mass outrage, resignations, suspensions and two major reviews of Australia’s cricket culture.
While there has been no shortage of soul-searching and chin-stroking about the incident, Lemon’s account stands out as ambitious and learned, covering the preceding ill-tempered Tests as well as the false dawn of Australia’s one-sided Ashes win. It’s told with elegant but unstuffy prose, tart humour and an unerring knack for the kind of inspired similies Ray Robinson made into an art form.
One footnote to this conversation: on the same day Lemon spoke to The CEO Magazine, the Christian Ryan book he recommended was the surprise choice asWisden Cricket Monthly‘s ‘best cricket book ever’. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Congratulations to @GeoffLemonSport 👏
📖 He was named winner of the 2019 Cricket Society & MCC book of the year award for his book, Steve Smith’s Men: Behind Australian Cricket’s Fall.#LoveLords
— Lord's Cricket Ground (@HomeOfCricket) April 17, 2019
The CEO Magazine: You initially set out to write a more general account of the Ashes and South Africa tours; how quickly did you pivot to having the Cape Town ball-tampering incident as its narrative backbone?
Geoff Lemon: Probably on day three at Cape Town! (laughs) The initial book wouldn’t have been that interesting, it would have been a good news story, like ‘Yay! Australia are champions, blah blah blah!’. It might not have been all that fascinating unless you were an Australian team diehard.
But I wanted to hold off (on writing it) until after the South African tour because that became an important part of the narrative timeline. In 2013/14, Australia had the whitewash in the Ashes and then they went to South Africa and that reinforced how well they played at home that they were able to carry on that form away. I thought if Australia went to South Africa and lose badly, that would really temper what they had done in the home summer. It was a matter of wanting to wait until we’d seen the full story, basically.
When that tour was as bad-tempered as it was and everything blew up, it was very immediately apparent that was the story. Looking back, we could see that things were building up to that point for a long time. So, then it became about digging into why that happened and how far back the various chains of cause and effect went.
Reading this book and other accounts of the tour, it seems almost inevitable that a flashpoint like Cape Town would occur. Did it feel like that at the time or is that looking at events with the benefit of hindsight?
Weirdly enough, just before the third Test (the touring journalists) felt Australia were probably done for the tour. There had been so much stuff already; all the conflict in the first Test with Durban, where David Warner and Quentin de Kock almost had a physical altercation. Then, Kagiso Rabada crashed into Steve Smith in the second Test and managed to get his ban overturned between matches.
There had been so much emotional back and forth already, we thought they might have run out of steam and things might be about to settle down. That was not the case.
Above: Author Geoff Lemon
In terms of your prose style, do you feel like your poetry (Note: his poetry collection Sunblind was published in 2008) and non-fiction writing are separate entities or is there crossover?
I think there is always crossover because poetry is just about making the most efficient and condensed version of what you want to say. It can be about showing a new perspective on a familiar topic so you can apply that to non-fiction. It’s ultimately about trying to evoke a feeling in the reader. There are certainly opportunities to do that in terms of being descriptive.
A lot of what I was trying to do in the book is to give people a sense of what it was like to be there in the room at the time. There were some famous images around the press conferences on that tour and so on, so I wanted to talk about what we were reading from the faces and the body language of those involved. It can be useful to have a few different disciplines to be able to call on to most strongly put across the feeling of being there.
As a cricket writer, are you still able to watch the sport with a fan’s mindset or do you find you’re always analysing a match even when you’re not reporting on it?
It’s a bit difficult to shake off. It’s the mixed blessing of doing something you love for work. People who don’t do it always have the idea that it’s a whole lot of fun all the time. You get to do something that for them is recreation, as a job. Sometimes it pans out that way but it does also mean that you can’t enjoy that thing in its own right.
That part of my brain is always whirring away, filing things for later or asking little questions like: ‘How often does this thing happen?’. That’s part of the fun; I do enjoy being a stats nerd and having obscure lists of things in Excel spreadsheets that I can go and update.
I think the book has the best, most nuanced writing about David Warner I’ve read. How much did you benefit from sitting down with him and being around him on tour?
It certainly helps, particularly starting in 2013, as I did. When I started, he was suspended for the first couple of Tests for punching Joe Root and he came back during that series and was put up for press conferences quite often. So, we had a fair bit to do with him and saw he how he interacted with media and other people and the way he acted in social occasions. It’s not that I would say I know him particularly well at all. I only have a partial impression of him, but it’s enough to make it obvious to me that there are more complexities at work than people give him credit for.
People often want the most simplistic version of events because that makes life easier. It takes mental energy and effort to deal with nuance. Anything that you can do to make your psychological workload less, it’s normally welcomed by people as a way to cope with having to process so much information. At the same time though, that is not a helpful impulse in terms of understanding anything accurately. A lot of what I do in my writing is to try to challenge people to think more deeply about the subject and appreciate the nuance that exists in any situation.
You write about (Steve Smith’s replacement as captain) Tim Paine having an innate decency. How do you see his leadership a year or so on?
There is such a history in Australian cricket of people promoting this idea that bastardry is the way to go, that being a prick on the cricket field is effective and almost a moral obligation to win. That is a completely false idea but one that people sign up to enthusiastically.
I thought there would be pressure on (Paine) to play with an aggressive, abrasive approach if Australia don’t win. So, the fact that they lost the home Test series against India doesn’t help. They’ve bounced back a bit in the one-day format.
Basically, if they have a bad English summer in the World Cup and the Ashes, you will very quickly see a lot of regression from former players. If he is captaining the side and talking about decency and respecting the opposition and winning, they will leave him alone. But if he doesn’t, you will have former players saying: ‘Oh, Australia isn’t tough enough any more’. The same old cliches will be run out.
If he is losing, they will blame his approach rather than blaming the fact that other teams are better at cricket.
Do you have a cricket book that you admire but you think is an under the radar gem?
I think Christian Ryan’s Golden Boy is the most beautifully written book. He’s not underrated exactly, he’s very well appreciated in the cricket writing community, but he’s not necessarily read as broadly as he should be. His long piece on Jeff Thomson bowling in grade cricket in the 1970s is the best piece of cricket writing I’ve ever read.
(Author photo and cover image courtesy of Hardie Grant Publishing)