CAPE TOWN, March 26: Disgraced Australia cricket captain Steve Smith was banned for one game as he and vice-captain David Warner stepped down from their roles on Sunday amid a cheating scandal that has outraged their country and threatens a far more damaging fallout for one of the game’s most exalted teams.
It even caused Australia Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to ask: “How can our team be engaged in cheating like this? It beggars belief.”
Smith, the No. 1 batsman in test cricket, and Warner stepped down from their leadership roles for the rest of the third test in South Africa following the team’s confession to cheating by tampering with the ball with a piece of yellow adhesive tape and some dirt during play on Saturday.
Smith and Warner still played on the fourth and what turned out to be the final day of the test at Newlands in Cape Town on Sunday but had no leadership responsibilities as Australia crashed to a humiliating 322-run loss. Their long-term futures hang in the balance, as does that of 25-year-old Cameron Bancroft, the man tasked to carry out the tampering by senior players led by Smith.
“They’re not (doing) great, there’s no doubt about that,” stand-in captain Tim Paine said when asked how Smith and Bancroft were holding up. “It’s been a horrible 24 hours. They’re struggling but I think probably the reality and the enormity is starting to sink in.”
Cricket Australia chief executive James Sutherland promised an urgent and full investigation into one of the most embarrassing moments for a stalwart team in test cricket. Two senior CA officials — head of integrity Iain Roy and high-performance manager Pat Howard — were urgently dispatched to South Africa to lead the investigation.
“All Australians, like us, want answers and we will keep you updated on our findings as a matter of priority,” Sutherland said, addressing his statement in parts to a cricket-mad Australian public shocked by the admission to cheating from their team.
“WHAT THE …… HAVE I JUST WOKEN UP TO,” former Australia captain Michael Clarke tweeted as news broke early-morning back home. “Please tell me this is a bad dream.”
The futures of star batsman Smith, Warner, Bancroft and even coach Darren Lehmann are in question after Smith said he was part of a group of senior players who hatched a plan to cheat on Day 3 of the test on Saturday by messing around with the ball illegally in an attempt to give Australian bowlers an advantage.
Bancroft appeared alongside Smith to confess that he was the man who did the on-field tampering. The plan unraveled when Bancroft was caught by television cameras tampering and then trying to hide the offending piece of tape down the front of his trousers, heightening the embarrassment for Australia.
It appears that vice-captain Warner was also part of the plot as a member of the “leadership group” that Smith said came up with the plan.
Smith was banned for the final test of the series and Bancroft was given three disciplinary demerit points by the International Cricket Council, but not suspended. Warner’s possible role in the plot was not addressed by the ICC but Cricket Australia will deal with all three of them, and maybe Lehmann and others. Australian media have been asking tough questions over how much Lehmann knew about the plot.
Smith had insisted while confessing to the cheating on Saturday that he wouldn’t step down, and he and the team would “move past this.”
“It’s a big error in judgment but we’ll learn from it,” he said.
But those comments seem to have misjudged the outrage in Australia, which holds its cricket team and its reputation dear.
Turnbull said: “Our cricketers are role models and cricket is synonymous with fair play.” The Australian prime minister said he expected cricket bosses to take “decisive action soon.”
Cricket Australia, after initially saying it would take no immediate action, then announced that Smith and Warner were temporarily standing down. The move followed a phone conversation between Smith and Sutherland.
The Australia team was then left in the awkward position of having to continue playing a game they admitted to cheating in, and lost heavily to increase the humiliation.
The main fallout for the Australians will come in two parts.
First, the ICC ruling which landed on Sunday. Smith admitted being “party to a decision” to ball tampering, the ICC said, when it announced his one-match ban. He’ll miss the decisive last test of the series.
The real and lasting damage, however, is to Australia’s cricket reputation and the boos from the Cape Town crowd directed at Smith, Bancroft and Warner, specifically, and the Australian team in general, may take a long time to fade away.
Record five-time World Cup champions in the shorter format of the game, Australia is a giant of cricket and the team has at times presented itself as a guardian of the spirit of the game. In this series in South Africa, Australia and Smith constantly underlined their dedication to playing hard but fair, and never crossing what they call the “line.”
Australia came tumbling down from that moral high ground with its stunning confession to cheating in a daring — if slightly comical — plot masterminded by its most senior and trusted players.
The hypocrisy was pounced on by the rest of the cricket world, which was often beaten but also felt bullied by Australia.
“Steve Smith, his Team & ALL the management will have to accept that whatever happens in their careers they will all be known for trying to CHEAT the game,” former England captain Michael Vaughan tweeted.
Stand-in captain Paine said the “trying circumstances” Australia’s team found itself in were “probably circumstances we brought on ourselves.” AP