“It seemed completely beyond belief that the Australian cricket team were involved with cheating.” It might have shocked you Mr Turnbull, but only the brazenness of Australia’s cheating surprised the rest of the world. The fabled spirit of cricket has been under attack for some time, and Australia have been one of nations leading the assault. Not that the Aussie public realised this before now.
South Africa’s subsequent 322 run victory over Australia the following day will barely be a footnote to the events at Newlands, and the shadow of Smith’s admissions will stretch far further than the shadow of Table Mountain.
The Sydney Herald labelled this as a “bumper series” and it certainly has been – although I’m not sure dressing room altercations, on-field shoulder barges and complaints of crowd abuse were what the paper had in mind. Things were getting out of control even before Mr Bancroft reached for the yellow tape.
Despite a heavy defeat on Sunday, Australia can still salvage a result from this series on paper. Their reputation off it, however, will take years to rebuild. The assessment of the team as a “laughing stock” by Adam Gilchrist – whose fellow ex-teammates seem genuinely outraged – will be supported around the world.
The reaction to this scandal has been so emotional – with the likes of Jim Maxwell and CA CEO James Sutherland close to tears at various stages – because this ball tampering controversy is unlike any we’ve seen before. It was premeditated by the team’s “leadership group” (more on them later) and put upon a junior player to carry out the dirty deed. What’s more, when the Australian dressing room realised they’d been rumbled, the 12th man was sent on to try and cover up the evidence. Bancroft then lied to the umpires about the contents of his trousers.
In the post-match press conference, Steve Smith completely failed to recognise the gravity of the situation. He thought he could just apologise and move on. All these things point to a more deep-rooted problem with the Australian team which, let’s be honest, is far from the most loved side in world cricket. They position themselves as moral arbiters but have turned out to be one of the worst offenders. Remember David Warner’s words following the du Plessis’ episode with mints in Hobart in 2016? He said he would be “very disappointed if one of our team members did that”. It turns out they’ve done something worse.
There is some suggestion that the Australian team have been driven in some way to commit this crime because this tour has been bad blooded. True, their time in South Africa has been far from comfortable, with coach Darren Lehman citing the “disgraceful” treatment that his players from the home crowds. Australian cricket journalist Adam Collins has claimed that it’s hard to divorce previous controversies with Saturday’s events at Newlands.
However, the Australian players can surely have few complaints given their own fans’ previous “interactions” with visiting teams. Lehman can sit alongside Warner in the chicken roost department when he remembers calls on the Australian public before the 2013/14 Ashes to “give it to him [Stuart Broad] right from the word go for the whole summer” and that he hoped Broad would cry and go home. When asked about events during England’s first test against New Zealand, Broad left little to interpretation when saying that “from the outside, it looks like Australia have started a lot of fights and then are moaning when someone comes back.”
The immediate question is where does Australian cricket go from here? Quite simply, Steve Smith and David Warner should be stripped of the captaincy and vice-Captaincy respectively. They should receive a lengthy ban – 6 months or more – and a fine. It remains to be seen which other individuals from Smith’s “leadership group” were involved and he has deliberately muddied the waters by not naming names. It may indeed take some time for the blame to be truly apportioned, although alibies might be hastily composed in the meantime.
The bigger question is where the so-called “spirit of cricket” is left in all of this? Unfortunately, the yellow tape affair is not the first time a cricketer has attempted to alter a cricket ball and it will certainly not be the last. Smith’s apology stirred memories of Atherton’s “Aladdin’s Lamp treatment” in 1994 and Inzuman-ul-Haq’s vilification of Darrel Hair in 2006 (although we should remember that Inzie was cleared of ball tampering following his team’s historic forfeit).
The current incident is different for the reasons highlighted above. The outpouring of emotion from the likes of Turnball, Sutherland and others is because they thought Australian sport was above such things. The sad truth is that ball tampering is nothing new and Australians have probably done it in the past. Other players have done it; some have been caught and many have not. Regardless of what happens to Messrs. Smith and co. not all Australian and international players will be dissuaded. If you asked the cricketers who have dabbled in such things, they would often not be sorry for what they have done; they would be sorry because they got caught.
Much like diving in football, ball tampering in cricket is an act that all players know to be illegal and punishable but until the punishments meted out become harsher, it will continue to happen. However, unlike diving, ball tampering can come in many different forms; we have seen as much over the years. Players continue to come up with multiple methods – even going so far as chomping on the red (or white) cherry, as Shahid Afridi famously did during a one-day international in 2010. Bancroft’s yellow tape is yet another different approach. And we wonder how much truth there is in reports that David Warner adds sandpaper to the strapping on his thumb. Stamping which, interestingly enough, he doesn’t wear when he bats.
The “spirit of cricket” is an ideology of playing the sport the right way. It’s founded upon two cornerstones: the utmost respect to the match officials and the self-regulation of the laws of the game by the players themselves. The responsibility for both falls on the shoulders of the players and unfortunately both seem to be continually disregarded in modern cricket.
How often have we seen batsmen walking off the field after a contentious umpiring decision, muttering the words that seem to be “for goodness sake” to themselves? Ball tampering is part of the self-regulation category, alongside walking and claiming catches fairly. The problem is that whereas disputed catches and nicks to the keeper can usually be sorted out by DRS, ball-tampering is a very different matter. What’s more, it takes place during gaps in play. It is an underhand choice by the fielding side.
If the ICC is serious about upholding the “spirit of cricket”, it needs to be practical. By that, I mean they get serious about cheating and also take measures to punish players proportionately according to their particular transgressions. Is it right that Smith has only been banned for one match by the ICC for cheating whereas Kasigo Rabada initially received a two match ban for celebrating a wicket too vociferously? The ICC needs to be pragmatic, of course, but although international sport is not for the faint hearted they must do more to make the game seem competitive but essentially clean and honourable.
The truth about what was really said in the Australian dressing room is yet to be revealed, and it may take weeks to piece the whole sequence of events together. What can be said with certainty at this stage, however, is that the team’s reputation lies in tatters and they will probably need a new captain in the next few days. I just hope that cricket itself hasn’t been tarnished too severely. Perhaps the punishment handed out by the Cricket Australia will be more of a deterrent, and do more to uphold the spirit of cricket, than the ICC’s inadequate response to cheating now and in the past.