“I hope, in time, I can earn back respect and forgiveness. I’ve been so privileged and honoured to represent my country and captain the Australian cricket team. Cricket is the greatest game in the world. It’s been my life and I hope it can be again. I’m sorry and I’m absolutely devastated.”
A broken Steve Smith broke down during his on-arrival press conference at the Sydney Airport on Thursday. At that point, it became gut-wrenching. Arguably the best batsman in contemporary cricket, Smith didn’t deserve this for ball tampering, which is a Level 2 offence under the ICC code. The global body of the game had handed the former Australia captain a one-Test ban and 100% fine of his match fee. Cricket Australia (CA) played to the gallery, opting for draconian punishments for Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft. The schadenfreude mongers must have rejoiced.
A day after the Newlands sandpaper-gate, the venerable cricket commentator and columnist Henry Blofeld tweeted: “Smith & Warner should never be allowed to play again. Lehman (coach Darren Lehmann) must go & Bancroft tho he was presumably sucked in & to curry favour went along with it. Like match-fixing, ball tampering is a cancer and those caught, must be completely cut out. Aussie PM’s reaction was spot on.”
This begs a question—did Blofeld call for Tony Greig’s life ban after the Vaseline-gate in Madras in 1976-77? John Lever and Bob Willis stuck ‘Vaseline-impregnated gauze’ to their foreheads and swung the ball prodigiously. Lever returned with a five-for. The visitors played down the issue, saying they just wanted to channel the sweat away from their eyes. But umpire Judah Reuben spotted grease on the ball and reported against Lever for ball tampering.
The ICC match referee didn’t exist those days. TV cameras on the ground used to be few and far between. And India weren’t a cricket superpower. So heads didn’t roll and England escaped unhurt. In fact, when then India captain Bishan Bedi commented: “… disgusting that England should stoop so low”, a section of the British press incredulously accused him of chucking.
Back to the present, and maybe the most surprising part in the whole Newlands sandpaper-gate was the way Australia’s Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, waded into it. “I look forward to Cricket Australia taking decisive action soon,” the Prime Minister was quoted as saying. His comment put Smith and company in a bad spot. Politicians’ job is to keep their own houses in order and discretion perhaps would have been the better part of valour.
Ball tampering has been happening in cricket maybe for the past 100 years now, from the village green to the international arena. The Pakistan teams in the 1970s and 80s allegedly made it an art form. Even unusual suspects like Mike Atherton and Sachin Tendulkar found themselves in the crosshairs. Faf du Plessis, Smith’s counterpart in the ongoing South Africa-Australia series, had been charged twice, getting away with only hefty fines.
Even the ICC indirectly accepts that almost every team tries to change the condition of the ball in one way or another. This is why it’s a Level 2 offence and not a Level 4 ‘felony’. In handing out the punishment to Smith, the ICC had said: “The decision made by senior players of the Australian team to act in this way is clearly contrary to the spirit of the game, risks causing significant damage to the integrity of the match, the players and the sport itself and is therefore ‘serious’ in nature. As captain, Steve Smith must take full responsibility for the actions of his players and it is appropriate that he be suspended.”
The ICC release added: “The umpires inspected the ball at that time and elected not to replace the ball and award a 5-run penalty as they could not see any marks on the ball that suggested that its condition had been changed as a direct result of Bancroft’s actions. The umpires though agreed that Bancroft’s actions were likely to alter the condition of the ball and he was therefore charged under Article 2.2.9.”
Warner wasn’t charged at all.
The CA, on the other hand, described the actions of Smith, Warner and Bancroft “harmful to the interests of cricket” apart from an attempt to the spirit of cricket. The trio was also found guilty of bringing the game of cricket “into disrepute”.
As Smith became an emotional wreck, a teary-eyed Lehmann, too, called it quits. Lehmann had long been accused of ‘headbutting the line’. He was considered to be the reason behind Australia’s boorish on-field behaviour. Wasn’t it Steve Waugh who brought about the ‘mental disintegration’ strategy!
Typical of an administrator, though, CA chief executive James Sutherland refused to step down, notwithstanding the fact that the team’s collective hubris steadily rose under his watch. He didn’t raise his voice when the Australian team took a collective decision during the 2003 World Cup that the batsmen wouldn’t walk (wasn’t that premeditated cheating also?). Adam Gilchrist defied the ‘diktat’ in the semi-final against Sri Lanka to the utter disbelief of his teammates.
Sutherland also seemingly found no spirit of cricket breach in Michael Clarke grounding the ball and still claiming a catch against Sourav Ganguly at the SCG in January 2008. Worse, Australia skipper Ricky Ponting told umpire Mark Benson it was a fair catch, which the latter accepted.
Hopefully, in meting out ‘significant sanctions’ to the trio, the CA didn’t avail the opportunity to nail last year’s pay war rebels.
PS: The Football Association banned Eric Cantona for nine months and ordered 120 hours of community football for kung-fu kicking a Crystal Palace fan, Matthew Simmons. Apart from their respective bans, the CA has ordered Smith, Warner and Bancroft 100 hours of community cricket—for ball-tampering…