The long read: Australia’s ball-tampering nightmare

Comment Sport

On the third day of the third Test yesterday between South Africa and Australia in Cape Town, a Test series already dogged by controversy became even more contentious. Australia took to the field with Steven Smith as their captain, David Warner as their vice-captain, and Cameron Bancroft as a promising but relatively untried Test match batsman. The reputation of these three players is now in tatters. Smith and Warner have one-year bans, and Bancroft nine months. Warner will never again be considered for leadership positions, and Smith and Bancroft will be barred from holding such roles for two years. In such a disgraceful episode of cheating, perhaps the only positive to emerge is the rapidity at which Cricket Australia has dealt with the perpetrators, as well as the fact that punitive bans have been given to Australia’s ‘leadership group’.

A simple decision made by members of the Australian side has aroused the fury of all those involved in cricket and has thrust the sport into the spotlight of the international media. There is not much worse than a cheat, besides maybe multiple cheats in the same team acting in a premeditated fashion. In cricket, ball tampering is a cynical and petty attempt to gain an advantage as a fielding side, involving roughing up the ball to either alter its flight and produce reverse swing (a batsman’s nightmare), or to get an umpire to change the match ball, so a bowling side can get more movement out of a new ball. As an offence, this act is frowned upon. Those who ball tamper are cheating, and their integrity and honesty in other areas of the game will be called into question. Ball tampering impinges on the spirit of cricket, a sport often coined the gentleman’s game. In addition, ball tampering is, as players are aware, clearly outside of the laws of the game. It is a cardinal sin of cricket, not only is it distasteful, but it is illegal. What the Australians have done is cheating, and they have done so in a premeditated fashion.

Cameron Bancroft, a batsman in just his eighth test match, was caught on television footage going to his pocket to remove a piece of yellow tape (now known to be sandpaper), and proceeding to rub this tape on the ball. As he realised he had been caught on camera, Bancroft then, in a panic, placed the yellow tape down his pants. The umpires, after being made aware of the footage, questioned Bancroft and his captain Smith, who both denied that the action of ball tampering had taken place.

However, at the end of the day’s play, Smith and Bancroft stepped forward to answer to the press. What ensued would have been farcical, and indeed absurd, had it not been so humiliating for the sport of cricket. Cricket Australia, fans, pundits and former players are furious, and rightly so. Commentator Jim Maxwell has said he “does not remember ever being as disappointed” in Australian cricket. Bancroft admitted to ball tampering, and hiding that he had done so. Smith confessed to knowing in advance this was going to occur, in fact, even admitting that a ‘leadership team’ involving himself, Warner and Bancroft had actively made a decision to try gain an advantage by tampering with the match ball. The irony here was not lost on English supporters, as just months previously, the same double-acts press conference antics hit the headlines after making something of a non-story into front page news, regarding an altercation between Bancroft and England’s Johnny Bairstow in a Perth bar.

What the Australians have done is cheating, and they have done so in a premeditated fashion.

The Aussies, like any other cricketing nation, are well aware of the hugely controversial nature of the act. It has previous history. Mike Atherton was fined £2,000 for the act in 1994. In 2006, a Pakistani side were penalised for the offence, and five penalty runs were given to the English. The Pakistanis were so incensed that they forfeited the rest of the test. South African captain and batsman Faf du Plessis, currently playing in Cape Town, has caused controversy twice. In 2013, he was caught rubbing the ball against a zip on his trouser pocket. Three years later, he licked the ball and shined it while eating a sweet – that day, it was the Australians in Hobart that were themselves outraged. Methods of ball tampering blur the lines of legality and illegality, but they are all, undoubtedly, outside the spirit of the cricketing contest. What sets this occurrence apart, however, is the nature of its planning and the involvement of numerous individuals. It is a stark reality that people cheat in sport to win, but the premeditated nature of this episode is deeply saddening

In the modern game, as in all sports, cameras are everywhere. Why did the Aussies think they could get away with it? Bancroft claims he was not coerced to do so by senior players in the dressing room, or by the team’s management. Smith claims the decision was made by ‘senior leadership’ within the team, but not by non-playing staff. There is an issue here. Bancroft, as a 25-year-old relative newcomer to test cricket, is by no means a senior player in the Australian dressing room. ‘Senior leadership’ also suggests more than just captain, vice-captain and Bancroft. This implication has enraged other senior players, who are now attempting to ensure their names remain untarnished. Why would Smith as captain choose Bancroft to perform such an act? Why would Warner allow such a decision to be made as vice-captain? Why would Bancroft not instantly decline to ball tamper so openly? Were other players and non-playing staff really ignorant to what was going on?

