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The spirit of the game applies to business, too

On Sunday morning, 25 March 2018, Australians were jolted into a serious awakening. Overnight, the captain of their favourite national sporting team had openly admitted to premeditated cheating. As multitudes condemned the action, it spoke to the spirit of our nation. Above all, we want to play fair. Better to lose than have winners who cheat. Even the Prime Minister became involved, well aware that a core Australian ethic was at stake.

A few days later, Steve Smith received a one year ban from playing for Australia, and a two year ban from captaining the team again. It was one of the most extraordinary and quickest falls from the sporting summit in Australian history.

The trophy of integrity

The Australian national (men’s) cricket team has often been ranked world number 1, and is the current holder of the World Cup with trophies aplenty in their cabinet. But right now, it is being vilified globally, and even more so in its own country.

The videos of the incidents are hypnotic viewing. Particularly telling is a young man who hides a piece of yellow tape in his pants, and, like a magician, brings out a black handkerchief when asked by the umpires to reveal what’s in his pockets.

When Steve Smith appeared before the media after the day’s play, his psychological distress was visible (watch the 30 seconds from 1.04 to 1.34 in the mea culpa). The nation cringed. He is ranked the number 1 batsman in the world, he has just dominated an Ashes series, he was a national hero but his mental cabinet was dishevelled.

Much is at stake financially as well as morally. Smith is one of CBA’s three ‘cricket ambassadors’ (now withdrawn), and is also sponsored by Sanitarium (makers of Weet-Bix) (now withdrawn). Other sponsors (of the team or the players) include Qantas, Nestle, LG (now withdrawn), Magellan (now withdrawn) and the Nine Network. Broadcast rights are under negotiation with free-to-air and Pay TV providers.

Fortunes can change overnight, but the fall that is crystallised by a loss of integrity is harder to bear, both externally and more crucially, internally.

It may feel good to have tombstones, Euromoney accolades and Morningstar awards in our closet, but the trophy of integrity lies deep inside our mental cabinet. No one can steal it. Not even a dastardly framing that succeeds in getting a person falsely incarcerated can deprive us of this treasure. That’s the way the gods smile on those who imbibe the spirit of fair play when under no obligation by law or the rulebook. Many Australians treasure Adam Gilchrist’s honesty in ‘walking’ despite being given not out at crucial moments. In real life, it can vary from acknowledging the driver who first spotted the empty car spot in a crowded carpark to not playing fast and loose with words in the high-stakes game of business.

The spirit of the game

Smith’s actions, they said, were not only against the laws of the game, but also against the ‘spirit of the game’. Is this a furore amongst cricket aficionados with no relevance to everyday life?

Think again. Cricket’s spirit of the game ethic is supposed to put ‘playing fair’ above ‘winning at all costs’. In 1981, then Australian captain Greg Chappell acted within the laws of the game, but outside the spirit of the game and soon, prime ministers on both sides of the Tasman got into discussions like there was a threat of war. Now the underarm incident is an endearing bit of trans-Tasman history.

No one remembers how many runs Greg Chappell scored that day. No one cares. But a show of character leaves a legacy, as many recall Chappell’s teammate Rod Marsh openly dissenting on the field.

And that battle - playing fair versus winning at all costs - imbues every human endeavour, from politics and family to business and sports.

While the Royal Commission into financial services may seem like a political football, the cries for it to be set up arose because there was already a widespread perception that bankers and advisers do not play by the spirit of the game. The hearings demonstrate that brokers have been selling what’s in their best interest as long as the fine print protects them, that bankers motivated by volume bonuses wrote inappropriate loans, that a man known to a bank as a gambling addict was given three credit cards and a large limit.

In investment banking, I have been both adviser and been advised, and, more than anything else, the one thing I detested was the fee structure in M&A transactions. It was typical to award, to the advisory firm, a fee being a percentage of the value of the transaction only if successful. In an auction situation, the advisory firm could win millions by encouraging the client into paying more to win the asset, but it won zero if the client bid no more than true value and lost to a higher bidder. The fee structure created an Olympian hurdle for integrity in the banker’s mental cabinet to leap over.

When an airline leaves you stranded by departing four hours late, they are under no obligation to compensate you. But giving you a voucher for a $10 free meal while you dawdle at the airport is probably in the spirit of the game, and for 200 passengers, that’s $2,000, peanuts for an airline company anxious to restore faith.

It’s well-nigh impossible to cover every eventuality in a rule book or contract, but more than the 30 cameras around the field, the human eye has an innate ability to detect fair and foul play.

Above all, our mental cabinet

Amidst the cries for retribution, there are already voices concerned about Smith’s mental health. Will he hold up for what’s to follow?

We can easily spare ourselves that sort of mental trauma by not becoming agents of our own undoing, and encourage everyone in our business to do the same.

The balance sheets of our companies and of our own self have an asset called Reputation. That can be unfairly lost. But our mind space can, and should, have a well-guarded trophy called Integrity. Lose that, and life can become hellish.

Over 350 years ago, the immortal wisdom of a blind and impoverished John Milton, writing in Paradise Lost, spoke to that mind space:

“The Mind is its own place, and in itself

Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”


Vinay Kolhatkar is Assistant Editor at Cuffelinks.


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Ian Montgomery

April 10, 2018

the spirit of the game also means the penalties have to be in accordance with the rules.

