Last Sunday, as thousands of Australian kids were ferried around to various sporting events, the news from South Africa left sports coaches and parents trying to explain as best they could why Steve Smith, the captain of the Australian cricket team, cheated.
Smith, along with vice-captain David Warner, asked a team-mate, Cameron Bancroft, to use a piece of sandpaper to grit one side of the ball in the hope of manipulating its trajectory (reverse swing), thus making it harder for the South African batsmen.
Cricket Australia quickly sent its high-performance director, Pat Howard, and the head of its sports integrity unit, Iain Roy, to South Africa to investigate.
Warner was yesterday deemed the ringleader behind the Australia ball-tampering scandal which has seen him, captain Steve Smith, and Cameron Bancroft hit with lengthy bans.
Vice-captain Warner and Smith have been banned from international and domestic cricket for 12 months and Bancroft for nine months by Cricket Australia following the Cape Town controversy.
There are usually five key questions in sports integrity investigations of this kind: —What was the plan or conspiracy to cheat? How was it achieved? Why was it proposed? Who exactly was involved? And what is the appropriate sanction?
In this instance, the answer to questions one and two appear clear and indeed have been admitted by those involved.
The ‘why’ question also appears clear. Faced with losing another Test match in the series, the Australian team’s leadership group, during the lunch break on Saturday, concocted their ball tampering plan. It wasn’t, however, just the side of a ball that was being manipulated, it was, potentially, the outcome of the game itself.
Moreover, Australian public opinion was loud and clear this week — it wasn’t just the South Africans being cheated, but all who watch the game and expect it to be played competitively but fairly.
It seems that that win-at-all-costs mentality of the team and its core leadership led to the decision that any possible risk of getting caught was worth the potential rewards.
This was despite 30 cameras surrounding the field of play and heightened media interest in the game, given so-called sledging incidents between the players.
The key question eventually became the fourth one above — who among the players knew, and were the coaching staff aware of the tampering plan?
Cricket Australia has since found the conspiracy to cheat was limited to just the three players — Smith, Warner, and Bancroft.
The coach Darren Lehmann was cleared by the investigation, though Lehmann’s ignorance of the players’ decision implies a level of incompetence on his part which would be damning of any coach at any level.
Bancroft, comically, was at one point filmed shoving the tape down his trousers to hide it from the umpires, and he has also been given demerit points for his role in the ball tampering scandal by the International Cricket Council (ICC). Smith, as captain, had already received a one-match ban. Both had their match fees deducted.
Ball tampering bans have, historically, not resulted in long bans.
In 1994, the then England captain Mike Atherton held onto the England captaincy and avoided suspension but was hit with a fine after he was caught using dirt in his pocket while manipulating the ball during a Test against South Africa at Lord’s (#dirtgate).
In 2010, Pakistan’s Shahid Afridi was banned from two Twenty20 internationals after being found guilty of ball tampering by biting on the seam during an international in Perth (#bitegate).
In 2013, South Africa’s Faf du Plessis was fined 50% of his match fee for rubbing the ball against the zipper of his pants pocket (#zippergate).
In 2016, du Plessis was filmed shining the ball with saliva while also having a mint in his mouth. The ICC gave him three demerit points on his record (#mintgate).
When it comes to #tapegate, Cricket Australia seem, however, to be treating the current misbehaviour in a much more serious manner, as a reflection on the integrity of the team and the game itself.
An added complication is that Cricket Australia centrally contracts the players involved — those contracts are up for renewal at the end of April.
Already corporate sponsors, including those relating to individual players, have expressed concern. Sponsors’ money along with a TV rights deal — the latter with great commercial sensitivity being negotiated by Cricket Australia at present — underwrite the viability of the sport.
Domestically, cricket must fight for exposure with the AFL and the rugby codes.
Internationally, the future of Test cricket as a format of the game is being questioned.
Australian sport, recreationally, professionally and commercially holds itself, rightly, to its own high standards of integrity. And the ethos of the current senior men’s team, at least in the last few months, shouldn’t be taken to reflect the ethos of the sport as a whole in Australia.
The forceful, sometimes shrill, invective directed against the few (Smith and others) this week actually shows the fundamental desire for fair play in sport is still respected by many in Australia.
Applicable to all sport, what the past week shows is that the bubble that is elite sport means that the moral compass of those who play it is often skewed. It often goes, as does the players’ judgment, into something the Australian players tried but failed to achieve at the weekend — reverse swing.