Written by Telford Vice
Dismissing AB de Villiers normally triggers giddy celebrations by the fielding team, and if the match is in South Africa — or, during the IPL, in Bengaluru — the stands sink in a trough of disappointment. But when de Villiers danced down the pitch to Josh Hazlewood 45 minutes after the start on the fourth day of the third Test at Newlands Sunday and steered a juicy edge to first slip, it was as if a traffic signal on nearby Campground Road had changed from red to green. Nothing more. The Australians offered each other limp, perfunctory high fives and the spectators’ minds seemed somewhere else.
That they were — on the confession made by Steve Smith and Cameron Bancroft after Saturday’s play that the latter had tampered with the ball on the instructions of the former and others in what Smith terms the “leadership group”.
Specifically, Bancroft had covered the sticky side of a piece of tape with sand from the pitch and rubbed it on the rougher side of the ball.
When questioned by the umpires, he took the tape from his pocket, slipped it into his underwear, and pretended all he had in his pocket was a soft fabric pouch used to carry sunglasses.
By Sunday morning, Australia time, the saga had exploded beyond all cricket’s boundaries.
Even Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull weighed in, albeit with a statement that will be met with incredulous laughter by anyone who has been up close and personal with an Aussie team.
“It seemed completely beyond belief that the Australian cricket team had been involved in cheating,” Turnbull was quoted as saying by the Melbourne Age. “After all our cricketers are role models and cricket is synonymous with fair play. How can our team be engaged in cheating like this? It beggars belief.”
After lunch Sunday came news from the International Cricket Council (ICC) that Smith had been fined his whole match fee and banned for the fourth Test at the Wanderers next Friday, and that Bancroft had lost 75 per cent of his fee and been hit with three demerit points, one short of a ban.
“The decision made by the leadership group of the Australian team to act in this way is clearly contrary to the spirit of the game, risks causing significant damage to the integrity of the match, the players and the sport itself and is therefore ‘serious’ in nature,” ICC chief executive David Richardson said.
“As captain, Steve Smith must take full responsibility for the actions of his players and it is appropriate that he be suspended.”
Bancroft is 25 and playing in only his eighth Test, factors that seem to have saved him from harsher punishment.
“To carry a foreign object on to the field of play with the intention of changing the condition of the ball to gain an unfair advantage over your opponent is against not only the laws, but the spirit of the game as well,” match referee Andy Pycroft said.
“That said, I acknowledge that Cameron has accepted responsibility for his actions by pleading guilty to the charge and apologising publicly. As a young player starting out in international cricket I hope the lessons learned from this episode will strongly influence the way he plays the game during the rest of his career.”
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Smith stood down as captain for the rest of the Newlands match before the start of Sunday’s play. Wicketkeeper Tim Paine’s 12th Test is now also his first as a captain. David Warner relinquished the vice-captaincy until the Wanderers Test, but how he escaped being rapped by the ICC, to quote Turnbull, “beggars belief”.
If Warner wasn’t part of the “leadership group” Smith blamed for this mess, who was? Not coach Darren Lehmann, Smith said. Really?
To their credit, Smith and Bancroft appeared sincerely contrite at an intense press conference on Saturday evening.
“My integrity, the team’s integrity, the leadership group’s integrity has come into question and rightfully so,” Smith said. “It’s certainly not on and it won’t happen again, I can promise you that, under my leadership. I’m embarrassed. I know the boys in the sheds are embarrassed as well. It’s not what we want to see in the game. It’s not what the Australian cricket team’s about.”
As Smith spoke, Bancroft stared balefully into a faraway abyss. “I want to be here because I’m accountable for my actions as well,” Bancroft said. “I’ve got to live with the consequences and the damage to my own reputation that that comes with.”
Cricket Australia are mounting an investigation, but Smith’s future as Australia’s captain seems less certain by the hour. Likewise whether Bancroft has a Test career left.
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When Bancroft and Warner emerged to open the batting in the second innings Sunday, they were met with the kind of angry yowling more often heard from the bloodthirsty crowd at the Newlands rugby stadium a stone’s throw away.
Spectators who had previously waved Australian flags removed them and brandished naked flag sticks instead. The noise rose to a crescendo when Warner was dismissed and passed Smith on his way to the crease.
The reaction from Australia itself was as aggressive as these Australians have been in a series that has stunk with acrimony and hypocrisy. The nation has spoken: heads must roll.
On Sunday, wickets did. All 10 of Australia’s for 57 runs in just more than three hours as South Africa surged to victory by 322 runs with a day to spare — a day that will be as dark for the Aussies as it will be bright for South Africa, who have not beaten them in a home series since 1970.