29th of March 2018 was indeed a “watershed” day for Australian Cricket. Quite literally, as first it was Cameron Bancroft who broke down during the presser at home, then their disgraced ex-captain Steven Smith who had just returned from South Africa couldn’t control his tears while addressing the media and finally their coach Darren Lehmann who was not sacked or banned, but voluntarily resigned after watching his players break down, who cried during his press conference as well.
Such was the emotional upheaval after this, that suddenly there was now a wave of sympathy towards the sanctioned players (including from our own players like Gautam Gambhir who tweeted in support of Smith) in the now infamous “sandpapergate” or the ball tampering which was caught on camera a week before during the third test between Australia and South Africa in Newlands, that Australia lost eventually!
After having won the first test quite comprehensively, thanks to the lethal reverse swing bowling by Mitchell Starc, Australia was on the back-foot in the next two tests when during the third day of the third test, post-lunch, the TV cameras zoomed in on Cameron Bancroft, the rookie opener using a yellow foreign substance to scrape the ball and later quietly stuffing that inside his trouser pocket. When a bewildered coach Lehmann who saw the footage called Peter Handscomb over walkie-talkie to alert Bancroft on the field, it was too late, as that only confirmed the suspicion, and a panicked Bancroft took the stuff out and shoved it inside his underwear, which too was caught on camera. What followed thereafter is now history and an indelible stain at that in Cricket Australia’s otherwise proud record.
Tampering per se has been happening ever since the wily Sarfraz Nawaz of Pakistan discovered how to reverse swing the old ball in the eighties, by keeping one side rough thanks to the dusty subcontinental pitches and the other side alone polished to perfection and thereby manipulating the aerodynamics of the ball. Such great players like English captain Mike Atherton, Shahid Afridi, Sachin Tendulkar et al were caught “doctoring” the ball, and suspended, though Sachin was later cleared of charges post investigation by ICC. The current South African captain Faf du Plessis himself was charged of tampering in similar situation “caught on camera” while they were touring Australia and suspended for a game.
It is a level 2 offence and should have at best got a ban of one test and some demerit points other than the noise made in media. But the seriousness of this incident was quite unlike any of those “spur of the moment” indiscretions by any player. First of all clearly a foreign substance was used not to shine the surface as in earlier cases like that of Faf’s , but to scratch the rough, that too with sandpaper (as later found out in the investigations that followed). Besides, as revealed by the former South African bowler Fanie de Villiers, this was set up and caught red handed!
De Villers said it was quite unusual to see only Aussie bowlers like Starc getting such sharp reverse swing on grassy wickets in South Africa, that too as early as in the 26th or 27th over. While the South Africans were puzzled by this extra reverse swing that their bowlers were unable to get, what was striking was that it was happening even before the ball could get roughed up in the normal course! Even in dry subcontinental wickets the ball reverse swings much after 30 overs whereas here on grassy wickets that was happening in the 26th or 27th over itself! This prompted them to talk to the camera crew to focus on a few key players closely and in the second test they found David Warner having taped his fingers quite excessively. Warner also was the “ball manager” on field for Australia and as it turned out, it was he who had bought Cameron Bancroft to get to do this before Bancroft got caught red or rather “yellow” handed! That this has been happening for some time now and was a pre-meditated and planned activity makes this a much serious and unprecedented offence, further corroborated by English bowlers too who felt even they were suspecting something of this sort as in the recent Ashes series down under, that they lost heavily, they weren’t getting the “unusual” reverse swing that Starc and Co were getting. Later another video clip emerged of Bancroft shoving some sugar crystals in his trouser pocket during Ashes, and now that too is linked to possibly being used for grating the rough on the ball.
Therefore this was wrong at multiple levels and goes much beyond the normal ball tampering incidents that have been reported earlier. Even after the admission of guilt by Smith, Bancroft and Warner who are now sanctioned by Cricket Australia, there are several questions left unanswered on this.
