The meaning of hubris in Australian cricket

The word of the week is hubris. It has been thrown around in the media to describe the attitude of the Australian cricket team leading up to this week’s controversial ball-tampering incident. Otherwise known as #cricketcrisis, #tapegate or #sandpapergate. I have always struggled to understand exactly what hubris means but with a bit of reading I have discovered the source of my confusion.

The fall of Australian cricket

Readers who did not see the cricket incident, Cameron Bancroft, Australia’s newest player was caught using a piece of tape with dirt from the pitch to sandpaper the ball. This makes one side of the ball rough and the other shiny therefore encouraging the ball to swing, or swerve in the air. This makes it more difficult for the batsman to hit. This is a bit naughty in cricketing terms but not a “sacking offence”. [UPDATE—note that Bancroft lied at the time about using tape—he later admitted to using sandpaper].

But the offence has rocketed into the stratosphere of outrage. Steve Smith, the Australian captain, admitted in a press conference after the game that the decision had been made by the “leadership team”. Smith’s nonchalance was a serious error of judgement as Australian cricket supporters were shocked to realise that their national team captain had conspired with other players to cheat. Outrage and upset have dominated the media in Australian ever since.

Australian cricketers suffer from hubris

But while the Australian public are shocked and upset by the news, the reaction from other cricketing nations is much angrier. The Australians are accused of being arrogant, hypocritical and, worst of all, of suffering from hubris. The cause of the anger is that Australian players have been quick to criticise players from other countries for their behaviours. The Australians have seemingly taken a “holier than thou” attitude while they throw insults at their opponents. The English are particularly peeved, as in these comments:

Smith grew to believe he was untouchable. How else to explain a Baldrick-like plan to tamper with the ball in plain sight of dozens of cameras?
Lawrence Booth, Editor, Wisden Almanack writing in The Daily Mail

It seemed clear to me from watching Smith’s press conference, that he had not grasped the seriousness of his situation. He could have been talking about a dropped catch or two. … Smith seemed to lack that awareness, which speaks of hubris.
Mike Atherton, Ex-England captain, in The Times

So what does hubris mean?

I have never properly understood what hubris means and dictionaries are not that helpful—most define it as excessive pride or self-confidence. But it is not just about being too proud or over-confident it is an excess of pride and confidence manifested in a different and negative way. Looking further afield I did find a much clearer explanation (hubristic pride) on the Psychology Today website:

Psychologists distinguish between two kinds of pride. Authentic pride arises when we feel good about ourselves, confident, and productive, and is related to socially-desirable personality traits such as being agreeable, conscientious, and emotionally stable. Hubristic pride tends to involve egotism and arrogance, and is related to socially undesirable traits such as being disagreeable, aggressive, having low or brittle  self-esteem—and being prone to shame.

… authentic pride tends to motivate us to display pro-social behaviors [sic] such as hard work, persistence toward our common goals, and generosity, while hubristic pride tends to motivate people toward anti-social behaviors [sic] focused on attaining dominance such as arrogance, aggression and hostility.

This explanation of hubris which defines it as a nasty, egotistical, arrogant form of pride rather than too much pride is more valuable. It matches the intent that it is being used regarding the Australian cricketers.

The tragedy of hubris

However there is another definition of  hubris. It retains a theatrical usage (particularly of Greek theatre) where it refers to excessive pride towards or in defiance of the gods. This type of hubris often leads to action from Nemesis—this goddess avenges crime and seeks retribution for those that display hubris to the gods.

An example of hubris and its inevitable consequences is the myth of Icarus. Icarus, overconfident with hubris, flew too close to the sun and was punished by having the wax that held his feathers to his wings melt away. He fell to his death.

An example of hubris in Christian literature is the fall of Lucifer in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Lucifer begins to see himself as God’s equal and tries to get the other angels to worship him. God punishes Lucifer for his hubris and casts him into hell for eternity.

I (mistakenly, I suppose) have always understood hubris in this theatrical sense and not in its common usage. However, I will continue to interpret it my way because it suggests that hubris carries with it an inevitable divine retribution bringing everything back into balance. It is exactly how the ball-tampering incident is playing out. Steve Smith, David Warner (the Vice-Captain) and Cameron Bancroft have been sent home. One minute the leaders and participants in one of Australia’s most prestigious sports, the next minute fallen from grace for their hubris.