If you can’t feel a pang for Smith personally, at least consider what part this might be playing in the collapse of his form. No offence to the Australian coach, but on those sleepless nights Smith must wish he had someone other to turn to than Justin Langer.
It’s not over yet, not nearly. In Adelaide and Melbourne, the Test squad has been on a looser rein, but will go back into strict quarantine for the Sydney and Brisbane encounters. Then there’s the rest of the BBL season. Then, from mid-February, Australia will divide into two squads, one for a Test series in South Africa, one for one-dayers in New Zealand.
Leaving aside for now the debate about how this cheapens the cap, it is possible that the team for New Zealand will be in a bubble and certain that the party for South Africa – if the series goes ahead – will be in a straitjacket. By then, some players will have been bubble-wrapped for more than six months.
It can’t be healthy either for individual equilibrium or for team harmony. Bonding is one thing, being stuck together another. Years ago, Australia cut down the number of players it took on tours of England because too many fringe players with ebbing hopes and growing frustrations risked disruption.
The Australian hub as it stands right now consists of 18 players. It’s a necessity, made so because COVID-19 protocols make it impossible to bring in replacements at short notice. But it’s the sort of necessity that might easily mother dissension.
The players are not complaining because they know no one will listen. They’re conscious that it’s not as if the rest of us were living high on the hog in 2020. And they hope like us that this is a short-term arrangement. The ACA are biting their tongue because they know there is no alternative right now.
You can say that they don’t have to play IPL. But how many would turn their backs on a million-dollar fee? You can say they don’t have to do it at all if it’s so hard. But would you be happy for, say, Pat Cummins to pack it in now and go home?
You can say that Australia does not have to play so much cricket, but it is a bankable opponent for countries like New Zealand and South Africa, and Australian cricket is conscious of its obligation to be a good cricket citizen.
At heart, it is about heads. Ask almost any administrator a year ago what was the No.1 issue in sport and most likely you would have heard that it was player welfare. In cricket, this is undeniable. It is a game that messes with minds anyway, and carries an ever-present danger to skulls. Will Pucovski has copped both barrels.
Now there is only one item at the top of every agenda. But as cricket makes its accommodation with the pandemic, it will have to accept that it can’t always and for everyone be five-star accommodation behind a cordon sanitaire. It needs to have other resorts. It might mean leading players stand out of not just the occasional match, but series. It will mean sophisticated mental health planning. It will mean understanding.
What most of us missed in 2020 was normality and family. So, believe it or not, do cricketers.
Greg Baum is chief sports columnist and associate editor with The Age.