By Mark Kidger (@MarkFromMadrid)
When the series started it looked brutally one-sided. In the 1st Test Australia were all over South Africa and looked set to win comfortably, as they had done in the previous series in South Africa. The change in the 2nd Test though was as big as it was unexpected. What set off the change was a series of controversial incidents, including on and off-field confrontations between players and then between players and crowd. As the series heated-up, the crowd became more and more hostile and suddenly the Australian team discovered that getting it back is nothing like as enjoyable as handing it out without fear of reprisal and have increasingly lost focus.
Over the years the Australian team has based much of its success on the idea that visiting teams should be abused as much as possible on and off the field. This has included the request from Darren Lehmann for the public to target Stuart Broad and to make his life hell. While, of course, neither coach nor players can control barracking and abuse from the crowd, nor such tactics as setting off the fire alarm in the visiting team’s hotel during the night, or waking players with early morning telephone calls requesting radio interviews, nor have they done anything to condemn such behaviour. They regard it as part of the hospitality service to be offered to visiting teams, while crude, on-field, personal abuse is regarded as necessary to play the game in the right spirit.
When Darren Lehmann said that the abuse that his players were receiving had “crossed the line” there was a certain irony to his comments given what many players have received from Australian players and crowds without censure. As one broadcaster and writer on the English game pointed out, “the line” seemed to be positioned wherever was most convenient for Australian interests at any given time.
What this series – and others – has shown is that when a side refuses to be intimidated by Australian aggression and starts to give it back, the Australians lose focus and can disintegrate themselves.
However, do we really want world cricket to turn into a contest to see which set of players and its fans can be most yobbish? England can smirk, but they themselves have been involved in some distasteful incidents in the past.
There are many alarming aspects of the latest incident. All sides push the limits when they can. All sides resort, at least occasionally, to tactics that are dubious or are gamesmanship. And all sides do like their home support to give them a hand. And, of course, it is different when they are on the receiving end rather than handing it out. Not all sides though sit down and have an open, tour management discussion on how best to cheat when things are not working on the field. And yes, it was cheating when other sides have done it and it is cheating when Australia do it too.
There are still many aspects of what happened that are unclear. Surely neither Cameron Bancroft nor the captain seriously believed that no camera would pick up their attempts to rough-up the ball. How believable is the story that it was some dirty sticky tape that had been used on the ball? Plenty of people watching the images saw something that looked much more like sandpaper, which would surely be far more effective anyway than some dirty sticky tape. Have the players actually come clean even now? How much did Darren Lehmann know and have to do with the plan?
As in the case of Watergate, the original crime was not such a bad one – the umpires did not even change the ball, considering that its state had not been altered – but the clumsy and incompetent cover-up made it infinitely worse. Bancroft’s comic attempts to hide the evidence and willingness to lie to the umpires when challenged, made things far worse than if he had come straight out and confessed. The intention was to damage the ball, even if the execution owed more to Monty Python than to Professor James Moriaty. And, of course, a video has come to light of Cameron Bancroft apparently doing something underhand in the dressing room during the Ashes series, meaning that he is now marked with previous.
As a Gloucestershire supporter, I am very glad that Mr Bancroft will not be representing my county this summer and I know that other Gloucestershire fans feel the same. The fall-out is only starting. Bancroft has signed with Somerset, who have put out a statement to the effect that the decision on his contract is under review. Certainly, if Bancroft were to come to Somerset, his reputation would precede him and would be a major on and off-field distraction. Bancroft’s position in the Australian side is far from secure (despite runs in this Test, his average is hovering just over 30 after 8 Tests) – hence perhaps his willingness to play along – and it would be easy to drop him on the pretext of not scoring enough runs.
There are loud calls for Steve Smith to be stripped of the captaincy. Probity as captain of your national team is important: Mike Atherton got away with it, probably because he had a reputation as a decent person and captain who had made a bad mistake, but Keith Fletcher, Mike Gatting and Andrew Flintoff, quite rightly, did not and Ian Botham’s off-field antics ensured that he was never given a second chance. However, there are rumours that Cricket Australia are so horrified by the negative publicity generated by the whole affair and the fact that it was so pre-meditated, that they are considering life bans for Smith and Warner. As a legendary South African captain of the end of the 20th Century found out: you cheat, you get caught, you face the consequences. Not too many Boards are willing to overlook such matters in the face of public opinion.
In the English language, the word “cheat” or an accusation of cheating has huge emotional consequences and the word has been used a lot to describe what happened. In the infamous Shakoor Rana incident with Mike Gatting the trigger was the umpire observing Gatting move a fielder behind square, where the batsman could not see the change, stopping play (no “dead ball” call though) and, telling Gatting that he was a cheat (the English version) or, in the umpire’s version, “you are making unfair play”. The word “cheat” inflaming passions to the point that Gatting snapped.
If Smith and Warner do go, it will be a massive blow to the Australian side, but would be a huge PR coup, showing that after all, Australians do want to win by fair means and not foul. It also remains to be seen if Darren Lehmann can ride out this storm: his position would become very difficult.
The remainder of the South African tour is going to be very difficult, if not impossible, anyway. How do you recover from an issue of this kind? And let us not forget that Australia tour England this summer for an ODI series and that Smith and Warner (and conceivably, Bancroft) would form part of that touring squad.
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