The exploits and achievements of their bowlers are now being questioned. Have the Australians ball tampered before?

We now know that there will be wholesale changes within the Australian dressing room. Smith, Warner, and Bancroft are out. Darren Lehmann, head coach, has now followed suit. Other senior players are furious that they have been implicated in being involved. Who knew of the plan, and who was actively involved, is open to wild speculation. What is certain, however, is that the following months are going to be fraught for the Aussies, a side who now need new leadership on the field, a new coach, and most vitally, need to find a new team ethic and understanding. The Australian cricket team needs to bring the fans back on side. This will be no easy task after such a disgraceful episode.

The Australians hardly need a fielding advantage. They have the most devastating pace attack in test match cricket. Pat Cummins, Mitch Starc and Josh Hazlewood form a triumvirate that are often rampant, ripping through test match batting line-ups. You only have to look at the recent Ashes series to see the effectiveness of the Aussie seamers. If anyone needs to ball tamper, it shouldn’t be the Australians. This is besides the point, however. What really made Smith think this was a good idea? The Australians have often been accused of arrogance, and they do indeed play the game in a confrontational manner, but they are not ignorant, they are not stupid. Or at least that was what was previously thought. All morals and ethics aside, it really was a stupid, naïve thing to do. Indeed, the exploits and achievements of their bowlers are now (unfairly or otherwise) being questioned. Have the Australians ball tampered before? While England batter Dawid Malan has said he is not pointing any fingers, former captain and pundit Michael Vaughan has said he would not be surprised if the Aussies had offended during the most recent Ashes series.

The now disgraced Smith is an outstandingly talented batsman who has developed into the most formidable and obdurate batsman in world cricket, outscoring England’s Joe Root, New Zealand’s Kane Williamson, even India’s Virat Kohli. He has hit over a thousand test runs for the past four calendar years, and has the highest batting average since Don Bradman, the greatest cricketer of all time. Quite simply, Smith was integral to Australian cricket. His career has not gone without controversy, however. His sportsmanship, like that of the Australian side in general, has often been called into question. In March 2017, India were angered after Smith looked up to the dressing room while pondering whether to review an lbw decision, contrary to ICC regulations that outlaw off-field assistance. His Australia side’s behaviour has been increasingly questioned. Innumerable current and former players have become disgruntled at their conduct on and off the field: former England spinner Graham Swann suggested the Aussies are now ‘friendless’ on the international stage, and Jim Maxwell has added: “I’ve started to become more and more offended by the arrogance of some of the players in the way they behave”.

Indeed, the Australians do often blur and push the line of acceptable conduct. For many, this kind of incident has been coming for a while, and there is an element of cynical pleasure at seeing the Australians embroiled in this debacle after rubbing numerous Test nations up the wrong way. Recent Ashes series have been dominated by issues of player conduct and sledging. This most recent issue has angered many, especially while Australian players continue to be accused of misconduct. Even Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has weighed in: “How can our team be engaged in cheating like this? It beggars belief”. The Australians have often operated, and indeed thrived, within a siege mentality. However, in recent months and years this mentality has threatened to tarnish their on-field achievements, and, to be blunt, many Australian fans, even prior to this incident, were probably quite embarrassed by some of their players’ conduct, both on and off the field. It may no longer be an exaggeration to suggest that many Australian cricket fans love their country, but not the team that represents them.

The Aussie cricket team have never been the most likeable to outsiders. Numerous series in the last few years have been blighted by controversy and tension.

