The Australian cricket team is currently caught up in an embarrassing scandal. Three players on the team have been suspended for 9-12 months, including the captain and vice-captain, after being caught cheating in a Test match in South Africa. The coach, though exonerated from involvement, has subsequently resigned, too.
Similar to baseball, cricket is a sport in which a bowler throws a ball at a batsman who is attempting to make contact with the ball. The sport is one of the most popular in the world and Australia (alongside India and England) are one of the “big three” power brokers in the global game.
As for the Australia-South Africa test series, the countries are competing in a four-match test series in South Africa. The home side has a 2-1 lead with the fourth contest now underway in Johannesburg.
In the third test, the Aussies were in a losing position with a first-innings deficit and with the shine from the new ball now past having trouble getting any of the South African batsmen out. During lunch, Australian captain Steve Smith and specifically vice-captain David Warner hatched a plan to tamper with the ball.
Junior player Cameron Bancroft is in the vicinity and is drawn into the conversation. The trio decide to get some sandpaper from a kit bag and are looking to get some dirt on it with the hopes of being able to scuff up one side of the ball. The aim of this is to get the ball to reverse swing, behaving unpredictably and thus increase the possibility of a false shot from the batsman.
Bancroft puts the sandpaper in his trousers, and when the opportunity presents itself he gets some dirt to put on it. He then uses it to scuff up the ball, which has parallels in baseball where pitchers have been known to use saliva or a nail file (or occasionally sandpaper) to manipulate the ball.
The plan goes awry when cameras capture him doing this, and when the on-field umpires come to ask questions, he shoves the tape down the front of his trousers. Bancroft shows the officials a sunglasses bag in his pocket as cover. His cover is quickly blown when the cameras also capture the cover up.
Cricket Australia chief executive James Sutherland was forced to fly to South Africa to clear up the situation. The ICC, the ruling body of cricket, initially imposed a one-match sanction on the players in line with its code of conduct, but to Cricket Australia’s credit they soon introduced harsher punishments.
That they did so reflects the importance of cricket to the Australian population. It is commonly said in Australia that the captain of the national cricket team is the second most important job in the land. The role goes beyond sports; it bequeaths a certain moral authority, too. In the last 30 years, three Australian captains have won the Australian of the year award!
“This is a shocking disappointment. It’s wrong,” said Australia’s prime minister, who noted that cricket stars were held in higher regard than politicians. “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.”
Cheating is a problem in many sports and in my view an isolated instance of ball tampering, albeit blatant and pre-meditated with the lies that followed, is not on the same level as spot fixing or doping, but the one year punishments in which the three players are limited to playing club cricket should be a powerful deterrent and are draconian but reflect Australia’s perception of the importance of their cricket team, the stunned reaction of sponsors and broadcasters, and Australia’s self-perceived position as a moral arbiter of the game no matter the toxic behaviour of its players in many a series in recent years. Winning, as they were doing consistently, tends to allow such behaviour to be tolerated.
In addition, Smith and Warner, two of the sport’s highest-profile stars, have been sacked from their IPL franchises for the competition due to start in a week and their loss of earnings is projected as between $3-5m each over the time frame of their ban. Fair play to Bancroft and Smith for tackling their mistakes head on in press conferences, which were a difficult and emotional watch. Being able town up and take responsibility takes fortitude and hopefully there is a way back for both post ban.
From a results and betting perspective, the importance of Smith and Warner to Australia’s test team cannot be overstated. Since the start of 2014 they have scored 37% of Australia’s runs in test cricket comfortably the highest proportion by the top to run scorers in any test team over this time span. Smith’s average for Australia of over 60 is second all-time to only Bradman.
Down 2-1 in Johannesburg and without these key players Australia went off 5/2 and South Africa 4/7 (1.6), so BMR’s green-listed bookmakers factored in Australia’s weaker prospects quickly as you would expect.
In more general terms, perhaps if this is a deterrent to underhand practice in the international game, and reverse swing becomes less likely (let us assume that many teams practice the dark arts to some extent) then batting totals will be higher, teams will be harder to dismiss and there might be more draws in test cricket. It is probably too early to draw that conclusion, but worth watching.