How the tragic story of an All Black explains Steve Smith’s predicament
On 30 March, former New Zealand rugby union international Keith Murdoch died aged 74. All Black No. 686, Murdoch played only three Test matches in the famous black jersey, but the way his rugby career came to an end and its aftermath has made him one of the most tragic figures in sports.
Murdoch, then 29, had an ignominious exit from the All Blacks’ touring side in 1972, when he was sent home after a bar brawl. To date, he remains the only New Zealand rugby player to have been sent home in disgrace.
In his last international match, the burly prop, who famously had tailors sew extra cloth to cover his 48-inch chest, scored the only try in a 19-16 New Zealand win over Wales in Cardiff.
The celebrations at Angel Hotel went long into the night, so long that the bar was shut before Murdoch was done drinking. Inebriated, the story goes, he stormed into the kitchen looking for more alcohol and ended up giving a security guard a black eye.
The mounting pressure on the New Zealand rugby administrators to act in the aftermath meant he was unceremoniously sent home. Afraid of the anticipated backlash in rugby-crazy New Zealand, where the fans adore the All Blacks past and present, Murdoch changed flights in Singapore and ended up going into the wilderness of the Australian outback.
Living as a recluse, his story became somewhat of an enigma for his fellow Kiwis but he is reported to have only briefly spoken to one journalist, Margot McRae, never allowing her to film the encounter. She later went on to write a play about the chance meeting, Finding Murdoch.
Murdoch’s demise after 45 years of self-imposed exile at a time when cricket world is going through one of its biggest controversies is coincidental as well as instructive.
The ball-tampering scandal in Cape Town has seen Steve Smith and David Warner being banned for 12 months from cricket. Their teammate Cameron Bancroft won’t be representing his country for at least the next nine months after Cricket Australia announced the quantum of punishment following an enquiry. Australian coach Darren Lehmann has also stepped away from the national team in the aftermath of the fallout.
Questions have been raised about whether the punishment is disproportionate to the seriousness of the trio’s crime. That debate will likely never end, but it is in line with the moral outrage that the well-meaning Australians felt after being let down by their representatives on the cricket pitch in the full glare of cameras, and more so after the perpetrators of the cheating admitted to having pre-planned the whole act.
The baggy green holds the same importance in the social fabric of Australia as the black jersey does in New Zealand. The righteous indignation of the Australian public and the moral turpitude of the culprits when they faced the media in the aftermath of the Cape Town debacle only served to prove as much.
Smith’s press conference after his return to Sydney saw him break down several times. The same happened when Warner as well as Bancroft spoke to the media, the three barely being able to hide their contrition with the state of Australian cricket reduced to laughing stock due to their actions.
All three could be back in a year’s time. If Murdoch’s example is anything to go by, things could have been way worse.
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