On Sunday March 25 2018, Australians all over the country woke to some shocking news.
Australia had cheated at cricket.
While the rest of the world simply shrugged and thought “Well of course they have,” before chortling at the Baldrick-like cunning of the whole sorry enterprise, Australians were inexplicably but genuinely surprised.
As son looked to father and asked “Are we the baddies?” and noticed for the first time that Australia had little skulls on their caps, the surprise soon turned to anger.
Something. Must. Be. Done. If even the Australian cricket team isn’t a place of noble purity then what hope for humanity?
Soon the politicians became involved. Men and women who have devoted their lives to punishing people for being poor or disabled or a bit foreign were deeply shocked and saddened that some cricketers had rubbed some sandpaper on a ball and then hidden the evidence on two more balls.
In time we would learn that LG had “core brand values” that extended beyond “make some televisions” and also included “don’t rub sandpaper on cricket balls”.
But let’s go back to the start. Australian cricket’s poster boy of virtue, David ‘Davey’ Warner, had grown perturbed by the behaviour of the beastly South Africans. Not only were the Proteas daring to respond to the cheeky banter Warner and his friends like to scream in their opponents’ faces – a clear breach of The Australian Line – but worse, they were actually beating the Aussies at the cricket.
Even a great man like Warner has his limits. Under such pressure who can really judge a man for thinking “F*** this, let’s just cheat”?
And who among us would not immediately co-opt the most junior and vulnerable member of the team into his scheme of rat-like cunning?
And who among us when caught would not immediately stuff the evidence down our underpants as Cameron Bancroft did, before lying to the officials about it?
And who among us would not try to defuse the situation with a half-baked, half-true confession after play as Steve Smith did, observing that he and his team would learn from this and move on as if he were talking about a couple of soft dismissals or dropped catches?
What Warner, Smith and Bancroft did was unacceptable. They are all guilty men. They are guilty of cheating, they are guilty of lying and they are guilty of being really, really daft silly sods. They deserved to be punished.
But the punishments they have been handed are insanely draconian. The punishment does not fit the crime; it fits the hysterical reaction to it.
The Sandpaper Three have twin problems: Australians thought their team were the goodies and their fury at learning the truth has demanded a sacrifice. Meanwhile the rest of the world knew Warner, Smith and Bancroft to be a trio of cackling jackasses and so sympathy is limited.
Warner is perhaps the most obnoxious personality in cricket, a dizzying mix of cartoonishly unpleasant behaviour and pious, sanctimonious judgement of others.
Bancroft, meanwhile, spent the afterglow of his Test debut attempting to humiliate a fellow professional while Smith snickered alongside him.
Australia’s team “culture”, for want of a less teeth-grindingly corporate word, has been toxic for years. But nobody within the board or in the country at large seemed to notice or care. Warner’s antics were tolerated or even encouraged. Smith’s mountainous pile of runs obscured from view his own descent into dickishness.
Coach Darren Lehmann, who we’re told knew nothing of the Sandpaper Three’s plot, has acknowledged that the culture is rotten and needs to change. More controversially, he has declared himself, the man who has overseen that culture for the last five years, as the best man to conduct the repairs.
Cricket Australia, meanwhile, was in crisis mode. Having looked the other way for so long, they could no longer ignore the stench. Australia’s problems with its macho bullsh*t image would be handled by dealing out some macho bullsh*t bans.
While the officially sanctioned ICC punishments for ball-tampering itself are minimal – and in my opinion rightly so, but there’s a whole other debate for a whole other day – it was clear that the Sandpaper Three would face greater punishment. They’d lied and concealed even as they issued their hasty mea culpa, further penalties would rightly need to be imposed. Smith and Warner would rightly lose their leadership roles – no small thing – and bans of an additional match or three seemed sane.
But this? This is not punishment, it’s cruel and unusual. Having helped cultivate the culture that has poisoned their game, Cricket Australia has given in to the demands of the mob – or, more accurately, the startled response of sponsors and broadcast partners to said mob – when the edifice crumbled. Smith is now hurried through airports surrounded by police and jeered like an actual criminal. One half-expected that upon his return to Australia Smith would be stripped naked and marched through the streets while James Sutherland intoned “SHAME!” over and over.
Ah, yes, James Sutherland. His obvious and visible upset should not fool anyone. His whole response has been couched in terms of protecting an image of Australian cricket that the rest of the world knows to be laughable. That this one-off incident brings shame upon an otherwise pure endeavour. It is sanctimonious bullwater.
He fronted up at a press conference to announce that there would be news to announce soon, and hid behind a press release when the ludicrous judgements were actually handed down. He allowed Lehmann to give a press conference with only the Australian media present. Changing the culture, or managing the message?
Sutherland will have arrived in South Africa for the conclusion of the investigation hoping for three things: 1. that only the Sandpaper Three knew of the nefarious plot; 2. that the coach and his staff weren’t involved; 3. that this was an isolated, one-off incident.
Happily for everyone, the investigation found precisely this.
They have thrown the book at Warner, who will probably never play for Australia again. Had Smith not implicated himself with that cackhanded confession it’s very likely that CA would just have gone Full KP on Davey, with Smith and Bancroft receiving only minor sanctions. As it is, Australia’s best since Bradman is collateral damage in a purge that allows Australian cricket to reset and continue its smug, pious pretence of moral superiority.
As for Bancroft, his career lies in tatters and he looked a broken man during his press conference. I’m not quite sure what I was watching, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t justice.
The tiresome moralising from Team Australia, World Cricket Police will not stop. It’s already begun anew. “We banned our captain for a year to make some daft point, will other countries follow our brave, noble lead?”