IT HAS NOT been a good week to be an Australian. And it has certainly not been a good week to be a cricketer, whatever level you play the game. What happened in the third test match between Australia and South Africa has harmed us all and it has harmed sport across the board.
It is bad enough that there was tampering with the ball in order to get a bowling advantage in the match, but for it to be exposed as premeditated and condoned by the Australian Captain, Steve Smith, who also happens to be the best batsman in the world just now, is truly sickening.
Just what were these international players thinking? Do they not have enough confidence in their own cricketing abilities to win on a level playing field? Do they really believe that cheating to win a test match is what the sporting public wants to pay large sums of money to go and watch?
The press conference which took place after the incident was extraordinary. Cameron Bancroft, who was the main culprit, spoke, openly, about the yellow sticky tape he had used and why he felt it could be used in conjunction with the “granules” he could find on the pitch to change the condition of the ball. He eventually admitted his actions were wrong but only because he had panicked and had been seen on the TV screens stuffing the tape down the front of his cricket trousers. Sad to say, it left the impression that had he not be caught on the TV cameras, he would not have been admitting his actions were wrong, except perhaps to his team mates. That Steve Smith, the captain, appeared to go along with this was even worse.
When a journalist asked Smith who had known about the plan to rough up the ball, he said the senior players knew, they had talked about it lunch and they clearly decided it was worth trying; in other words, they needed to resort to cheating to gain advantage over South Africa on the field. He confirmed that “Bangers” (Bancroft) was not on his own and he too repeated the fact that the umpires hadn’t seen anything – as if that made a difference to the issue.
Smith also stated that Darren Lehmann, the Australian coach didn’t know what was going on – something which former Test Cricketers, including Jason Gillespie and Michael Vaughan, questioned. If he didn’t know, then what does that say about his coaching leadership? Surely, that raised other issues which he seemed to acknowledge by suggesting he would resign – but that hasn’t happened.
Perhaps the most extraordinary admission of all from Smith was when he was asked if he would consider stepping down. He replied “No, I still think I am the right person for the job”. This is the saddest aspect of all of this. That the – until now – very successful captain of Australia, one of the great cricketing nations of the world, and one of the world’s most prolific and successful batsmen ever, can think that he should keep his job is utterly astonishing. It is also very depressing. What message does it send out to the world of sport and especially to the next generation of young cricketers who, just like Smith and Bancroft before them, aspire to pull on an international cricket cap whether it is the legendary “baggy green” or any other one.
How Cricket Australia responds in the long term is important. As is the reaction from all the other cricketing nations. They have just as much responsibility as Australia to protect the game in the future and rid it of this insidious cancer.
Will some good come out of this episode? Yes, I think it will. So bad is the incident, and the reactions of those culpable, that it will make professional sportsmen and women think again about what they are doing and why they are doing it. Hopefully, it will make the big sponsors think carefully too since it can tarnish their name as well. We should not forget that in the last few months, we have also seen the ethical codes of other sports being questioned – athletics and cycling to name but two. Now, we have this very sorry episode in cricket.
Not long before his untimely death, I remember listening to Christopher Martin-Jenkins on Test Match Special discussing with Jonathan Agnew some of the themes from the book he wrote, The Spirit of Cricket. It was quite clear that Martin-Jenkins and Agnew both felt that the game had been diminished by the overt and deliberate sledging that was now part and parcel of what happens in international cricket – something which has, of course, now moved over into unpleasant warfare on social media, not just between the players but also between their families. They worried that international players were now prepared to win at all costs – something they said was so unnecessary if you are already the best cricketers in the world.
A distressed Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull described the recent affair as “so wrong and a shocking disappointment”. He speaks for all Australians but he also speaks for all of us involved in sport. It is never right to cheat, it never has been and it never will be. If you believe otherwise, you shouldn’t be playing or coaching any sport, including cricket.