Malcolm Turnbull, Steve Smith, Matthew Guy and criss-crossing the lines in the sand

Pity the sand. There’s so many lines drawn into it that it is the Etch A Sketch for modern morals.

It doesn’t matter the field of human emotion or the arena of conflict, there it is: the sand and the line. It is universal in concept and local in aspect. It is, in its metaphoric state, a salve and balm for the wielder of the stick who draws it – and an item of complete and utter meaninglessness. It is an excuse, a fob, a play for time. It is, in essence, a line in the sand.

Expect to hear it in coming days now that Malcolm Turnbull has achieved what was for him a line in the sand back when he knifed Tony Abbott for the top job. That achievement was, of course, losing 30 Newspolls. In 2015, this made it clear to Turnbull “that the people have made up their mind about Mr Abbott’s leadership”. Now, it seems the line has moved. Turnbull has smudged it clear with his big toe.

Still, it didn’t stop a former Liberal leader, John Hewson, evoking it late last year. Hewson said Turnbull needed to step up to Abbott over the latter’s climate change views by “drawing a line in the sand”.

It’s a phrase popular with political reporters and commentators, which given the nature of their subject is not unexpected. One even modifying it in one column as a “rare” line in the sand.

“Before you cross this circle I want you to give me a reply for the Roman Senate” – King Antiochus IV of the Seleucid Empire

The origins of the phrase are not known, but its ubiquity has meant an entry in Wikipedia, which helpfully suggests examples of its use going back centuries including to Roman consul Gaius Popillius Laenas who in 168BC “drew a circular line in the sand around King Antiochus IV of the Seleucid Empire, then said: “Before you cross this circle I want you to give me a reply for the Roman Senate”,  to the Battle of the Alamo in 1863, when Colonel William Travis was said to evoke it, and to US President George Bush senior, who drew “a line in the sand” at the start of the first Gulf War in 1990.

And we have seen it recently in Australia. In that most hallowed of games, cricket, where the national psyche and virtue supposedly entwine in virtuous embrace, it has been drawn.

In Victorian politics, where the ends justifies the means, according to Opposition Leader Matthew Guy, it has disturbed the grains.

And in policing in the same state, where again the ends justifies the means, according to how a reasonable person would adjudge recent video footage of apprehension techniques.

The ball-tampering scandal that took down Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft has cut through the granules the most. A columnist with the Cape Times in South Africa, Zaahier Adams, wrote: “The spotlight is firmly on Cricket Australia. They now have the mandate to finally draw the line in the sand.”

There was friction before this, however, when there was contact between Smith and South African Rabada on the field. Said Smith: “Obviously, they’ve deemed the contact not to be deliberate and set the line in the sand of what is appropriate and what’s not.”

“They have now said this is the line in the sand, we have had enough” – Kim Hughes

Elsewhere, a few years ago the line appeared over four Australian players being dropped in India over, shudder, a homework scandal. Former Australian captain Kim Hughes commented: “But obviously there have been other things going on, not necessarily by these players but still, things that are not up to standard.

“They have now said this is the line in the sand, we have had enough.”

The West Australian newspaper thought enough of the gravity with said sand that it headlined the piece: WA greats are at odds over line in the sand.

Ball tampering and lines are not the exclusive domain, or shoreline, of this country. A few years ago Faf du Plessis was fined for using saliva from the mint he was (presumably deliciously, one hopes) munching in his mouth to shine the ball. The International Cricket Council chief executive Dave Richardson was reported as saying a line in the sand needed to be drawn. “Probably in this case in particular, we drew the line.”

But there is a complexity in all this that only a wily spin bowler could put forward. Before the series in Australia against South Africa, Nathan Lyon added an element to the metaphor that both befuddled and brooked no criticism. The Australians were going to play tough. They were going to give no quarter.

He said: “We’re going to play the Australian way. We’re going to compete hard. We’re not going to roll over. If one of our players is getting a hard time, we’re going to stick up for him.“We know where the line is. We headbutt it, but we don’t go over it”.

National coach Darren Lehmann thought it such a leap of conviction he repeated it this year, but in light of the cheating, he was somewhat circumspect.

“Obviously previously we’ve butted heads on the line but that’s not the way to go about us playing cricket moving forward,” he said.

Earlier this year, it seemed the collapse of civilisation was likely when at Trinity Grammar in Melbourne the deputy headmaster Rohan Brown, took it upon himself to cut a student’s hair for school photo day. Brown was sacked, provoking outrage. Old Trinity Grammarians’ Association president David Baumgartner told the ABC that the headmaster Michael Davies was changing the culture of the school.

“This is not about Rohan Brown,” he told 7.30.

“This is about the change in the school’s culture and he is the line in the sand, the lightning rod that has brought it all to the fore.”

Well, trust an Old Grammarian to throw two metaphors into the picture. Perhaps the lightning could have fused with the sand to produce glass. There was certainly enough heat around, at least for a while.

Two other areas of society – policing and politics – were home to line-in-the-sand incidents, though if only tacitly. The video footage of Victorian police techniques in dealing with members of the public drew responses that in their condemnation collectively drew a line in the sand. And in Victorian state politics the pairing and then non-pairing of two Liberals during a vital vote drew many to remark that the line in the sand may have gone beyond the pale (which is often found lying around on the beach).

Matthew Guy, of course, saw nothing wrong in this, at all. Ends justifies means, sort of thing.

Still, pity the sand. It seems many have never metaphor they didn’t like more.

One response to “Malcolm Turnbull, Steve Smith, Matthew Guy and criss-crossing the lines in the sand

  1. This is excellent – anyone that evokes Antonius has drawn the line in the sand.Great piece and very apt in our times.


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