This series between the South Africans and the Aussies has been played at a ferocious tempo. The intensity of the cricket that has been played is not surprising; David Warner is as abrasive as they come in the test arena, Kagiso Rabada is a fiery competitor, and captain Smith certainly allows, if not encourages, his side’s sledging tendencies. However, this series has seen tempers boil over, with numerous incidents blighting the quality of cricket on display. There has been an off-field incident between Warner and South African wicketkeeper Quinton De Kock, an on-field spat between Smith and Rabada, and Australian coach Darren Lehmann complaining of verbal abuse received by his players. Warner took offence to De Kock making slurs about his wife, and Lehmann took objection to some within the South African crowd. Both these incidents are unacceptable.

However, what goes around comes around. Warner’s own career has been characterised by controversy – he has clashed with players and even supporters, and former New Zealand captain Crowe has said how Warner is the most ‘juvenile’ cricketer he has ever encountered. He is a destructive batsman, but he is equally a destructive personality. Before the 2013-14 Ashes series Lehmann told the Aussie supporters to make England bowler Stuart Broad ‘cry and go home’. Graham Swann has complained how for years it has been the Aussies dictating how the game should be played, setting themselves up as the epitome of cricketing conduct, while frequently blurring and crossing the line of acceptable conduct themselves. This latest, humiliating incident has threatened the very spirit of the game that cricket fans hold dear, way more so than any of the previous episodes that the Aussies have themselves complained about. For many of Australia’s critics, the irony of the past week has seemed too good to be true.

To put it bluntly, the Aussie cricket team have never been the most likeable to outsiders. Numerous series in the last few years have been blighted by controversy and tension: the last couple of Ashes series in particular, and an Indian tour Down Under are two cases in point. Many of their most recent star players have played the game on the edge, and have often been comfortable with taking the game beyond the line of fair play and sportsmanship. You only have to look at incidents involving Mitchell Johnson, Michael Clarke, and indeed, David Warner in recent years to see that the Australians often play hostile, ferocious cricket. There is no way that Michael Clarke telling James Anderson to expect a broken arm can be justified by a competitive mentality, and the same goes for David Warner reportedly punching Joe Root in a bar. More frequently than most other test sides, the Aussies intimidate, they sledge, and they make the opposition feel uncomfortable. When at home, almost invariably this mentality works. Ask any England fan who watched much of the previous Ashes series. An effective Aussie side riled up by experienced, tenacious players is a formidable, intimidating proposition.

They have crossed the line one time too many, and all of cricket has suffered as a consequence.

The strategies of the Australian cricket team may not be to everyone’s liking – in fact, it is easy to see why they are disliked. Yet, they do get results, and all test sides sledge in some ways and often push the game’s spirit to its limits: the South Africans themselves are not exactly innocent, and the incidents that embroiled the English on their recent Ashes tour show this. It is not only the Aussies that threaten the spirit of test cricket. However, this most recent incident is a bridge too far, it is blatant cheating within a team whose previous behaviour and conduct has regularly been called into question. The actions of Smith, Bancroft and co. go against the laws of cricket, as well as the ethos of the Australian cricket team.

This most recent incident is unashamed, calculated cheating, and then a display of cowardice when the cheating did not work. A team known for their competitive edge are now dogged by an incident that threatens their very integrity. For Warner, a man already with many critics, this latest incident could make his reputation all but unsalvageable. After all the previous controversy surrounding him, upon the conclusion of his ban he may not be worth the inevitable future risk. Smith’s test career may not end, but his captaincy has, and the character of the world’s leading batsman will now permanently be questioned. Bancroft’s naivety and inexperience have cost him dear – he now looks like a young cricketer who can be persuaded to cheat. The damage done by this event could be long-lasting indeed. For Lehmann, a successful reign has ended in a humiliating fashion.

A test side as good as Australia, with Smith, Warner, and their ferocious bowling attack, should not need to ball-tamper. A young, inexperienced player should never have been asked to do so. Cricket Australia’s investigation has been rapid and its punishments effective, yet we still do not understand why or how Australia’s players were able to so easily come to a decision that deliberate cheating was acceptable. A team that for so long have been disliked by many for their aggression and conduct on and off the field are now lambasted because of an inexcusable act, an act that calls into question the integrity not only of individual players, but also Australian cricket and test cricket in general. Smith’s, and indeed Lehmann’s, Australia will now likely be remembered for one blatant, stupid, inexplicable act, and rightly so. They have crossed the line one time too many, and all of cricket has suffered as a consequence.