It is a rare day in cricket when losing ten wickets in a session to lose a test match is not the worst thing to have happened in the last 24 hours. And yet, there is little question that Australian Captain Steve Smith’s Sunday fell under this description. With his side collapsing from 57-0 to 107 all out in Cape Town, himself dismissed on seven in a manner so similar to the first innings that it might as well have been a replay, what could possibly be worse? Simple. He cheated. And he was caught.
Here are the facts. At lunch on the third day of the third test against South Africa (last Saturday) Smith and an unnamed group of senior players, with the game slipping away from them, decided that to “gain an advantage”, according to Smith, opening batsman Cameron Bancroft would take a small piece of tape, stick some dirt from the pitch to it and use the result to roughen one side of the ball. Bancroft was caught on camera so doing, and upon seeing that he had been spotted on the big screen, proceeded to “put the tape down his trousers” in an attempt to hide the evidence.
To the casual observer, this may seem petty, but in cricket, “ball tampering” as it’s known, is about as bad as it gets. Law 41.3 prohibits players from artificially altering the condition of the ball outside of “polishing the ball on his/her clothing providing no artificial substance is used, removing mud from the ball under the supervision of the umpires, or drying the ball on a cloth approved by the umpires.” In this case, the Australians were artificially roughening one side of the ball so that it might begin to “reverse swing”, when the ball moves in the air later than and in the opposite direction to conventional swing, and which is often extremely difficult to bat against.
Ball tampering is cheating, plain and simple, and in cricketing circles, it’s as serious as doping in other sports. Indeed, simply the accusation of ball tampering in a 2006 test match between England and Pakistan led Pakistan captain Inzamam ul-Haq to keep his side in the changing room after tea, leading to the first and, to date, only forfeited test match. But never before has a ball tampering case been this cut and dry, either through technicalities, or through lack of evidence. An example of the former is Michael Atherton. England captain at the time, TV footage appeared to show him applying dirt from his pocket onto the ball. He argued that he was trying to “maintain the condition of the ball” by keeping it and his hands dry, rather than alter it, and he was fined only £2000.
The difference is that, in the case of Smith and Bancroft, not only is the footage damning, but they’ve admitted to it. In a press conference after play on Saturday, Bancroft described the series of events seen in the TV footage, and Smith confirmed that it was pre-mediated. As a result, Bancroft and Smith were charged 75% and 100% of their match fee by the ICC, with Smith also banned for 1 test. Smith and batsman David Warner also stood down as captain and vice-captain for the remainder of the series.
Quite simply, this is a horrendous situation and you have to feel sorry for Bancroft. He may well have been the one to actually tamper with the ball but, having played just seven tests previous to the incident, it is inconceivable that he would be in this so-called leadership group that made the decision to ball tamper. That means that Smith, Warner and whoever else is part of this Kabal leaned on a junior player to cheat on their behalf, which is quite simply despicable. Bancroft, for his part, in his statement said, “I don’t think I was coerced”, but bear in mind that this is a young batsman whose position in the side was very much in question. Even if he was coerced, which I personally very much believe he was, there was no chance he would admit it, especially while sitting in a press conference next to the man who would have been the one to coerce him. It shows sheer cowardice on the part of Smith. The fact that he was apparently not man enough to face up to the possibility of honourable defeat is bad enough, but not even having the guts to take responsibility for cheating by actually doing it himself shows that he is as craven as a particularly reclusive chicken.
This just adds to the theory shared by many that Smith and the Australian cricket team generally are the school bullies of the cricketing world. The series against South Africa was evidence in itself, being a badly tempered affair kicked off in the first test with a dressing room spat between Warner and South African Keeper Quinton de Kock, supposedly sparked by comments about Warner’s wife in reaction to an “hour-long attack” by Warner in which he allegedly called De Kock a “bush-pig”, as well as insulting his family.
Then, in the second test, South African bowler Kasigo Rabada was banned for two games for making “deliberate contact” with Smith in his celebration after dismissing the Australian Captain, only to have his ban overturned on appeal. This was topped off during the third test when Coach Darren Lehman accused the South African crowd of “disgraceful” verbal abuse, citing comments made as Warner left the field following his first innings dismissal. It all shows that Smith’s Aussies are all too happy to dish out abuse to their opponents, but as soon as its coming the other way they to cry off to the match referee saying that their feelings have been hurt.
