A year ago, an Australian tabloid compared Virat Kohli to Donald Trump ‘for his continual perpetuation of fake news’ and for being ‘the man who last week launched a scandalous attack on [Steve] Smith and the Australians where he accused of them being systematic cheats’. Now, Smith, the Australian captain whose behaviour – looking to the dressing room for DRS advice – had enraged Kohli and lit the fire for the rest of the series, finds himself facing the same fate as another US President.
It took intrepid reporters and insiders with a conscience to reveal the true extent of the Watergate scandal that cost Richard Nixon his presidency in 1974. All that was needed to leave Smith’s captaincy in tatters was perhaps the most dim-witted attempt at ball tampering the game has seen.
Make no mistake, tampering isn’t the issue here. Long before Pakistan’s Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis made reverse swing controversial and then sexy in the early 1990s, teams were trying different ways to ‘make’ the ball. Bishan Singh Bedi still swears that John Lever and the English side used Vaseline strips to alter the condition of the ball more than 40 years ago. Imran Khan and others used bottle crowns and miscellaneous sharp objects.
Once reverse swing became ingrained in the sport’s lexicon, other methods were also employed, mints and cough lozenges being among them. Faf du Plessis, currently South Africa’s captain, used the zipper on his trouser pocket to scuff up one side of the ball. Vernon Philander used his nails. Shahid Afridi went for the big bite.
But most of those incidents, like Michael Atherton’s dirt in the pocket, were spontaneous stupidity. What Smith and Cameron Bancroft admitted to on Saturday was far worse – a conspiracy hatched in the dressing room and then implemented on the field. And even then, it’s unlikely they told us the whole truth. Bancroft’s assertion that it was sticky tape in his pocket is especially suspicious. What the footage showed was a firm object. Sticky tape, even with grit on it, wouldn’t hold its shape like that.
There’s little point having a go at the International Cricket Council (ICC) for the leniency of the punishment – just a one-match ban for Smith. According to the laws of the game and the existing code of conduct, that is the maximum penalty they can levy. But what Cricket Australia choose to do is another matter.
Robert Craddock, veteran journalist and broadcaster, put it best when he wrote: “It was the culmination of a grubby win-at-all-costs culture deliberately crossing the thin line between self-righteous rule bending into a world of shameless, bald face cheating.
“Having teased and taunted and demeaned opposition sides for years Australia developed such a shallow respect for the spirit of the game that it decided a little bit of cheating would not go astray.”
That self-righteousness that he speaks of is at the heart of the problem. During the Monkeygate crisis back in 2008, when Ricky Ponting’s Australians had just equalled Steve Waugh’s side’s 16-match winning streak, a player called up an Australian journalist and asked him: “Why do you blokes hate us so much?”
Of course, no one hated them, but any admiration of their on-field prowess was tinged with disgust at the pack-of-wild-dogs mentality that the late Peter Roebuck called out. When Rahul Dravid was fined for shining the ball with a lozenge in his mouth in 2004, Ponting spoke of how “I don't think you'll see us doing anything like that.”
From a team that loved to live on the edge, the holier-than-thou approach was especially galling. The great West Indies sides of the 1970s and ’80s were no angels – there was much ugliness on the tour of New Zealand in 1980, and quite a few flashpoints in the latter years of Viv Richards’s captaincy – but then they didn’t go around mouthing inane catchphrases like ‘hard, but fair’ or tom-tomming the ‘Caribbean way’.
What began as mental disintegration in the Waugh years has descended to utter boorishness in the last half-decade. David Warner has been especially culpable and if Cricket Australia want to retain even a shred of dignity after this sorry episode, he too will be exiled from the captaincy forever.
In one of those delicious twists of fate that life throws up, we can now look back on the closing lines of that Kohli-is-Trump article. “Test captains, under the rules of the game, are supposed to be the flagbearers for upholding the spirit of the game, yet the ICC has allowed the Indian captain to destroy one of the foundations on which the game has been played for more than a century.”
Kohli didn’t cheat, and he destroyed nothing but the illusion of the Smith-and-Lehmann-led Australia playing hard-but-fair cricket. Now, if only we could say the same of Mr Smith. When he and his co-conspirators get the sack, assuming Cricket Australia do the right thing, they can always audition for roles in a movie adaptation of a great Australian novel – Peter Carey’s My Life as a Fake.