“Cricket Australia’s response, therefore, seems a bit over the top. For the sake of justice, there should be a rethink of Smith and company’s severe punishment”.
Reflecting on his and his team’s transgressions, Australian captain Steve Smith cried during a recent press conference. They had been caught trying to illegally alter the condition of the ball by way of using sandpaper to hasten the deterioration of one side, in order to accelerate and enhance its inclination to swing in reverse and contrast mode. Not only that, but when first questioned, they tried, somewhat understandably, to mislead everyone and to minimize their misdeeds.
These series of events have shaken cricket, especially Australian cricket, like a dreadfully powerful earthquake. Cricket Australia felt especially stung by the actions of its team and the infamy it attracted, so much so that it thought it appropriate to levy 12-month suspensions to Smith and vice-captain David Warner, while Cameron Bancroft, the foot soldier tasked with carrying out the nefarious act, was suspended for 9 months.
This has been a particularly calamitous fall from grace for Steve Smith. He brought it upon himself, of course, at least partially, but one can hardly help but feel regret that one of the game’s most inventive virtuosos, now at the peak of his powers, will not be seen on the field for a while.
Smith has, for a while now, been productive at a level hardly seen since the days of Bradman. Since hitting his apex around the beginning of 2014, he has averaged over 70 every year. In 44 tests from 2014 to the end of 2017 he has made 21 centuries, a rate bettered only, again, by Bradman. Indeed, so much has been written about his similarity in technique and mindset to the Bradman that at one point it seemed obligatory that the great man’s name be brought up in every article mentioning Smith.
This must all seem like a bad dream to the batsman. One moment he was perched atop the world game — captain of one of the world’s best teams, arguably the sport’s most dominant Test batsmen — only to be flung off his high pedestal. He now has to view the game he has loved since childhood from a painful distance.
It is unlikely that this is the first time he and his team have messed with the ball. There was evidence, during the Ashes that the Australian pacers not only bowled faster than their English counterparts, but they also elicited much more swing. This was rather surprising since seam and swing are supposed to be England’s forte. Further, they had Jimmy Anderson within their ranks, the man often thought to be the game’s foremost swing bowler.
There were also reports that there were some suspicious activities observed during the series and that Warner, tongue loosened during a drinking session with the English players after the series, boasted about the means by which he sought to prematurely age one side of the ball.
And so here we are at this most highly charged moment. The Australian team will now have to be totally reorganized and cricket will no doubt change in some way. But was the punishment meted out to Smith and his fellow offenders a bit too harsh?
In December 2016 there was mintgate: television footage appeared to show South African captain Faf du Plessis applying mint imbued saliva in order to augment the shine of the ball. Found guilty, he was docked his entire match fee and earned three demerit points.
Compared to Smith’s punishment, du Plessis got off scot-free. Both offences were in contravention of the law which prohibits the application of any artificial substance to the surface of the ball.
The intent, in both cases, was to better prepare the ball for reverse and contrast swing. You could argue, as du Plessis has, that Smith and his team committed the greater offence: “Ball shining versus ball tampering, they’re two very different situations,” South Africa’s captain replied to a question on the relative degree of blameworthiness of the offences. “One is definitely much more serious than the other.”
And yet both were trying to accomplish the same thing: increased swing. Why is using a foreign substance to increase the shine a less detestable offence than using sandpaper to make one side rougher? It shouldn’t really matter that one method is seen as more flagrant than the other, or that one method is considered more effective. Both teams were trying to achieve the same result.
Smith, Warner, Bancroft and all those who were a part of this latest scheme were guilty and should face some punishment. But du Plessis was almost surely just as guilty. Is it just that one was given a slap on the wrist while the others were harshly punished and disgraced?
Let’s be clear: altering the state of the ball illegally is cheating. Players may see it as nothing more than a minor infraction but it allows them to gain an unfair advantage over their opponents, providing, that is, their opponents are not doing similarly.
A number of past players have said the practice of trying to speed up the onset of reverse swing has been quite prevalent for a long time and often goes right up to the line of illegality. Cricket Australia’s response, therefore, seems a bit over the top. For the sake of justice, there should be a rethink of Smith and company’s severe punishment.