Pakistan v South Africa, 2nd Test, Dubai, 4th day October 26, 2013

Another 'C' word for South Africa?

South Africa's reputation of being arguably the most professional and respectable team has taken a hit by the ball-tampering episode

Once the anger has subsided, there may be some time to appreciate the irony. Pakistan, the last and only other team to have penalty runs awarded against them for ball-tampering in a Test match, were on the receiving end of another side's wrongdoing.

Despite AB de Villiers' insistence that South Africa "play in a fair manner", Faf du Plessis pleaded guilty to the Level 2 offense of changing the condition of the ball. His misdemeanour is in cricket circles what not wearing your seatbelt is in real life - it's the wrong thing to do but it's so widely done that it only really matters if you get caught.

All teams look after the ball in ways they think will advantage them. That is allowed. What they are not allowed to do is change the ball so much that it disadvantages the other team disproportionately. That sounds confusing because it is and with so much grey area, there have been some arguments over the years to legalise "preparing" the ball.

That is the term Allan Donald, the current South Africa bowling coach, used to describe what bowlers need to do to ensure they are not shut out of a game that has increasingly grown to advantage batsmen. Four years ago, Donald said bowlers need a defence mechanism to "fall back on" so that they are able to generate reverse swing on flatter pitches. While he said he knew the ICC would "shoot me for saying it", Donald advocated getting the ball "in the dirt" to accelerate the scuffing up of one side while protecting the other.

Televisions pictures showed du Plessis was doing exactly that. He was rubbing the dry side of the ball on his trousers, in "vicinity of the zipper on his trouser pocket" as the ICC's release put it. Du Plessis' actions were brazen, they were easily found out by the cameras, immediately picked up by the television umpire, conveyed to his on-field colleagues and quickly acted on. The changes made to the playing conditions at the beginning of this month allowed Ian Gould and Rod Tucker to deal with the issue as soon as it happened.

Perhaps South Africa were not aware that could happen. De Villiers revealed he did "not know all the facts of the matter" when runs were added to Pakistan's total and the ball was changed. He was certain South Africa had not done the wrong thing, even though the ICC immediately called it a case of ball-tampering. That was how the questions began.

Why would a team 351 runs ahead, who had their opposition three down with more than two days left in the match on a surface that was deteriorating, feel they needed to do something extra? Yes, the Dubai surface has not got a drop of moisture the seamers can take advantage of, neither has it cracked open. But South Africa should not have been in that much of a hurry.

What they may have experienced was extreme frustration, particularly since they had dismantled their opposition for 99 in the same match and have become accustomed to ending Tests swiftly. De Villiers jokingly said South Africa would have liked to finish the match "in two days if we can". Even though that may be a reflection of what they really expected to happen, it reveals something about their impatience.

Given the match situation and the nonchalance with which du Plessis conducted his mischief, could also be a sign this is something that they have become accustomed to doing. And that thought could be the most damaging thing to happen to South Africa in the aftermath of this incident.

It means their previous performances will be scrutinised and their many fine achievements in the recent past examined with this incident in mind. Take, for example, just this match and you will find people wondering how it was possible that Dale Steyn managed to find reverse swing from the 20th over of the Pakistan first innings while Pakistan's bowlers barely found any for the 163.1 overs they were in the field.

Having become the world's No.1 team on the back of a reputation for being a group of cricketers who conduct themselves arguably in the most professional and respectable way, to have a blight of this nature on their reputation will hurt South Africa. They are seen as a team who do the right thing, now one of them is seen as a culprit who got away.

Du Plessis was fined 50% of his match fee after David Boon was "satisfied that this was not part of a deliberate and/or prolonged attempt to unfairly manipulate the condition of the ball". Boon called the sanction "appropriate". More severe sanctions attract a higher percentage of money being docked - up to 100% - and a match ban of one Test, two ODIs and two Twenty20s, but none of those were meted out to du Plessis despite the visual evidence suggesting he was aware of what he was doing.

On the same day as Saeed Ajmal was officially reprimanded for excessive celebrations - something few people even noticed - it seemed as though the variance in the punishments for offenses was too great. When considered in the context of previous players who have been suspended for the same, such as Shoaib Akhtar and Shahid Afridi who had to sit out two matches each, du Plessis can be considered to have got off lightly.

There may be other consequences and South Africa's clothing manufacturer may be among the parties involved. The zipped pockets could come under scrutiny and the mechanism may be removed. There may be a debate sparked about the various methods used to shine the ball and possibly another wave of lobbying for ball-tampering to be less regulated.

For now, it remains a breach of the code of the conduct and if players are found doing it, they will probably be punished in some way. That is what happened to this South African team. Their defenders will say they just did what everyone else is doing and were not smart enough to hide it. Their critics will call them cheats. Like the other c-word they are called, it's not a label they will wear with pride.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent