How ball-tampering became the biggest sporting scandal of 2018

What started as run-of-the-mill cheating has gone beyond cricket and Australia to become political.

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There have been ball tampering scandals in the past. Some have been a big deal, others less so, but all have eventually blown over. None, not even Pakistan forfeiting a test in 2006 – the first team ever to do so, has made the splash that the Australia 2018 episode has.

This is not because it is somehow worse than those past incidents, although sandpaper was spectacularly crude and blatant compared to previous tampering tools like sweets or fingernails, but because a unique combination of events have come to the boil at once.

THE AUSTRALIAN REACTION

The incident sparked such fury in Australia that it whipped the rest of the world into a frenzy too. Other countries would always have been outraged (see below) but if the Australian fans, media and board had downplayed the incident and settled for the one-game ICC ban and a lighter punishment from Cricket Australia, they could have circled the wagons.

Australia was in no mood to defend Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft though. As Brydon Coverdale pointed out, the country had a cricket team decades before it was a country, and the captain is often joked to be more important than the prime minister.

Australia’s winter sports divide along regional lines, making cricket the one team sport that unites the entire country. As Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull joined the critics, it became clear that this was more like a political scandal than a sporting one; public trust had been betrayed and the integrity of a great institution had been undermined.

Turnbull’s intervention was political opportunism – distracting the public from the his government’s real scandals, while the admission by James Sutherland of Cricket Australia, that the punishments were harsher because they needed to appease public opinion, showed that political expediency had beaten due process.

RIVALRY

The rest of the cricketing world had been waiting for this a long time. For decades, Australia has prided itself on playing the most aggressive cricket, but this has made a lot of enemies. They mythical ‘line’ of bad behaviour had become a running joke, because it was always drawn by Australia so that they never crossed it, but everyone else did.

Sledging, or “mental disintergration”, and calling on home crowds to abuse foreign players, only to cry foul when foreign crowds abuse them, has all built up great stores of resentment, so that when Australia took a fall, the rest of the world felt so aggrieved about years of perceived unpleasantness and sanctimony that it was never going to let the chance pass.

CONSPIRACY

Tamperers of the past have given the impression they were acting on the spur of the moment, out of frustration or over-eagerness, or denied wrongdoing altogether. While it is inconceivable that all past ball-tampering was spontaneous, Smith’s admission that it was pre-meditated was unprecedented. Like in any good political scandal, the admission of a conspiracy and the ham-fisted attempt at a cover-up, immediately upgraded the interest and intrigue.

BEING SO BLATANT

Ball-tampering is often in a grey area. Sachin Tendulkar was just cleaning the ball, Faf du Plessis was just eating a mint. There was no other possible explanation for what Bancroft did and being caught on camera doing something so blatant was always going to cause a fuss.

MUDDY WATERS

It has become increasingly unclear what is and is not acceptable when ‘maintaining’ the ball. Saliva is ok, but after what got du Plessis into trouble, or the debate over England’s use of sugary saliva in 2005, it is not clear where the line is. Cleaning the ball is ok, but picking the seam is not. Throwing the ball to the wicketkeeper on the bounce is not supposed to be done deliberately, but cannot be stopped from happening accidentally.

In the era before reverse swing, when cameras were fewer and lower quality, no-one was really the wiser. Now tiny incidents are being picked up and scrutinised and the game would be well-served by a review of what can and cannot be done. Some, like Mark Nicholas, are in favour of legalised tampering. Whatever the decision, clarity would be welcome.

Likewise, the scale of punishments has been low in the past, mostly fines or suspended sentences, despite ball-tampering being considered a worse crime than most. The ICC, taken aback by the strength of feeling over the recent episode, has already announced that it will review the penalties it can impose for ball-tampering. Although Smith, Warner and Bancroft were a little hard done by with their 12 or nine-month bans, there is clearly a desire and a need for a tougher deterrent than the ICC’s maximum one-game ban.

The reputations of du Plessis, Rahul Dravid or Mike Atherton are unblemished by their scrapes with the law and their careers were unharmed in the long run. Time will tell how history views Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft.

The latter, a young player with plenty of time ahead of him may find that the gap is no great loss. But stripping of the captaincy from Smith is a stain that will take some shifting, and his emotional press conference tears may stick with him in the same way that it did for Kim Hughes with his tearful 1984 resignation. Ultimately, the best way for him to overcome it is through scoring runs and, if he gets the chance again, a successful run as captain. Five years from now, if Smith is again the top batsman in the world and has led Australia to a string of impressive series victories, the stain will start to shrink.

For Warner, given his reported pariah status among his team mates, a Kevin Pietersen-like exile seems more likely – another genius batsman whose reputation will be forever tied up with his genius for trouble.

Cricket has been in the startling glare of international publicity over the past two weeks. But sunlight is the best disinfectant and the episode offers a chance to mend some of the game’s ills, especially down under.