MIchael E. Pollock

April 02, 2018

It would have been nice for the references to yellow tape and black handkerchief to be explained to Americans such as myself whose knowledge of cricket consists of knowing its creator(s) had the decency not to call it baseball!

Vinay Kolhatkar

July 28, 2018

Thank you for the observation. I believe baseball has had the same type of scandals, including Spitball. But the core message isn't about cricket. It's about cheating knowingly, which affects our internal mental state. Reputation is what others think of us. Integrity is what a person actually has. A corrupted integrity ruins people, and any and every endeavour they are involved in whether sport, business, politics, art or even charity.


March 31, 2018

The great sporting scandal where a cricketer tampers with the ball. Yet hear of regular cases of football players bashing the daylights out of innocent victims and the club turns a blind eye. We feel shame over this incident, but we have guys playing football who have done worse and clubs have no problem allowing them to continue playing.


March 30, 2018

A worldwide wringing of hands over a ball-tampering incident in a "sport" that saw a player killed by a ball to the head - and nothing was done to the rules of the game to disallow bowling to intimidate and injure, rather than bowling at the wicket. "Sport", "Reputation", "Integrity" - really ! Integrity is so scarce throughout society, including business, that I don't usually expect to encounter it and am surprised when I do.


March 31, 2018

Sadly, integrity is so yesterday!
Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, full body tattoos and mindless reality TV shows are the way to go.


March 30, 2018

The moral posturing and virtue signalling that surrounds social media on these types of things these days turns my stomach.
There also would seem to me to be a number of layers of issues which led to this including the Board making the wrong call by appointing Warner in the first place and not demanding a level of behaviour- they have overreacted to cover their backsides.

Tony Wlker

March 30, 2018

Ball tampering will continue to be deliberately used to enhance the performance of bowlers. Spitting and rubbing the ball on trousers etc is legal! The ball should be left alone and allowed to change during the course of a match. Ban it.

Honest Joe

March 29, 2018

It looks like those sponsors who remain are happy to support a team that cheats!!
A simple rule of sponsorship, don’t sponsor people of teams, instead sponsor events. Events don’t take drugs, cheat salary caps etc etc.


March 29, 2018

No, Its just not cricket.... its not just the banks.... its the financial advisers.....its the politicians.... its the lawyers.... its the accountants.......its business big and small.... its the unions.... its the doctors.....its the churches.... its the vibe....sadly, its not just cricket!

Peter T

March 29, 2018

Hamish Douglass said that the partnership between Magellan and Cricket Australia was initially based on “shared values and reputations of integrity, leadership, dedication and an unwavering customer-first culture”. The actions of the protagonists “goes to the heart of integrity. Regrettably, these events are so inconsistent with our values that we are left with no option but to terminate our ongoing partnership with Cricket Australia.”

I would have thought this puts CBA in a difficult position, to explain how the same incident might conceivably be consistent with their values, and their continued sponsorship.

Graham Hand

March 29, 2018

Hi Peter, there is a difference and probably why CBA has not withdrawn. As I understand it, CBA now sponsors women's and community cricket at a club level rather than the men's team involved here. CBA will probably continue that, notwithstanding it is still a relationship with Cricket Australia.

Graham Hand

March 29, 2018

Hi RM, I thought Vinay wrote a well-balanced piece, far from emotive, and more concerned with drawing attention to the difference between integrity and reputation, and the need to be true to yourself. All the issues you raise are important, but do you expect the media not to cover a story like this? It was devastating to watch Steve Smith's press conference after his arrival in Sydney and his references to his mother and his father, and Vinay conveyed the hell that people face having lost their integrity. Let's all hope Steve Smith comes back strong a year from now, when he'll only be 29, with lots of cricket ahead of him.


March 29, 2018

So you have behaved just like the rest of the Australian Media, riding on the misfortune of others, instead of simply sticking to what you SHOULD KNOW BEST !!

Below you will find my response to this disloyal and self-serving pack of hyenas.

I thought you would do better than that.

Now that the 'feeding-frenzied' Australian media have 'drawn, quartered, hanged' and eaten their own, for scratching a ball...and admitting it...in a game....

Let's turn our focus and attention on the REAL AND URGENT concerns of the community.:

1...The home invasions and bashings of our helpless and senior citizens.

2...The cheating and stealing and personal use of public funds by our elected politicians.

3...The minuscule pension payments for our pensioners...when the annual increase in politician's salaries almost outstrips the annual pension payments to an individual.

4...The disgraceful treatment of our elderly in our retirement homes.

I can fill 10 pages with community issues that the Australian media should be bleating about...IF they had ANY genuine concern for the community...the elderly...the helpless and the victims of criminal activity and political greed....

Where are your priorities, Australian media??? Let's get the real issues on the front pages.

Martin Mulcare

March 29, 2018

A great reminder from Vinay that reputational damage can easily happen - especially in business - as a result of a poor decision, irrespective of good intentions and a history of good behaviour. Temporary "ethical blindness" can strike anyone and I suggest it is more valuable to learn from this episode rather than simply demand retribution. The circumstances that led to this bad decision.- poor frames of reference; a bullying workplace; "every one does it" - are not unusual. What can we do as individuals to improve our own ethical judgment when faced with temptation?

Gary M

March 29, 2018

Don't you love the irony of CBA demanding a "'full explanation" from Cricket Australia, as their executives are grilled by the RC to give their own "full explanation".


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