Steven Smith’s anguished arrival was the final straw. A day after vowing to stay on and drive cultural renewal, Australia’s coach Darren Lehmann bowed to the inevitable on Thursday and chose to resign at the conclusion of the Wanderers Test match after five years at the helm of the national team, saying the former captain’s tears had convinced him it was the only course of action.
His public announcement, a matter of minutes after he told an already shell-shocked Test squad, was followed by a surreal training session, where the touring party engaged mainly in football and fielding drills while the Wanderers public address system belted out classic Australian songs such as How to Make Gravy by Paul Kelly, Into My Arms by Nick Cave, Reckless by Australian Crawl, Don’t Dream It’s Over by Crowded House and Wide Open Road by The Triffids.
Lehmann confessed to not being able to sleep since Saturday night following the team’s exposure for ball tampering. While maintaining his lack of knowledge of the plot between David Warner and Cameron Bancroft, with the approval of Smith, Lehmann conceded it was impossible for him to stay on as coach while the team and Cricket Australia continued to be under attack. The home Test series sponsor Magellan cancelled its deal on Thursday, while longtime broadcast partner Channel Nine looked the other way in signing a new five-year deal with Australian tennis.
“It’s been happening for a few days, and you think you can keep going, but the amount of abuse or whatever word you want to use just takes its toll, everyone has their views out there, but they made a mistake, and we need to get the game back on track,” Lehmann said. “And speaking to my family they’ve had enough of traveling 300 days a year and not being home at all to see your family, so that’s also a big reason, the main reason. Spend some time with them, see the kids and maybe go and watch my son play cricket, and be there for my daughters.
“I’ve been speaking with the hierarchy the last couple of days, and this morning, no sleep last night again, no-one’s slept, that’s the biggest challenge fronting up tomorrow. I don’t think I’ve slept since Saturday to be perfectly honest, couple hours here and there, playing around in your head, and what’s right, and let the game move forward.
“After seeing events in the media today with Steve Smith and Cameron Bancroft, the feeling is that Australian cricket needs to move forward and this is the right thing to do. I really felt for Steve as I saw him crying in front of the media and all of the players are really hurting. As I’ve stated before I had no prior knowledge of the incident and do not condone what happened at all, but good people can make mistakes.”
After watching Smith and Bancroft speak emotionally in Australia, Lehmann said he hoped his decision would help the team and game to move on from a hellish five days. “It’s been unbelievable. Watching those two young men face the media and I’m sure David will be the same, it’s been unbelievable,” he said.
“Hopefully the game gets back to the game of cricket, it is a game to be loved and enjoyed. I’ve had a great time coaching in my career and coaching the Australian team is a real high. So for me looking forward to having some time off and what’s the next step from there. I’d love to stay involved in the game because I love it so much. My family and I have copped a lot of abuse over the last week and it’s taken its toll on them.
“As many of you sitting in this room will know, life on the road means a lot of time away from our loved ones and after speaking with my family at length over the last few days, it’s the right time to step away. I’m ultimately responsible for the culture of the team and I’ve been thinking about my position for a while, despite telling media yesterday that I’m not resigning, after viewing Steve and Cameron’s hurting, it’s only fair that I make this decision. This will allow Cricket Australia to complete a full review into the culture of the team and allow them to implement changes to regain the trust of the Australian public. This is the right thing for Australian cricket.”
Asked what his proudest moment as coach had been, having won the Ashes twice at home and also the 2015 World Cup, Lehmann pointed to the way the team dealt with the death of Phillip Hughes in November 2014. “I would say the way we dealt with Phillip Hughes,” he said. “We’re only playing a game, that’s all we’re playing, we lost a great young man and the way we tried to deal with that is probably my proudest moment as coach. You win games, you lose games, that for me would be the most pleasing one.”
Lehmann agreed it would be extremely difficult for the team to find the mental strength to perform at a high level over the next five days. “I thought this was tough, but speaking to the players and saying goodbye, telling them the news, that’s the toughest thing I’ve ever had to do,” he said. “It’s about fronting up for your country and playing good cricket over the next five days.
“Like all Australians, we are extremely disappointed and as a team we know we’ve let so many people down, and for that we’re truly sorry. The players involved have been handed down very serious sanctions, and they know they must face the consequences. They’ve made a grave mistake but they are not bad people. I hope the team rebuilds from this and the Australian public find it in their hearts to forgive these young men and get behind the XI who are going to take the field tomorrow.
“It’s been an unbelievable series marred by some incidents, but it’s great playing against South Africa, two rival countries that really play the game of cricket really hard and it’s been an exciting Test series. So our challenge is to get back to level the series, and that’d be a big challenge but the boys will be doing everything they possibly can.”
That effort started with the Australian playlist over the Wanderers speakers. These are extraordinary times.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig
ESPN Sports Media Ltd.