THE cricket world, in fact a lot of the non-cricket playing world, has watched with awe, anger or bemusement at the mini-serial played out at Cape Town. What flabbergasted the observers over three days as the news oscillated between a conspiracy by a larger group to a smaller one, the role of the coach or not, and whether the bowlers themselves were involved was the increase in intensity over a law-break that several have happily admitted for a lower fall out.

Also read: The stain on baggy green — How a tampering incident tarnished Australian cricket's image

I cannot ever remember the head of the country speaking publicly on a ball tampering issue even before the head of a cricket board. After all, it was one act of rubbing the side of a ball that hundreds of cricketers have done even after the penalties were imposed. So why this stupendous crescendo that dwarfs anything the Australian cricketers have been bad at before?

My take on this is that Steven Smith brought it upon himself and his two colleagues by, well, standing up and telling the truth. The world has come a long way since a 6-year old George Washington admitted to cutting the cherry tree and told his father “I cannot tell a lie”.

Read: How Fanie de Villiers dismantled Australia two decades after retiring

Here of course there is no indication that had the TV cameramen not caught the act being committed by Bancroft, Smith would have woken up next morning and told the media that he in fact had ordered the ball scuffed on one side with yellow tape, especially if South Africa had collapsed to reverse swing the previous evening.

As such, under compulsion to explain what the world saw, he stood up for his young teammate and owned up to being the source behind the act. That was his first mistake. Whether it was a gamble to gain the sympathy of fans, media and his own cricket board back home or just plain honesty or to protect his young ward whom he had sent to the depths of despair, we may never know.

So what could he have done? Well, exactly what other senior players in Australian and other teams have done in the past when a rookie has been caught in the act. Let him take the fall as a lone wolf, much like everyone from Faf du Plessis did not once but twice — in UAE against Pakistan and against Australia in Australia. And so many others before that.

It is a written code among cricketers that a group or an entire team will conspire to ‘make’ the ball but the one who gets caught will own up to the crime and take a one match hit, as the ICC law stipulates. It is the price the man pays for the risk he takes. And asks for his pound of flesh later for his loyalty.

If someone were to question that the previous crimes with the ball were in fact singularly planned by an individual to the complete surprise of the captain and fast bowlers, he might as well return to Mars.

There is the story told to me personally by a former fast bowler while playing county cricket not too many years back. He said that he was tasked by the team to tamper with the ball as the match went on but if caught there was to be no naming names. He was eventually called out by the umpire and fined; don’t remember if he was suspended for a game. Irony was there were three fielders on the field either scratching one side or using substance on the shinier side.

Perhaps what left Smith out to dry was the result of coach Darren Lehmann’s action of sending out the 12th man to tell Bancroft to hide the evidence. That was completely unnecessary as it was the curiosity borne out of the messenger being sent that kept the cameramen glued to Bancroft to see what he did next. And what he did next was reveal the yellow tape which till then was an unknown commodity in the whole episode.

The question here arises why Lehmann sent out the 12th man when according to him he had no idea of the plan. The tape was not visible when the hand came out of the pocket to scrub the ball and the umpires had already been satisfied with the black cloth revelation by Bancroft. It was much like closing the barn door when the horses had bolted. In this case in a positive sense.

This led to the media conference explanation where Smith made his second mistake when he revealed that what Bancroft did was the result of the plan by the “leadership group”. By its very connotation it smelt of a larger group of ‘cheaters’ if you may and implied that senior players were on board. That spoke of the character of the whole team rather than the more-loyal-than-the-king individual, since it took no names.

His third mistake was in letting Bancroft take the first question on the ball tampering origins. That showed the captain in poor light as he left an inexperienced rookie to face the wrath of the media’s questions and make him look incredibly foolish, much like a junior school student in front of the school board.

As I said earlier, either Bancroft should have been left to his fate (as other offenders have faced) through a written press release stating that that he had pleaded guilty and his act was the result of over cleverness to help his bowlers when nothing had been asked from him; or Smith coming alone and saying the player had been counseled to play the game in the spirit outlined by Cricket Australia. That’s the way it has been done previously in such cases.

Yes nobody would have believed it as there is never a case of ball tampering where a non-bowler makes the ball for his bowlers. Faf du Plessis was not alone nor was Mike Atherton in 1996 when the England batsman took dust out of his pocket to sprinkle on the rough side of the ball. Nor was the English opening batsman Marcus Trescothick a few years later acting on his own when he shone one side of the ball by drawing saliva from a special sweet that produced the right gel upon sucking.

In other words these ‘crimes’ have always been discussed in dressing rooms and most of the team members know about it before the act is done on the field.

Had Lehmann kept his own counsel this matter of ball tampering would have been left to a possibility that something was rotten and subsequently forgotten. The cameras would never have caught the evidence.

Even then had Bancroft not gone downstairs with Smith and no long drawn media conference was held with Smith alone answering diplomatically that there would be a team investigation to see if anyone else was involved, the matter would have died a death after a few days.

In actuality the visuals of the two offenders caught red handed, Smith’s long drawn confession and apology, and then reiterating he would not step down actually challenged Cricket Australia authority with the Australian captain acting his own judge and jury.

Even then, I believe that if the Prime Minister had not given such a resounding statement asking for exemplary accountability before Sutherland, the CA chief could have smoothed things down the way the South African Board had downplayed Faf du Plessis’ acts of the same nature, not once but twice.

These series of errors, one by the coach aimed at concealment of evidence when no one was looking for it; the second by the captain for taking responsibility of leading the act and the third also by him, of revealing that behind the plot was a leadership group, immediately made it all look like the whole team was cheating with a plan.

It’s not that the Australians have not cheated before; it’s that they admitted to it beyond what they needed to that took them downunder.

Published in Dawn, March 29th, 2018



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