Steve Smith and Cameron Bancroft will go down as cheats — but so have many of the greatest sportspeople

Opinion: Let's temper the excessive and even absurd outrage. Cheating is part of every sport in the same way that crime is part of everyday society

Ed Malyon
Sports Editor
Sunday 25 March 2018 18:52
Comments
Steve Smith's cricketing future hangs in the balance
Steve Smith's cricketing future hangs in the balance

Amid his resignation as Australia captain and fresh, absurd talk of Steve Smith potentially being banned for life by Cricket Australia, he is still a little too young for us to know what his legacy will be.

The events of this week and this fractious Test series, however, will now ensure that when he retires from the game and the paeans to his cricketing ability are written - a rise from half-decent leg-spinner who batted eight to one of the world’s best bladesmen - that cheating will no doubt get a mention.

Whether that is of consequence is another matter entirely.

WG Grace, the world’s first great cricketer, has as many legendary stories about his bending - and downright shattering - of the rules as he does his batting prowess.

Tom Brady, arguably the greatest quarterback in NFL history, will bow out of the game with at least five Super Bowl rings but also the spectre of Spygate hanging over some of his success and, far more directly, Deflategate.

Diego Maradona is best-remembered the world over for his extraordinary footballing ability and, erm, off-field exuberance. Yet his ‘Hand of God’ is still obviously invoked as a key pillar of his sporting legacy and it will be forevermore.

Cheating is part of every sport in the same way that crime is part of everyday society. To cheat contravenes the rules, laws and norms and, following due process, should receive proportionate punishment. Intent and planning change things, of course. In Britain, that is the difference between murder and man slaughter yet I’m not willing to cast Smith out into the cold simply for being the kingpin in some sort of harebrained ball-tampering ring.

The most obvious thing about this particular incident involving Cameron Bancroft, Peter Handscomb and The Leadership Group is the sheer stupidity of it all.

Cameron Bancroft and Steve Smith admit to ball-tampering during the third Test against South Africa

So many cameras, so many angles and a host broadcaster that was happy to beam around the globe a 360 degree view of flagrant cheating and the schoolboy attempts to cover it up.

Let’s be clear, every team from amateur level upwards tries to make the ball as amenable to swing as possible. If cheating in sport is like committing crime in normal society then ball-tampering is something akin to speeding - an offence most have committed on a very mild scale but that you’ll likely get away with.

“Oh no, it got scuffed by the car park” smiles the returning boundary fielder knowingly as he slings a ball back into the keeper’s gloves at club level, while boiled sweets are a well-known aid for providing a more varnish-like saliva coating to shine the ball with. This is basic stuff.

Many international and county cricketers will admit to having tampered with the ball in private. Some, after retirement, have come clean in autobiographies. Others, after being caught, admitted to it at the time: Adam Parore revealed New Zealand used bottle caps to scratch the ball in 1990, Rahul Dravid rubbed a cough sweet on the ball in 2004 and was fined, Marcus Trescothick confessed that in the 2005 Ashes - one of England’s great 21st-century victories - they used mints to provide more shine. I must have missed the widespread condemnation of that.

Many cases are denied and many more were never even noticed. This isn’t match-fixing, this isn’t spot-fixing, it is an offence due punishment and one that the responsible numbskulls have already been punished for. I know we live in this age of permanent outrage, but is following the ICC’s guidelines for punishment not enough when this is pretty similar to numerous offences that have gone before?

The Leadership Group that cooked up this cartoon-level scheme will ultimately pay the price for the somewhat excessive outrage they’ve caused back home. It’s funny for a Brit to watch, especially when it’s the Aussie media getting stuck into one of their own rather than Stuart Broad, but this feels like something of a storm in a Billy teacup, which would struggle for as much pop in Britain if newspapers weren’t keen to fill sports pages in absence of Premier League matches this weekend.

Given the hypocrisy of the Australians earlier in the series, where they wilfully doled out abuse to Quinton De Kock but found the South Africa batsman’s response too hot to handle, it is amusing that those who have consistently decided where ‘the line’ is based on how far they wanted to push it have not even been able to move it far enough to justify their latest transgressions.

Perhaps it boils down to the fact that in Australia, where the job of Test cricket captain might be second only to Prime Minister, Smith is expected to set an example. He is, in short, supposed to be the best of Australia.

Cricketer Cameron Bancroft seen with object while handling the ball

And thus far in his career he’s done a pretty sterling job. Without marrying a kangaroo or guest-starring in Neighbours, who or what could be more Australian than Steve Smith, the man literally voted ‘Australian of the year’ by The Australian newspaper?

That’s clearly why Australia feels let down, and the front-page reaction of major newspapers has made clear the disgust felt by many of Smith’s compatriots towards what went on at Newlands.

But it feels a little rich when spineless Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull expresses his outrage on Smith’s behaviour when he’s been so silent on, for example, illegally-detained refugees being abused on Australia’s watch in Nauru.

Malcolm Turnbull has condemned Smith and co.

Politicians like nothing more than jumping on the bandwagon and with someone as unpleasant as Turnbull, it is particularly galling for them to weigh in on the scratching of a cricket ball when they’ve proved so short of compassion and leadership elsewhere.

Smith has fallen short in many ways, he held a lofty position in Australian society and was clearly a key cog in a chain of stupid decisions that let down his teammates - particularly the junior ones charged with executing the plan - and his national team.

But Smith remains a fine cricketer and person who will bounce back.

Perhaps the Australian cricket team might happen across some much-needed humility in their imminent soul-searching expedition but this incident won’t destroy Steve Smith’s career, he is simply too good. It will merely add more intrigue to a story that should, cricket fans hope, have years left to run.

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