It was the new-look David Warner who arrived in South Africa. It was the Warner of old who was dispatched on Wednesday, ostracized again, and in danger of no redemption this time.
Nearly a month ago, the Australia batsman who is now confirmed as the ringleader in cricket’s ball-tampering scandal and banned by his country for a year, skipped to a news conference on the first day of what’s ultimately turned out to be a noxious series for him, and for the Australian team. And for cricket.
Then, Warner appeared to be in good health physically and mentally. Short, fit and quick, he was also a bundle of energy. Winning cricket games and scoring runs were still so very important to him, but seemingly not to the exclusion of everything else.
Asked to explain how he got out to South Africa fast bowler Vernon Philander, Warner praised his opponent’s skill and said: “That’s the game. It is what it is. The sun comes up tomorrow and we keep getting on.”
Warner signed off the conference with a “too easy,” the Aussie saying that means, roughly, “not a problem at all” when journalists thanked him for his time.
Three days later, during the same match, Warner was being restrained by teammates in an ugly confrontation with South Africa player Quinton de Kock on a staircase near the locker rooms. Memories of a 2013 incident when he punched an England player in a bar, and was banished from the Australia team, came seeping back.
Despite how it appears, the regression from the new Warner _ nicknamed “the reverend” by his teammates for his recent behavior _ to the old Warner was not immediate. The full relapse did not come until the end of the third test in Cape Town some three weeks later.
Between the time of his easy-go-lucky attitude on the series’ first day, and the reckless ball-tampering plan that might have ended his international career, Warner was perhaps worn down by the most abrasive, ill-tempered cricket series of recent times.
Seven players have been hauled to disciplinary hearings in the first three matches and while the majority of them have been Australians, South Africa hasn’t been completely innocent. De Kock made a particularly unsavory comment about Warner’s wife, leading to the staircase shenanigans.
South Africa fast bowler Kagiso Rabada has taken his on-field aggression to the limit, at least once right up in the face of Warner and to the shoulder of Steve Smith.
The management teams have sniped at each other, and supporters have taken their cue from what they’ve seen on the field.
South African fans in the second test in Port Elizabeth taunted Warner about an encounter the player’s wife had with a rugby star before the pair met. A middle-aged man in loose-fitting jeans approached Warner and verbally abused him when the Australian batsman walked to the player pavilion during the Cape Town test.
That might have been the last straw.
Retreating to a corner of the team’s dressing room a day later, Warner encouraged young teammate Cameron Bancroft to tamper with the ball on the field illegally with a piece of sandpaper hidden in his pocket in the hope it would give the Australia team some kind of advantage.
Smith was banned for 12 months for allowing the tampering to go ahead.
Cricket hasn’t recently been living up to its idealistic reputation _ deserved or otherwise _ for being a mild-mannered game interspersed with breaks to drink tea. Recently, there have been some particularly spiteful series.
Now, the ball tampering plot that threatens to end Warner’s time with Australia, and also led to long-term bans for Smith, the best batsman in the world, and Bancroft, a relative newcomer to the test arena, is the moment to prompt cricket and teams to reflect.
Because it’s also telling that Rabada, a 22-year-old with supreme fast-bowling talent and at the other end of his career to Warner, has already been sanctioned four times for aggressive celebrations toward batsmen.
“It probably gives every team in the world a reality check,” South Africa batsman Hashim Amla said. “What kind of cricket do you want to play?”
Australia coach Lehmann said in the wake of his team’s cheating scandal, and during a series where they ramped their infamous on-field verbal taunting _ or sledging: “We do respect the opposition but we push the boundaries.” He said he and the Australia team “need to change.”
The point is both the game of cricket and players like Warner should be able to find a way back to being competitive and compelling without being overly hostile. There’s still time for both.