Once the prime minister of Australia had addressed the nation on the subject it was inevitable that Steve Smith’s tenure of the Australian captaincy would come to an abrupt end. Australians are up in arms, and, somewhat confusingly, astonished that their cricketers are capable of cheating. Even more unprecedentedly, their cricketers are admitting it.
“How can our team be engaged in cheating like this? It beggars belief.” For a second or two, Malcolm Turnbull’s words sounded like denial. Then we realised he was merely reflecting the nation’s shock. It was shocking that they were all so shocked.
Modern sportsmen head-butting the line – to use a phrase coined by Nathan Lyon – thereby seeking an advantage in an illegal way? It happens all the time, whether cricketers are trying to change the condition of the ball or appealing for dubious catches, or footballers are diving in the penalty area. And it is not just a phenomenon of the 21st century.
In Auckland they worship Andy Haden, the All Blacks’ second-row who memorably threw himself out of lineouts to win last‑minute penalties. One such occasion was in Cardiff during 1978 and his full-back, Brian McKechnie, kicked the match-winning penalty. Haden later admitted that they had rehearsed the move.
The same McKechnie was at the MCG three years later receiving that underarm delivery from Trevor Chappell, another incident that prompted a prime ministerial intervention, this time from Robert Muldoon of New Zealand – “an act of cowardice appropriate to a team playing in yellow”.
So why is the hue and cry so rampant this time? The ball‑tampering in Cape Town was obviously a premeditated, calculated plan concocted by the “leadership team” that Smith kept referring to in a riveting press conference, which may just have brought a smile to Jonny Bairstow’s face.
Not only were they exposed as cheats, but they also looked stupid. They had to confess. Smith was shrewdly asked how he would have felt if they had not been caught. “Really bad,” he said, yet somehow this was none too convincing.
There is not much sympathy for Smith and the Australians. Indeed there is a certain amount of mirth, especially when the footage of Darren Lehmann’s reaction to the TV pictures and the subsequent attempts to cover up the evidence emerged.
The blunt truth is that this Australia cricket team do not attract sympathy easily. Correspondents in Cape Town explained how angry the team were at their treatment from the crowds in South Africa after all the rows involving Quinton de Kock and Kagiso Rabada, as if this had never happened to touring sides visiting Australia. Lehmann himself in an ill-advised, late-evening interview had urged the crowds “to send Stuart Broad home crying” before the 2013-14 tour.
Australia have messed up spectacularly; their actions cannot be condoned. There has to be a punishment that deters and it feels like the side’s chief executive, James Sutherland, is in a mood to deliver one. However, there is a 21st-century hysteria about the reaction. Perhaps an opportunity has been missed. This would have been a great time to deliver cricket’s first red card. The matter would have been swiftly dealt with and Australia would have been weakened in their pursuit of an unlikely victory in Cape Town.
Unfortunately there are ICC regulations and they do not meet the requirements of the red card.
It may be that the punishment meted out to Smith will be disproportionately severe. Eventually he may even attract some sympathy. My guess is Smith feels that his career is over and that he is marginally less popular than Attila the Hun. He has erred badly while contriving to implant a few scratches on a cricket ball. Even if old Attila has been maligned over the years, he may have caused a bit more misery to his fellow man. Smith will play some more great innings for Australia and one day he will lead them again, perhaps without listening so readily to the cunning plans of his leadership team.