Cricket is a game that traditionally has expected the highest ethical standards of its players and spectators, so much so that the phrase ‘not cricket’ has entered the vernacular as denoting something that, while not being technically illegal or contravening an explicit rule, is nonetheless seen as a form of gamesmanship, trying to gain an edge that was not based purely on skill or strategy or ability. But that sterling reputation has seriously deteriorated over time because of the on-field and off-field tactics adopted by players and spectators
I am an old-time purist of the game and had come to hate some of the recent practices, such as fielders trying to intimidate and distract a batter, gloating and giving a batter a derisive send-off when he gets out, or the practice known as ‘sledging’, making insulting and personal comments at opposing players on the field. Spectators have taken up this practice and also harass players who are near the boundary with verbal abuse and sometimes even throwing things at them. Australia is widely seen as one of the worst culprits, willing to use any tactic, however unseemly, that they can get away with to try and win games. And because they often win, their supporters tend to excuse this conduct.
The latest and glaring example of where this kind of gamesmanship can lead occurred two days ago when Australia, in the third day of the five-day Test match against South Africa, got caught tampering with the ball. In cricket, bowlers can use the uneven wear on the ball to cause it to ‘swing’, i.e., veer sideways in flight making it hard for the batter to predict its trajectory. Swing is aided when the two halves of the ball have different levels of roughness, something that is explainable by fluid dynamics. Players are allowed to polish the ball just on one side by rubbing it on their clothes but that is all. You are not allowed to use any polishing materials or deliberately rough up the other half of the ball. But that was exactly what one Australian player did. Unfortunately for him and the team, he was not surreptitious enough and his actions were caught by TV cameras that showed it on the massive screens on the ground.
A small, yellow object was seen in Bancroft’s hands after he had worked on the ball, and he was also captured taking it from his pocket and seeming to place it down his trousers. The footage showed Bancroft seeming to rub the rough side of the ball, the opposite side to which he would usually be trying to shine on his trousers. He appeared to put the object down his pants apparently after being spoken to by the substitute Peter Handscomb, who had come on to the field after speaking to coach Darren Lehmann over walkie talkie. Lehmann seemed to speak to Handscomb after footage of Bancroft working on the ball was shown on the TV screens at the ground.
What was utterly disgraceful was that the team, including the captain Steven Smith, was implicated in this disgusting scheme. Up to this point, Smith had a good reputation as player and captain and was seen as better than many of his predecessors who were willing to condone and even encourage gamesmanship.
A contrite Steven Smith admitted to Australia’s leadership group knowing about it. “The leadership group knew about it. We spoke about it at lunch,” he said. “I am not proud of what’s happened. It’s not within the spirit of the game. My integrity, the team’s integrity and the leadership group’s integrity has come into question. It wont happen again.
“I wont consider stepping down [from captaincy]. I still think I am the right person for the job. Today was a big mistake on my part and on the leadership group as well. I have to take control of the ship. This is something I am not proud of. It’s something I hope I can learn from and come back from. I am embarrassed. It is a big error in judgement.”
It is not a mistake or ‘error in judgment’. There was no ambiguity involved that made this a judgment call. It was a deliberate act of cheating, consciously made. What is even worse is that the so-called ‘leadership group’ in the team assigned this illegal act to one of the youngest members of the team, 25-year old Cameron Bancroft who had been selected for the national team only four months ago and who would have been in a tremendously weak position to resist the request even if he had wanted to, though he seems to have been a willing and even eager accomplice.
Seldom in elite sport has a team been caught cheating so clearly, so systematically, and so collectively. Seldom has a team normalising sharp practice, and enlisting the youngest members of the team to carry it out, been so wholly exposed.
Having been put in this position by repeated batting failures on this tour, the Australian team leaders – Steven Smith, Warner, Lyon, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood – reasoned over the lunch break that something had to be tried to rough the ball up to get it to reverse swing. Overhearing this and all too ready to volunteer his services was Bancroft, Australia’s least seasoned player.
To suggest that Bancroft did not know the rules – the explanation offered for Peter Handscomb’s suggestion that Smith ask the dressing room about a DRS referral in India last year – would be pointless: ball tampering is, rightly or wrongly, among cricket’s most-high profile taboos – just ask Faf du Plessis. Indeed, Bancroft admitted to nervousness about a knowing attempt to rough up the ball illegally with the eyes of the world on Newlands. They knew this was wrong even as they contemplated it. To quote a detective observing a crime scene in the film Insomnia: “This guy crossed the line and he didn’t even blink. You don’t come back from that.”
When footage of something amiss was aired on the stadium’s big screen, worse was to follow. A ham-fisted attempt by the team – whether it was Smith, Lehmann, Handscomb or Bancroft involved is secondary to the attempt itself – to cover up the practice had Bancroft dropping the offending adhesive tape down his trousers and then innocently waving a cloth for his sunglasses to the umpires. Ever since the attempted bugging of the Democratic National Committee in the 1972, the dangers of a cover-up have been plain to all who uttered the term “Watergate”, yet here was the Australian team trying one in plain sight.
Although Smith said he would not step down from the captaincy, retribution was swift and he was summarily dismissed from that position (along with his vice-captain David Warner) by the Australian cricket authorities and he was banned by the International Cricket Council from playing in the fourth and final test.
ICC CEO David Richardson said in a statement:
“The game needs to have a hard look at itself. In recent weeks we have seen incidents of ugly sledging, send-offs, dissent against umpires’ decisions, a walk-off, ball tampering and some ordinary off-field behaviour. The ICC needs to do more to prevent poor behaviour and better police the spirit of the game, defining more clearly what is expected of players and enforcing the regulations in a consistent fashion. In addition and most importantly Member countries need to show more accountability for their teams’ conduct. Winning is important but not at the expense of the spirit of the game which is intrinsic and precious to the sport of cricket. We have to raise the bar across all areas.”
Australia is not the only country that does this kind of thing (India also has a bad reputation and the rot has spread to other countries though to a lesser extent) but they seem to have adopted the attitude that anything that they can get away with is fine. The cricket authorities need to really step in with massive punishments for this kind of infraction in order to stamp out these practices.
I cannot recall a captain and vice-captain being stripped of their positions in the middle of a game. Australia also went on the next day to put in a humiliating batting performance and suffer an ignominious defeat. While this swift punishment was welcome, I would like to see much harsher punishments meted out to players, including bans of a year or more for unsportsmanlike conduct and even lifetime bans for deliberate acts of cheating.