South Africa claimed a historic victory against Australia in what would be fast bowler Morne Morkel’s last international appearance for his country. But their 3-1 test series win will not be remembered for any of those things. It will not even be remembered for the spat in the dressing room between Quinton de Kock and David Warner or Rabada’s close call with suspension. It will be the series that saw the scandal that changed cricket.
For the first time in history, a player who has been caught tampering with the ball and the players who were found to have instigated and acquiesced in it respectively, have been handed long bans.
Cameron Bancroft, Steven Smith, and David Warner all broke down during their press conferences following their bans, to varied reactions. Bancroft is in the early days of his career, and has few fans or fellow cricketers who are particularly worried for him; Steve Smith’s tears set off an outpouring of sympathy; David Warner is generally thought to have had it coming to him.
I initially found myself feeling rather sorry for Smith. It is not easy to watch grown men cry. He is an excellent cricketer and appeared to be rather better-behaved than most former Australian captains, even encouraging his unit not to bully the opposition. He may not be a beautiful batsman to watch, but he played with all his heart.
He was made captain of his team rather young, and had a wonderful career to look forward to. So whose fault was it that he blew it? Should he not have known better than to break the rules of the game?
He is not the first captain to have encouraged cheating. He is not the first player to have been caught and to have subsequently, and consequently, confessed. The sanction, a yearlong ban from playing and a further year from captaincy, has been imposed in the hope that he will be the last.
But the reactions from the cricketing world, and particularly from the Indian contingent, indicate that far from being disappointed in Smith, they are horrified at the quantum of punishment and believe he is a scapegoat. The only people who claim to be shocked at Smith’s actions and consider it against “the Australian way” are former Australian cricketers, most of whom have cheated and got away with it at various points in their careers.
These include Steve Waugh, the chief architect of what he called "mental disintegration" – harassing the opposition, taunting batsmen, addressing them as body parts, making personal remarks, commenting on their sexual orientations and habits, and getting offended by retaliation. That was the “Australian way”.
Waugh is arguably most famous for his devotion to the Baggy Green, wearing the same cap throughout his career. But he must be credited with something else: his devotion to “the Australian way”. Even as he accuses the ball-tampering trio of “failing our culture”, he appears to have forgotten that he fostered this failure of culture. There is footage of his having claimed two catches that the cameras show he dropped: one off Brian Lara in 1995, and one off Kris Srikkant in 1986. Lara was given out, Srikkant was not. His successor Ricky Ponting proved himself worthy of the lineage by claiming this not-quite-catch against M S Dhoni.
Justin Langer, who is reportedly being considered to replace Darren Lehmann as coach, has this little claim to fame for posterity: a video of his knocking off the bails intentionally, and then pretending the batsman was out hit wicket.
The Australian heritage of cheating goes back to at least 1921, when leg spinner Arthur Mailey used resin and bird-lime to get reverse wing on the ball, a fact he admitted in his autobiography published 37 years after the incident.
The Australian Cricket Board closed ranks when Shane Warne and Mark Waugh were revealed to have given an Indian bookmaker information about the pitch and weather in exchange for money in 1994-95. When the ACB became Cricket Australia (CA), they appear to have made a resolve to restore some dignity to the game and to the national team. This is their first serious sanction.
Unsurprisingly, Shane Warne thinks the punishment is too harsh.
Unsurprisingly, so does the entire subcontinent.
Some of the greatest players to have played cricket have cheated by tampering with the ball. Imran Khan confessed to using a bottle top to alter the condition of the ball in his autobiography, and was disappointed when his tell-all account didn't result in his being perceived as a heroic whistleblower. Shoaib Akhtar, in his autobiography, said, 'almost all Pakistani fast bowlers have tampered with the ball'.
After detailing how boot nails, back pocket zips, Vaseline, and chewing gum could be used to get the ball to turn, he blamed the International Cricket Council for not ensuring the pitches were bowler-friendly; it appears to follow that the ICC's 'failure' has forced bowlers to jump off their moral high horses.
Indian cricketers and commentators have been the most vociferous in their defence of Smith and co. Sanjay Manjrekar has veered between political correctness and an assessment that the punishment does not fit the crime.
Gautam Gambhir's imaginarium has cast Smith and Warner as the tragic heroes of a conspiracy by cricket administrators to dock pay: "While cricket needs to be corruption-free but feel sanctions on Aussies bit harsh. Are @stevesmith49 & @davidwarner31 paying for revolt for pay hike? History has it administrators deride those who standup for players’ cause. Classic case: Ian Chappell #BallTampering #StevenSmith” [sic.], he tweeted on March 29.
It was quickly followed by this psychoanalysis: “I may be getting emotional but @stevesmith49 doesn't look to me a cheat. Don’t know about u but I see in him a desperate leader trying to win a Test match for his country, his team. Yes, indeed, his methods were questionable but let's not label him corrupt #BallTamperingScandal". [sic.]
So there it is. Smith was a patriot whose tragic flaw was his team’s incompetence on foreign soil.
Ravichandran Ashwin attributed the punishment to schadenfreude: “The world simply wants to see you cry, once you have cried they will feel satisfied and live happily ever after. If only Empathy was not just a Word and people still had it. God give @stevesmith49 and Bancroft all the strength to come out of this”, he wrote on March 30.
Ashwin appears to have forgotten that to exercise empathy towards Smith and Bancroft, one has to have tampered with the ball.
Rohit Sharma called it a “mistake” and suggested that “great players” like the trio should not be “defined” by their disgraceful choices.
Yuvraj Singh made almost identical remarks: “To be honest it’s a bit sad to see @stevesmith49 like this Yes we all know he made a mistake and he is bearing the consequences for it but let’s not forget he’s been a great batsman and a good guy who’s got a lot of glory to Aus cricket also not the first person to tamper the ball." [sic.]
Surely, not being a pioneer with ball-tampering is no reason to be excused? Neither is excellence at the game.
Harsha Bhogle, the commentary box’s most prominent non-cricketer, weighed in by suggesting Warner’s punishment – which he gauged could be a lifetime ban – could not be "about this incident alone". Hello again, conspiracy theories.
Sachin Tendulkar, who himself was once embroiled in a ball-tampering scandal, tweeted: “They are regretting and hurting and will have to live with the consequences of their act. Spare a thought for their families as they have much to endure along with the players. Time for all of us to take a step back and give them some space."
Sourav Ganguly had stronger words for us all: “Absolutely disgraceful to everyone there.. can’t treat Steve smith like this @stevesmith49... u all are crazy" [sic.]
Even VVS Laxman, one of the most elegant batsmen India has produced and all-round nice guy, voiced his sympathy for Smith.
Warner hatched a plot to cheat; he enlisted a relative newcomer to carry it out and showed him how to do it; Smith knew of the plan and acquiesced in it. Warner would not even swear at his press conference that he had never cheated before. Smith called “an error of judgement" what was really a premeditated violation of rules. And yet, they’re "scapegoats". They’re the latest in a long line of cheats across countries and eras, and that is supposed to merit lighter punishment.
The game has got as ugly as it has because cricketers get away with a rap on the knuckles for things which deserve much harsher punishment.
India’s home series against England and away series in South Africa saw several displays of boorish behaviour, from excessive posturing to pulling faces and issuing send-offs, not least from the Indian captain Virat Kohli.
When cheats are considered patriots, perhaps there is no space for gentlemen in this game anymore.
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