No wishing away the issues as England and Australia brace for Scandal Ashes

Mark Taylor stated that a longer tenure for Paine might make CA look beyond Smith and to a younger generation Getty Images

Forgive my lack of empathy on this one, but in the grand scheme of cricket's current miasma, Friday's revelation from Down Under - that an ordinary cricketer has turned out, to use the Australian vernacular, to be an ordinary bloke - doesn't exactly move the needle.

It has, however, moved the sporting narrative.

Tim Paine's tearful exit as Australia's Test captain - 1393 days after his predecessor Steven Smith was ejected for conduct similarly unbecoming of his revered office, and 18 days before the next Ashes instalment - has provided a far more complete narrative arc than the not-quite Ashes glory of 2019 that rounded off Cricket Australia's recent home-vid documentary, The Test.

And so, with apologies to Paine's apologies, and to his anguished lament for a lost innocence that his employers had known full well about, even while pressing on with his repackaging as the squeaky-clean boy next door who was going to rescue Australia's morals from the gutter, let it be put on record that this is the first thing in weeks that has put a smile back on the face of English cricket.

"Now, however, the clock is ticking and the world is watching, and the government's stated "nuclear option" of appointing an independent regulator is one of many reasons why Tom Harrison and his ilk will have to progress from soundbites to actions in double-quick time"

Schadenfreude? You betcha! But it is also a warning, amid English cricket's own and ever-evolving reckoning, that some issues simply cannot be wished away - "kicked into the long grass", as Nigel Huddlestone, the UK sports minister, said of the racism scandal - or made better overnight with a bit of elite sloganeering and a few well-timed crocodile tears.

For here we have, on opposite sides of the globe but essentially hand-in-hand (given that the Ashes is basically a sibling squabble that could be played out just as effectively over a lifetime of Christmas dinners), two faces of the exact same coin. Two deep-rooted sporting cultures that, for very different but equally seismic reasons, have had cause in their recent histories for deep and urgent introspection.

And yet… is it weird to point out that there's a gravitas to England's ongoing scandal that makes Australia - once again in strictures because of an addiction to moral trivia - look decidedly shallow?

First ball-tampering, now a grotty text exchange. If these are the issues for which the nation's prudish guardians screech to DEFCON 1, lobbing off weeping sportsmen like shrimps onto a moral barbie, then good luck to anyone who dares to penetrate this human shield, and undertake the sort of systemic autopsy that the ECB seems now to be bracing itself for.

You're right. It's nothing to crow about whatsoever. It's not as if England's unfolding crisis has been undertaken willingly, or with any thanks due to the administrative heel-draggers whose lack of proactivity have allowed even Boris Johnson's corruption-mired government to take the moral high ground.


Paine: 'I'm deeply sorry that my past behaviour has impacted our game on the eve of the Ashes'

Tim Paine steps down as Australia's Test captain after the emergence of details of explicit messages he sent a co-worker in 2017

But it does feel, at the very least, that the racism scandal has moved England's discourse into a "post-bad apples" phase, for want of a better description. Going into last week's DCMS hearings, the sport had been braced for a bonfire of individual reputations, given both the names that had already leaked into the public domain, and the sense that Azeem Rafiq - euphemistically painted as "hot-headed" in the various attempts to discredit him in the course of the investigation - was set to spray his parliamentary privilege like napalm across the game that had rejected him.

But it didn't quite pan out like that. Of course, there was some more collateral damage along the way, with the likes of Matthew Hoggard, David Lloyd and Tim Bresnan joining those names already in the public domain - not to mention the feckless Alex Hales, who now seems destined to spend the rest of his career apologising for a lifetime of poor judgment.

However, the common theme throughout Rafiq's DCMS testimony, aside from his innate dignity, was that this issue was not about individuals. "It's important we don't make it about Michael," he said at one point, when asked to expand on Michael Vaughan's alleged "too many of you lot" comments. And if that now sounds like a convenient caveat, following the disclosure of Rafiq's own anti-Semitic sentiments back in 2011, then in fact that revelation merely underscores the validity of his point.

This scandal is about a system that has made discrimination of all types endemic, and then tried everything it could to cover it up. To claim, as carpetbaggers such as Nigel Farage have tried, that Rafiq's own failings invalidate his now widely acknowledged grievances, is a gross distortion of the facts.

The question that arises, therefore, is whether the ECB is remotely capable of "putting its house in order", as Huddlestone rather pompously put it at the DCMS hearing on Thursday?

The early signs, it has to be said, have not been entirely convincing. On Friday, all 41 members of the ECB board met at the Kia Oval to consider English cricket's unified response to the crisis. After much grunting and groaning, out popped a deeply vapid statement, shortly before 4pm, outlining explicitly non-specific "areas of focus" aiming at "winning back your trust".

Further details have since emerged, including a 12-point action plan with EDI initiatives at its core, but this was precisely the sort of gesture-political hogwash that Rafiq had warned the board not to latch on to during his DCMS appearance. "We need organic change," Rafiq had told the committee. "If tokenism is the angle the ECB go down, I will call it out."

At this point, let's cut to Tom Harrison, English cricket's rolled-up-sleeved, rakishly plausible frontman, whose innate shininess evokes David Cameron in his pre-Brexit heyday, but whose flustered, haunted responses in parliament had rather more in common with Cameron after the fall. Harrison emerged from that Oval meeting claiming that he had "the backing of the game" to drive the necessary changes, and at the very least, he has demonstrated in the past 18 months that he does care; his personal response to Rafiq's interview with ESPNcricinfo last summer was a major factor in the escalation of Yorkshire's response.

And yet, barely five months have passed since the entire focus of English cricket was on one man, Ollie Robinson, and that cache of derogatory texts that he had sent (as an immature and soon-to-be-sacked Yorkshire rookie) a decade earlier. The ECB's response to that saga, aside from Robinson's suspension, was to plough on with their decidedly wishy-washy "moments of unity" prior to England internationals, a stance that Rafiq dismissively referred to as "T-shirts" during the hearing. England were also, Rafiq noted, "one of the first teams to stop" taking the knee in support of Black Lives Matter, as if content to have ticked the box and moved on to sunnier uplands.

Now, however, the clock is ticking and the world is watching, and the government's stated "nuclear option" of appointing an independent regulator is one of many reasons why Harrison and his ilk will have to progress from soundbites to actions in double-quick time.

But I'd still wager that, when it comes to tokenism, the ECB has learnt more in the past fortnight than Cricket Australia in three years. Paine's humiliation - like Smith's, like David Warner's, like Cameron Bancroft's - speaks to a culture of superficiality, one that still seeks to protect at all costs the sacred notion of "Australian-ism", for fear of one day exposing the same rotten core that the ECB is now having to publicly contend with.

Nothing in this sorry saga offers an easy route to a better future. But the least that can now be said is that English cricket knows which rocks to look under, as opposed to which empty shells to build on.