The Captain Goes Down With The Ship
In his last game as Captain of the Australian cricket team, Steve Smith allowed Cameron Bancroft to walk onto the field in the second session with a piece of sandpaper in his pocket. Bancroft held it there with the intent to cause damage to the non-shiny side of the ball. Smith’s deputy, David Warner, gave Bancroft a lesson in how to rough up that side in the rooms during Lunch. Smith knew the sandpaper was there and why it was there.
We are lead to believe this is the first time such a thing happened, but we don’t know if that is true, and I cannot accept that what we have been told so far is the whole truth. We do know that when Bancroft was caught on camera executing the plan, Smith told Bancroft he should get rid of the evidence. They then lied to both the umpires and coach when they said it was sticky tape instead of sandpaper. Exactly why, I don’t know. They then lied to the world and said the same thing, and said that it was not Warner who concocted the plan, but “the leadership group”. (This may not, in fact, be a lie, but at the moment that is the truth as we know it).
Smith’s leadership, whether he instigated it, encouraged it, or – as it seems – just allowed it, brought about the saddest image in my lifetime of watching Australian sport. Cameron Bancroft, a young man with a burgeoning career, playing in just his eighth Test match, shoving the guilty piece of sandpaper down his underpants and with it went any dignity that this Australian Test cricket team had left.
I have never read the rules regarding ball tampering until this week. They are peculiar, to say the least. They forbid any form of tampering, but also explicitly allow one form of tampering. Section 41.3.2 states “It is an offence for any player to take any action which changes the condition of the ball”, but Law 41.3.21 also states that the ball may be polished provided no foreign substance is used when doing so. The idea here is that polishing maintains the ball, whereas anything else degrades it.
The other peculiar part of the rule is that if one is to breach the rule and the umpires catch them, the penalty is five runs. In a game that rarely ends in a margin less than 20, a risk of losing five runs is minimal. The maximum penalty that the ICC can impose for a breach of these rules is one game. The opposing Captain in Smith’s offending game has been charged with this offence twice and never suspended. In a press conference just before the offending game, he made light of his punishment and wished that when he was being judged he had the same adjudicator that inexplicably overturned Rabada’s recent suspension. Law 41 also states that the Captain is responsible for ensuring fair play and adherence to the Spirit of Cricket and the Laws.
There is a disparity between what the public expects from players and what the ICC is willing to impose as a penalty for a breach of the rules. Considering recent events now is the time to increase the in-game penalty to 50 runs and something in the vicinity of what Bancroft has received. That would be a more effective deterrent.
The other disparity is between what the players accept as reasonable interference the ball and what the rules say. Despite being explicitly forbidden in the rules (It is an offence for any player to take any action), every ex-player who has condemned the actions of Smith/Bancroft/Warner, has also said it is reasonable to take steps to rough up the other side of the ball in a less confronting ways.
It is different, Warne said, to produce saliva with mints (and it is). Throwing the ball with the intention of it hitting the ground before the keeper is another tactic used, said Clarke. You ask the umpire incessantly to change the ball. But they would never ever cheat by bringing an object onto the field to tamper with the ball. Everyone had an issue that they had cheated, but the ex-players especially had an issue with that they cheated in such a clumsy way.
The player who received the harshest penalty for ball tampering, Shahid Afridi (two T20 Games), apologised when he was caught biting the ball and penalised for his actions. He said, “I was just trying to help the bowler. There is no team in the world that doesn’t tamper with the ball but my approach was wrong”. He was sorry, mostly because he used such a stupid method to tamper with the ball.
Marcus Trescothick candidly recalled in his autobiography a time when he was almost caught with mints during The Ashes in 2001 at Headingley: “I dived to gather the ball at square leg, I landed on my side, and a shower of Murray Mints spewed out of my trouser pocket all over the grass right in front of the umpire. Fortunately, neither he nor the two batsmen seemed to take much notice as I scrambled around on all fours trying desperately to gather in the sweets before they started asking awkward questions”.
