'The authorities let it happen' - Steve Waugh on Cape Town ball-tampering scandal
Former Australia captain Steve Waugh believes the previous lack of stringent punishments for ball-tampering manifested itself in things getting "out of control" with the Newlands controversy that led to the suspensions of Steven Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft.
The trio were handed severe sanctions by Cricket Australia earlier this year after sandpaper was used on the ball during the Cape Town Test to try and extract reverse swing. At the time, the ICC handed Smith the maximum penalty they could under the code of conduct - a 100% fine of his match fee and a one-match suspension - and gave Bancroft three demerit points and a 75% fine, but did not come down at all on Warner, although he had already been removed as vice-captain.
Ball-tampering was classed as a level two offence under the ICC code of conduct when the Newlands incident unfolded, but it has since been elevated to a level three category which carries a ban of up to six Tests or 12 ODIs. Players have long-since tried to stay just inside the line of laws and playing conditions while 'managing' the ball, with any breaches dealt with reasonably low down the ICC's scale of misdemeanors.
"You know they push the boundaries a bit by throwing the ball into the rough on the ground, which they shouldn't do and then it's escalated from there. It's a shame how it got to the point that it did but I guess the authorities let that happen," Waugh told ESPNcricinfo at a Laureus event in Paris. "There have been captains in the past who have been done for tampering with the ball and the penalties have been very lenient so there was no penalty for doing something wrong and it was always going to get to the case where it got out of control."
Waugh labelled Australia's attempts to sandpaper the ball as "stupid" and "ridiculous" and suggested the players had "lost touch with reality" in an environment that had become fraught over the preceding few years. It threw a spotlight on the entire Cricket Australia set-up - from the boardroom to the national men's team - and led to two reviews being set up, the findings of which will be released in Melbourne on Monday.
"They are in a bit of a bubble and they are protected, you know they are insulated from a lot of things. They've got a lot of people around the side that protect them and tell them how good they are and how everything's fantastic and sometimes you can lose touch with reality and I think that was best summed up when Steve Smith said that 'we won't make that same mistake again and we'll just get on with it'. They just didn't realise how big a mistake it was and what they'd actually done. So that, to me, just summed up that maybe they were out of touch with what the average person thinks."
The strength of reaction from the Australian public did not surprise Waugh, although despite his condemnation of what took place he did feel things went a bit too far.
"We put ourselves a bit on a pedestal and we like to think we do things the right way, play hard and fair, this was a real total shock to the system that we'd go that far that we'd get sandpaper," he said. "We couldn't really understand it because we had the best bowling attack in the world to start with on a pitch that was doing a bit. Why did we need to do it? It was just something that people couldn't understand you know and it was a shock to all of Australia and we reacted accordingly.
"It was on the front pages for weeks and we saw the emotional press conferences and it was a story that kept going and getting bigger. When you look back on it, it was a ridiculous mistake but it was sort of blown out of all proportion as well, the way it got covered, but that's the nature of Australian sport. Cricket is seen as almost our national identity. If we are winning and playing well we almost feel good as a nation and when that happened it was like a bit of a kick in the guts for everyone."
As far as the futures of Smith and Warner are concerned, Waugh believes they still have plenty to offer Australian cricket but their returns would involves mental battles as much as anything. Their bans are completed at the end of next March, which opens up the potential for them to return for the World Cup and Australia's Ashes tour.
"I know that [Smith] will be passionate, he's still only young, he loves cricket and he's got that drive to get back there. His biggest challenge will be to overcome people talking about it, because the rest of his life someone will probably mention it once a day. What happened? So he's going to have to mentally overcome that and find a way to sort of get past that but at the end of the day he's an outstanding cricketer and averages 60 in Test cricket, second only to Bradman over a long period of time, and he loves cricket so I'm sure he'll come back.
"You know [Warner] is a tremendous cricketer. A lot of passion, still very young. It's really up to those guys. They've got to have the passion, they've got to have the desire but I think it's a great chance of redemption. The Australian public will forgive and move on and they have an opportunity to really be role models to kids going forward."
Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo