Cricket’s ball-tampering controversy is about bad employment practices


The ball-tampering issue is not just about cheating in sport. It is about bad employment practices.  It is about abuse of power.

For those not familiar with or interested in cricket, stick with it. There are some lessons to be learned for wider business here. Briefly, though, there was a cricket match between South Africa and Australia in which the Australian team were caught cheating. The technicalities are unimportant. The important thing is that in this case, a young cricketer, with only eight matches under his belt, was apparently cornered by a member of the ‘leadership group’ and asked to cheat for the ‘good’ of the team.

In normal employment terms, Cameron Bancroft, the man caught scuffing the ball and then lying about it, is an apprentice, or someone still serving his probation period. The player who approached him, it seems, was the vice-captain, David Warner. Let’s call him the deputy manager. He’s good at the game, revered in the office, and you want to please him. According to a well-placed source, their conversation was witnessed in passing by the captain, Steve Smith, who said: “Actually, I don’t want to know what you’re talking about.” Let’s call him the departmental manager. The boss of the coercer turning a blind eye to poor behaviour is a classic trope of unethical businesses.

When the offence was filmed by TV cameras, the coach – let’s call him Darren Lehmann – saw the footage and demanded to know what was happening. He claims to have no knowledge of this particular crime, but has always backed his players when they have committed other (and many) misdemeanours: from threatening an England player with a broken arm, to boorish behaviour when wickets have fallen. Lehmann has himself invited home crowds to send an opposition player “home crying”. Warner was previously suspended for punching an England player, yet was welcomed back by Lehmann and given a leadership role.

This is every toxic work environment where young and impressionable colleagues are inveigled into bending the rules just a little bit, just a little bit more, and more: because we’ve all done it, and it’s fine. It is a culture that led to the implosion of Enron. And the Libor scandal. And the mis-selling scandal. And the closure of the News of the World. And on and on…

Like the kind of aggressive sales room brilliantly captured in Glengarry Glen Ross or Boiler Room, a desperate need to win at all costs from the leadership can inculcate a toxic atmosphere in which deeply unethical behaviour is accepted.

While, in the past, such behaviour might have been under-reported (or, in the case of cricketers, under-filmed), increasingly, people have a reasonable expectation of ethics from the businesses they deal with or work for. Moreover, social media has given them the platform to express their distress. If you don’t believe me, look at GlassDoor.

Of course, elite sports teams are not like most companies in one critical respect. The athletes are myopically focussed on winning one event. A company should have a much longer perspective, and be aware that the negative reputation of a leadership team can have a long lasting impact on the business.

One of the side effects of the brilliantly empowering and sadly overdue #MeToo campaign is that employees are more attuned to all kinds of abuse of power in the workplace. Toxic businesses – and sports organisations – are on a warning. Behave properly, or you will be exposed.

Martin Tripp

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Martin Tripp Associates is a London-based executive search consultancy. While we are best-known for our work in the TMT (technology, media, and telecoms) space, we have also worked with some of the world’s biggest brands on challenging senior positions. Feel free to contact us to discuss any of the issues raised in this blog. 

Image courtesy Graham Dean via Flickr