These types of confessions are common. I have read many articles this week about the ‘dark arts’ of reverse swing. Tampering is an open secret, and the players usually do it secretly, even though the rules to say that is an offence to alter the ball with any action. The umpires often intervene when players throw the ball in too short, but there are surely times when someone legitimately misthrows from the outfield, and it bounces before the keeper. There is such a grey area with this rule that makes it so hard to legislate. Perhaps the rule should be changed so that the ball can be roughed up in any way using whatever is on the field of play excluding the pitch and – of course – items that the players have brought onto the field in their pockets such as sandpaper. It would certainly make for more entertaining cricket. The ICC, players, and fans all know that cricket is exciting when the ball is reverse-swinging.
The ICC and its history in dealing with tampering incidents make it somewhat complicit in this recent incident. The rules need to be changed to either better reflect the reality of cricket (that tampering goes on), or to change the reality of cricket (make tampering too risky of an option). This is not to excuse what the players did, the rules in place right now were blatantly breached and they were attempting to obtain an unfair advantage, but this incident cannot be separated from all the previous sly actions and soft penalties. There is a reason why Smith and Bancroft thought they could explain away their actions in that fateful press-conference after Stumps on Day Three.
And putting aside all the other issues, it is that press-conference that made the problem so much worse than it needed to be. This week on The Sounding Board , Craig Hutchison and Damian Barrett brilliantly dissected the media mismanagement of the cheating on Sunday. Steve Smith needed to front the press on Sunday after the game, and he needed to admit that something went wrong. He did not need, however, to plainly and bluntly admit to concocting a plan with the leadership group in the lunch break. This implicated himself and five other players unnecessarily. All he needed to say was that there was investigation ongoing and that he could not talk about it until the ICC gave its findings. Cameron Bancroft should not have even been at the press conference. He did not have to say he was using yellow tape instead of sandpaper. And Smith did not have to admit that they cheated and then try and shift the conversation to it being a learning experience and something that would never happen again. We could take that as gospel; we had his word.
There was a gap of 45-60 minutes between the end of play and the press conference. Lehman learned of the incident at Tea. It is astounding that it was allowed to happen. The full investigation by Cricket Australia needs to determine who was involved with the press conference plan and I suspect we will learn more about other leadership positions that are untenable. That they lied again, after the cheating, was reason enough to stand down Smith. Had it been managed better, Smith may have been able to continue playing for Australia soon.
And after that press conference, James Sutherland stated there would be a full investigation into the situation but made no initial findings. For no reason other than public relations, all he had to do was say that Smith and Bancroft had been stood down pending an investigation, and the anger that the Australian public felt would have dissipated slightly and the nation would have been able to take a collective breath. The players had admitted to cheating – that was all he required to stand them down while they worked out what happened. By doing nothing, he propelled the narrative that Cricket Australia would try and mitigate the damage.
Once again, none of the above excuses what happened, but it is just another interesting facet of this sad debacle. It compounded the stupid plan with more stupidity. The end result is that the three main players involved have been banned from the game they love for 9 and 12 months. Some have argued that the penalty is too harsh, and when compared with past penalties, it is. But if Cricket Australia did not take a stand now, then they never could. It would be insufficient to suspend the players for six months, missing only some One Day Internationals that no-one cares about, then allowing them to return for the Australian summer. The punishment needed to fit the crime, and the crime, in this case, was not just the cheating, but the covering up of the cheating and continued lying in the aftermath. There was a complete lack of leadership at every step of the way.
The three players have all now returned to the country from which they have been ostracised. Warner will likely never play for Australia again. The path seems clearer for Smith and Bancroft. They both held emotional press conferences upon their return. Warner to broke his silence on Saturday, but he was not able to reveal more than what was in Iain Roy’s initial report. I get the feeling he will one day and it will be explosive.
In his press conference, Smith was a broken wreck. He said it was a failure of his leadership and that he now fully understood the ramifications of his actions. That realisation, sadly, came five days too late. It didn’t come after Stumps on Day Three. And it didn’t dawn on him in the change rooms at Lunch. When he learned of the sandpaper plan, he didn’t stand up as a leader should. He didn’t say “No”.
And so, onto the cricket field walked Cameron Bancroft with bright yellow sandpaper in his pocket and 30 suspicious camera operators around him. Smith allowed that to happen. He didn’t think forward to the worst possible outcome, which is surely what he is living through now.