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It's Just Not Cricket

The Australian men's cricket team are on tour in South Africa. News broke that the Australians had been caught cheating by deliberately tampering with the ball. This is one of cricket's biggest no-nos and as the revelations continued it turned out the Captain, the Vice-Captain, a relatively junior batsman with only a few caps (the tamperer) and possibly the coach and a few other senior players were involved. The reaction back home in Australia was at first incredulous and then scathing. The scale was astonishing.

At first the nation seemed to go into shock. This was appalling. Everyone from the Prime Minister down wanted to weigh in and no-one held back their condemnation. It was the lead news item in print and on TV.

The next stage - probably a reaction to the saturation coverage - was a plea to get some perspective. Yes, a cheating scandal is news, but we're torturing refugees on Manus Island (for example), not to mention climate change and many other more significant issues that deserve much more attention. This seemed to gain some traction but I doubt any more attention to the more pressing items.

The third stage was the demand for action. Cricket Australia must immediately step in and ban or sack the players involved. CA was caught in a bind. It knew it had to act and quickly but at the same time it had to follow due process for the players, who, after all, are its employees.

The ICC moved first - fining the players and banning them from the next test. Once the CA officials arrived in SA they moved pretty quickly. Somewhat surprisingly, only three players were deemed to be involved. All three were sent home in disgrace. Smith and Warner were banned for a year and Bancroft for nine months. The scenes at the SA airport showing Smith been jostled were upsetting and out-of-proportion. None of the players has committed a crime. A day or two later, while still claiming no knowledge, the coach resigned.

The fallout continued as sponsors pulled out from the individual players and CA. Magellen tore up a deal purportedly worth $20m. Smith and Warner lost their captaincy roles at their respective IPL teams.

What a palaver. The underlying act was so stupid. Many players have been caught out doing this in the past and strict attention was expected given the recent SA transgressions in this respect. It's so difficult to believe Smith and Warner went down this path and yet they did. Bancroft's action are a bit easier to understand, but still surprising. He's an adult and has been playing cricket for a long time. All have paid a heavy price. However Smith and Warner are multi-millionaires while Bancroft is only just starting out at the top level. His suspension is shorter but he may pay the higher price.

So what do we make of it all? How did we end up here and why was the reaction so fierce and prolonged?

I suppose the underlying cause is the professionalisation of sport and treating it as a business. This produces a win-at-all-costs attitude which runs counter to sport's ideals of fair play. I believe the two can co-exist but it's hard and requires very strong leadership to ensure that sport's traditions are honoured. There's no doubt that our men's cricketing culture has decayed over time and the needle has swung too far. A correction is due and will hopefully be forthcoming, but our tradition will be forever tarnished.

Our country's reaction demonstrated that cricket is still very important to our national psyche. Clearly we still believe that fair play is important. Further, while we have tolerated some of our team's excesses, we have complained at the time and now that the players have gone too far, have come down on them very hard. If only they had listened perhaps.

My personal reaction was to be appalled. I wanted heavy suspensions for the senior players and supported those handed out. It's interesting to note though, that many other offenders, who plead guilty, received only fines and very brief suspensions. I hope that Warner and Smith do not assume any leadership position upon their return.

I think all sport has a tradition of fair play. However the level of cheating does vary. Football, played world-wide, has different standards depending on the country. Cricket, played by fewer countries, does have a stronger tradition of honesty. Part of this may be the ease of cheating and the nature of the game. In football (say) it is easier to cheat - particularly by trying to fool the referee into awarding a free kick or penalty, but also by preventing players from scoring by (say) an illegal tackle or shirt-pulling. In both cases, the reward for such play can be quite significant in terms of the result. In football the players are also in constant contact with each other, unlike cricket where the teams are separated most of the time. There's also less opportunity to cheat in cricket and the reward is smaller. Ball tampering and obstruction are the main ways that spring to mind. Claiming a catch that wasn't is another, but TV reviews have largely eliminated this.

So does opportunity and reward explain it all? I don't think so. I think we have long imagined that in a sport that demands fairness, Australia has lead the way by setting the example and demanding it of others. Now that it is clear that this is definitely no longer the case, we are shocked and we are angry. We are betrayed. And those that betrayed us must pay a heavy price. It's hard to say whether we really were leading the way. However, my experience of playing the game in the 80s and following it and our players closely suggests that this was the case, although perhaps not for the past decade or so.

Don Bradman said playing cricket is a moral lesson. I believe that rather than building character, sport reveals character. It is clear that Smith and Warner have been found wanting in this regard. Their public statements suggest that they've realised this. Given how much they've lost and stand to lose financially it's difficult to know how much of it is self-serving, but I believe some of it is genuine remorse and recognition of a failure of character. I still believe that neither should return to a leadership position.

There's still more to play out it seems as the players can appeal their bans. Further, the team needs to be rebuild. I suspect that the culture will improve and we will try and hopefully succeed in returning to the standards of the past. However, and this is the great shame of it all, cricket in Australia can never be held in high regard again. We have been forever tarnished by the actions of these players.