Initially, Bancroft when questioned by the umpires lied to them showing the black goggles cloth cover as the thing in his pocket and later said in the press conference that the thing he used was a yellow tape with some “grit” that he collected off the pitch. However it didn’t look like a tape in the visuals aired in the TV, but more like plastic or a hard substance. Cricket Australia CEO, Sutherland, later clarified it was sandpaper after their own investigations. Sandpaper is quite normally found in the kit of batsmen to smoothen the cracked edges of their bats. However it is prohibited to be used on the ball. So it is still unclear why would the players who anyway admitted the guilt would again lie about which foreign substance they used and how they did to tamper the ball with! Also Smith during his initial press conference said though the coaching staff was not involved in this, the “leadership” was aware of this. Now the leadership team of Australia is not just Warner and Smith who were vice-captain and Captain. It also includes other senior players like Starc, Nathan Lyon, and Josh Hazlewood. It is also quite unnatural that an issue like this which is supposed to aid the bowlers would be entirely handled and discussed only between three batsmen who are now sanctioned and that the senior bowlers may not be aware of it at all. Yet, when Cricket Australia announced the sanctions, they said it was only limited to the trio of Warner, Smith and Bancroft and no other players were either involved or was aware of it and that it was planned during the lunch break of the third day only. Players themselves were quick to distance themselves from Warner immediately who seemed to be the main conspirator of this plan.
This was actually Warner’s idea. Smith just fell for it, quite stupidly. Given that he has been at the peak of his form, having got his Test average next only to the great Don Bradman, it was all his citadel to lose!
More importantly for dragging a young and upcoming batsman in the dawn of his career also into it and making him a scapegoat. Imagine the situation Bancroft would have been in, when two of your big bosses ask you to do something when you have just joined an organisation and you need the job and more importantly your boss’s approval! This is why the whole issue is not about just ball tampering (which is much less an offence), but the way a rookie is dragged in, deluded and destroyed for no reason and is no different from any abuse of office or position of power! Having caught consulting the dressing room for DRS last year during the Bangalore test which he admitted as a “brain fade”, there is no further excuse for Smith to indulge in such a grave offence yet again and throw away a flourishing career of his and a junior player’s even if it was “rogue” Warner’s idea.
That is where leadership matters! Leadership is not about individual indiscretions being honestly admitted in front of media, breaking down in remorse and promising to make corrections. Leadership is about institutionalizing what is right and making that judgement call. It is that which is a failure here, which he himself admitted finally in the media briefing. He could be the greatest batsman, and that talent could not cover up the fact that he definitely is a poor leader. A leader who deliberately put not only his own career at risk, but also another young and upcoming player’s, and his whole team’s (where there are definitely other players who are not part of this) reputation at stake. For that, this is still a very small punishment and hopefully this break gives him time and peace to reset his priorities before we see him back again on the ground!
Lastly, it is about the culture of Australian cricket. Ever since Mark Taylor, who was the last decent and civilised captain they had, left the scene and Steve Waugh took over, they have been playing some ugly sport. It is not just about sledging, but the way they had developed this “win at any cost” culture under successive captains through Ponting, Clarke and now Smith; the sheer thuggery they show on field in the name of aggressive cricket have all contributed to where they are now. Remember the infamous Sydney test of 2008 after which Anil Kumble the then Indian captain said, “only one team played in the spirit of the game!”. There have been several instances and incidents since then that now almost every series where Aussies play there is some controversy or the other and player confrontations. Just before this test, there was an ugly spat between Warner and Quinton de Kock and Kagiso Rabada almost got suspended for the third test for a shoulder rub with Smith. Almost every team in the world today detests Aussies and Virat Kohli who himself is no pushover when it comes to playing the “rough” even said Aussies couldn’t be friends anymore. So it is this culture for which Darren Lehmann the coach who ultimately said before resigning yesterday that he also is responsible (and rightly so as it is difficult to believe this would have happened without his knowledge especially going by his shocked response on his face on camera when he first spotted in large screen Bancroft getting caught on this), that Cricket Australia and its players now after this, will have to ponder about especially since they keep justifying every rogue incident as something “within the line”.
As to “how far would they stretch the line and at what cost!”