Cricket against Australia is never really just cricket. It’s a hybrid war, fought on many fronts, the game merely one part of it. Mental disintegration – otherwise known as sledging – the influence of a partisan media, all have a role to play.
Few, however, expected to hear Steve Smith’s admission of flagrant cheating against South Africa, a confession that could yet see his team stripped of its most senior players.
For what future can there be for a leadership group so obviously shorn of leaders? Smith may have been trying to save his friend Cameron Bancroft when he revealed the sorry details of a meeting between the biggest names in his team, but he has inadvertently besmirched a generation of the finest Australian cricketers.
What happens to Australia after Steve Smith’s admission of premeditated ball tampering?
If he is sacked, or stands down as Australia’s captain now, who can take charge? Not David Warner, his vice-captain – a looser cannon and an unpleasant individual – and not Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood, if they are indeed the three other team leaders, as is believed.
All were party to a tactical discussion, the bottom line of which was ‘let’s cheat’ and all took the field without protest. Smith did not talk of dissent or even debate in his declaration of guilt. He may have helped lift the burden of blame from Bancroft’s lone shoulders, but he spread it fairly evenly from there.
‘It was the leadership group’s idea,’ he said. ‘Poor choice and we deeply regret our actions.’ No doubt, now they have been caught – but that is an unequivocal statement. Australia, the best of them, are in this together. It is hard to see how their punishments cannot be equally uniform – even if Smith will suffer most greatly, as the team’s deposed figurehead.
Smith said the ‘leadership group’ decided Cameron Bancroft would alter the ball’s condtion
Bancroft ran his hand over the ball, before placing the yellow sticky tape down his trousers
What an incredible change of fortune 2018 has been for him. He began the year as a victorious Ashes captain and the finest batsman in the world, his majestic command drawing comparisons with Bradman.
Bringing up the rear as Australia returned to play on Sunday, he has been stood down temporarily as captain, banned by the ICC, albeit it for one game, and has recorded a succession of ordinary scores in South Africa. Most damningly, his name will forever be associated with a cheating scandal that will be recalled much as the Bloodgate debacle is in rugby union: an attempt at deception that was, by turn, monstrously arrogant yet hopelessly inept.
Bancroft’s attempt at manipulation could not have been made more obvious had he taken a Black & Decker Workmate to a quiet corner of Newlands
Just as the fake blood purchased in a south London joke shop came to symbolise both the immoral deviousness of Harlequins’ management, but also their foolishness, so the clumsiness of Bancroft’s attempted ball-tampering reveals an Australian team that saw itself as untouchable, yet were too frightened of losing to play straight, and too stupid to acknowledge the presence of many television cameras following their every move.
Bancroft’s attempt at manipulation could not have been made more obvious had he taken a Black & Decker Workmate to a quiet corner of Newlands, to better hone his handiwork. The ludicrous cover up, with sandpaper hastily stuffed down his Y-fronts, and a sunglasses case innocently produced for inspection by the umpires, only heightened the sense of farce.
This was no rush of blood, this was a calculated decision made in order to try and avoid defeat
Yet, all comedy stripped away, this is no laughing matter. This was no rush of blood, no moment of madness. An Australian team struggling to win by fair means, made an executive decision to pursue foul instead, calling into question how many times this conclusion has been reached in the past.
Not in the Ashes series, necessarily. As Joe Root’s England team are proving in New Zealand, devious plots are not required to defeat them: just competent bowling, and a little bit of tenacity with the bat. Nobody has needed to tamper with the ball in Auckland. It barely has time to scuff, let alone reverse swing, before England’s collapse reaches its inevitable conclusion.
Yet, considering the willingness to hatch a nefarious plan over lunch – and rope the least experienced member of the team in to execute it – what else would Australia’s leadership group do to win a Test? Might some of the rumours of the extreme sledging aimed at Jonny Bairstow be true? Might some of the tales about England players inadvertently leaked into pitch-side microphones be a little too convenient?
Is this part of the hybrid war, a pattern of behaviour that ends with the decision taken in Cape Town, by a team that considered itself above reproach?
It begs the question, to what extremes would this Australian side go to avoid losing a Test?
Might some of the rumours of the extreme sledging aimed at Jonny Bairstow be true?
It is no little irony that the incident that was a tipping point for English cricket – players celebrating a 3-0 Ashes win by urinating on the pitch at The Oval in 2013 – was first reported by Australian journalists, still working late at what was thought a deserted venue. Here, then, the mirror of that conceit.
‘Earthquake of arrogance drives cheating tsunami,’ was one headline in The Australian on Monday morning, and the writer was correct. Just as England’s players showed their self-regard with crude, loutish antics – so Australia’s displayed a contempt for the sport, its participants and officials, with such a blatant attempt at cheating.
Of course, it helps that those at cricket’s helm make contempt such an easily attainable emotion. How else can we react to the ICC decision on Sunday that Smith would receive a one-match suspension, and Bancroft simply demerit points?
It is the ICC that make ball tampering so appealing, by grading it only as a Level 2 offence. That puts it one up from excessive appealing, but one down from intimidating the umpire or referee. There are four levels of Code of Conduct offences, placing ball tampering – an act that can without doubt influence the course of the game – in the bottom half of cricket’s crimes.
‘Earthquake of arrogance drives cheating tsunami,’ was one headline in The Australian
There are plenty of opportunities to check whether the ball is being disfigured. The umpire makes inspections after every over, but following the incident between England and Pakistan in 2006 it does not appear there is much appetite from the ICC for great vigilance in this area.
When Darrell Hair called Pakistan for ball tampering at The Oval, Pakistan refused to come back onto the field after tea, and the match had to be forfeited and awarded to England.
An ICC Code of Conduct hearing later cleared Pakistan captain Inzamam-ul-Haq of affecting the ball. Since when, very little, despite every voice in cricket saying it goes on. Shahid Afridi of Pakistan was banned for two matches in 2010, but he was treating the ball like a ripe apple and biting it, while there have been two allegations against Faf du Plessis of South Africa.
Recriminations should not stop at Smith, Bancroft (L) or even vice-captain David Warner (R)
Yet, still, nothing like this. No counsels of wisdom deciding to cheat; no equipment brought onto the field specifically for that purpose. This is what sets the efforts of Australia’s leadership group apart.
It is also why recriminations should not stop at Smith, Bancroft or even vice-captain Warner. If the ICC cannot be trusted to set an example, then Cricket Australia must.
The leadership group should be disbanded, required to take a year out, to consider what leadership means. It is not the same as launching a hybrid war, of winning at all costs, as cheating because the end might justify the means.
A true leader would have heard the sandpaper plan, shook his head, left and closed the door firmly behind him; and every player in that room should spend the next 12 months reflecting on why he did not.
Whoever is in this leadership group should be banned for a year to think about their actions