And it’s not just under Smith. Under his predecessor Michael Clarke, England bowler James Anderson was famously told, by Clarke, to expect a broken arm from Aussie quick Mitchell Johnson during the 2013-14 ashes series. Even before this, in the lead up to the 2013 Champions Trophy in England, Warner was sent home from the tournament following an incident in which he punched Joe Root in a bar. Root was a newcomer in the side at the time, and, even today, anyone who has seen him will surely agree that he’s the most threatening individual. And it doesn’t stop there. Legendary Australian Captain Steve Waugh famously based his strategy in test cricket on “Mental Disintegration”, writing, in his book The Meaning of Luck: “…while we respected the South Africans we were keen not just to put them in their place but to have them leave Australia with some mental scarring for future battles.”
But now, the Australians have shown that while they can talk the talk when they’re winning, as soon as things start going the other way they resort to cheating. It’s a win at all costs attitude which simply does not belong in the game of cricket. As much as it is a cliché, cricket is a gentleman’s game. The same laws that ban ball tampering also enshrine the concept that the game “should be played not only according to the Laws, but also within the Spirit of Cricket” as a foundation on which the entire game is built. It is literally the first rule in the book.
If the attitude of the current side towards the game has gone on for so long, the logical next step is to question whether the ball tampering has happened before. In the latest Ashes series, perhaps? Bancroft, an even more junior player in the side at the time, was filmed pouring sugar into his pocket during the final test of the series in January. If one recalls that South African captain Faf du Plessis was fined for using the sugar from a sweet in his mouth to help shine the ball in 2016, it appears awfully suspicious.
England bowler Stuart Broad, his side amidst a defeat by New Zealand at the time of the latest incident, was coy in his remarks, saying “I saw Steve in his press conference say it’s the first time they tried it, which seems really surprising, why they’d change a method that was working. You look at the Ashes series we just played, you look through all those Tests and they reverse swung the ball, sometimes in conditions you wouldn’t expect. I don’t understand why they’ve changed their method for this one game.” To be clear, Broad goes on to state that he does not think the Australians tampered with the ball in the Ashes, but fact that they managed to make the ball reverse swing easily and in unusual circumstances is hard to explain away.
Speculation aside, it’s apparent that Smith and a number of senior players executed a premeditated plan to cheat. The next question must surely be of what the punishment for the perpetrators should be. It seems inconceivable that Smith will remain as captain or Warner as vice-captain, but I would argue that a more extended ban is necessary for at least Smith. This was a pre-meditated action to cheat in a game of cricket, very similar to a drugs offence and I think it should be treated as such. Smith should be banned for at least a year. As for Bancroft, if it can be proved that he was coerced then it may be reasonable to spare him a ban, he’ll most likely be dropped for poor form at any rate. If he’s shown to be complicit, he should be banned for a year too.
The real question is that of Lehman. Smith claims that the coaching staff were not aware of the plan to tamper with the ball, but its hard to see how none of the coaches would know about what was going on in their own dressing room. In my opinion, its highly likely that Lehman was either complicit in the ball tampering or at least did nothing to stop it. He’s unlikely to keep his job following the latest incident, Cricket Australia is unlikely to want to keep anybody associated with it on the books, but if he was part of the plan then it’s only appropriate that he should get a similar ban to Smith.
To be clear, it is unlikely that these will be the punishments handed down by Cricket Australia. Smith is by just about any measure the best batsman in the Australian side, so it will be surprising if he bears the brunt of the punishment. Instead, Bancroft will probably go down as the scapegoat for the incident, both because he was the one to actually tamper with the ball and because, let’s face it, he’s far more expendable than Smith. Bancroft hasn’t exactly set the world alight in his eight test matches, and the sharks of the selection board have been circling, with fellow youngster Matthew Renshaw ready on the side line to claim his spot at the top of the order.
This latest scandal is the culmination of years of Australia disregarding the spirit of cricket in favour of an attitude which has left them completely friendless in the cricketing community. But now they’ve lost their homeland as well. Let’s face it, the reaction to the incident in Australia is somewhat of an overreaction. We’ve had legendary Aussie commentator Jim Maxwell almost in tears on commentary, the Australian prime minister has even called for Smith’s resignation and all over a bit of tape being rubbed on a ball. But it shows just how angry the Australian people are that the team who they have told themselves aren’t the bullies that incident after incident have seemingly shown them to be, who they have supported through thick and thin, who represent them and their nation on the world stage in a sport which they love, only for them to be exposed as cheaters. A team who were so afraid to lose a game of cricket that they resorted to actions which not only broke the laws of cricket but showed a complete lack of understanding of the very foundations of the game that they play for a living. There’s an old saying that as soon as you think you’ve got on top of the game of cricket, it comes back and bites you in the ass. Let’s hope that cricket’s fangs are sharp when it sinks it teeth into its latest victim.