Please give me back today
And I won't say the things I said
Or do the thing I did
Every minute every hour
The replay's just the same
And I can't stand the shame
Let me start today again
Paul Kelly's plaintive wish for redemption, If I Could Start Today Again, could almost have been written for Steven Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft.
Whether in Cape Town, Perth or Sydney, all carried the heavy weight of the Newlands ball-tampering scandal, with a governing body in Cricket Australia all too eager to turn the screw on the trio in order to contain any wider damage to the game in the weeks before signing a new broadcast rights deal. "They haven't been charged by Cricket Australia for ball tampering," the board's chief executive James Sutherland said. "It relates to contrary to the spirit of the game, it relates to denigrating the game or having an impact on the reputation and image of the game, causing damage to the game, all of those things have quite clearly happened in a short space of time as a result of those actions."
Smith's two airport tableaux, manhandled through O.R. Tambo International Airport in South Africa, then crying his eyes out at Kingsford Smith in Sydney, could not cease to stir the emotions of even the most cynical observer. If Warner's visage attracted less sympathy, his words were more definitively bleak. "In the back of my mind I suppose there is a tiny ray of hope," Warner said, "that I may one day be given the privilege of playing for my country again, but I am resigned to the fact that that may never happen."
Their actions at Newlands, as defined by CA's comprehensive code of conduct charge sheet, were indefensible. Bancroft received some measure of leniency on account of his inexperience, but there was no such consideration for Smith and Warner. In a trice, Australia's two best and most prominent cricketers were cast out of the game, with many more ramifications to follow CA's judgment. First, a matter of hours after being handed their CA bans, they were culled from this year's IPL. Sponsors deserted them, and fans both at home and abroad expressed their outrage in terms that grew increasingly shrill.
Amid the public maelstrom and their private senses of turmoil, all pondered whether or not to take their CA charges and penalties to code of conduct hearings. Each player had grounds for doing so, and it may be a long time before further details of exactly what took place at Newlands, before and after Bancroft was seen roughing up the ball before trying to hide sandpaper down his trousers, emerge. But one by one, all chose to waive their right to this process, accepting the "umpire's" verdict, however harsh it seemed, to allow the healing of their reputations to begin.
Right now, a little less than two months later, much has already changed for Smith and Warner. They have returned, carefully, to the public eye - Smith announcing his arrival back home in Australia after a trip to the United States, Warner turning up doing community work in the Northern Territory. They are being offered all manner of opportunities to make their returns to the game, beyond the bounds of the ban on international and first-class cricket imposed on them by CA. And the public rhetoric around them has softened noticeably, a process that began when the national team coach Darren Lehmann resigned upon witnessing Smith's tearful return home.
In recent weeks, Lehmann's successor Justin Langer has increased the level of verbal compassion, speaking of the Cape Town trio in terms of mistakes and learning. "They've made mistakes. We have all made mistakes and we can all get better," he said. "David Warner made a mistake. Has he got areas to get better at? Yes. Has Steve Smith? Has Cameron Bancroft? Has every single person in Australian cricket? Yes. They have all got areas in we keep helping and mentoring them and if they meet the standards of the Australian cricket team, of course, they will be welcomed back."
Similar noises have emanated from Tim Paine, the man thrust into the captaincy. In a recent interview with News Corporation, he even stated that the Australian team he now leads is still Smith and Warner's - he is merely keeping the seat warm. "Once they've served their sanctions they'll be welcomed back into our team with no issues whatsoever," Paine said. "Everyone wants to move past South Africa. In a way, I see it as their team, and I want to do the right thing by them, but I also want to move our culture and behaviour forward and I want them to be part of it."
Sport, of course, is replete with stories of redemption. Google "sporting redemption" and click through any one of 459,000 results to see it. The comeback narrative is so deeply entrenched in sporting lore that it would feel oddly incomplete without such tales, whether they are played out to a glorious conclusion in the manner of the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs breaking their long droughts without ultimate baseball success, or left hanging on the many what-ifs of, say, Greg Norman at the Masters. This sense of desire for a happy ending is key to understanding how Smith and Warner may yet find themselves back on the dais of cricketing success, surrounded by teammates who, in the horrid days immediately after the Newlands Test, found themselves very much at odds with Warner in particular.
But there is also a pragmatic element to much of the warming rhetoric and sense of change. CA, having pushed the issue from bad publicity to investigation, charge and acceptance of sanctions in little more than two weeks - compare that to the Essendon AFL drugs scandal which dragged on for years - wants a rejuvenated image for the game and the national team. The sport's new Australian broadcasters, Fox Sports and Channel Seven, want viewers in their many hundreds of thousands, and the strong returns of Warner and Smith can only add to those figures. Fox's part owners at News Corporation want to sell newspapers and digital subscriptions, something far more likely to happen as followers are drawn into the long road back for the former captain and his deputy. And supporters of the game wish to feel good about it again, after all the opprobrium of March and April.
A reckoning still awaits CA and the national team, in terms of the way the organisation has been run in recent times, and the way in which the men clad in the baggy green had built up plenty of ill will among opponents over numerous years of caustic behaviour on the field. Both elements are the subject of separate reviews, expected to report back to CA before the start of next summer. With questions having already been asked about the links between CA and both organisations carrying out these reviews, the release of any kind of "whitewash" style findings would likely send the board back into the realms of disrepute, even as Warner and Smith slowly return to the game after serving their punishments.
What's likely, however, is that Smith and Warner find themselves welcomed back into the fold, if for no other reason than the fact that Australia's cricket team will struggle to secure the desired results - overseas in particular - without the runs they can provide. When their playing bans expire in March 2019, it will be a matter of weeks before the start of the 50-over World Cup, and a matter of months before the Ashes tour that follows it. These assignments loom as the moments when, unlike the forlorn figure in Kelly's song, Smith and Warner will get their chance to start today again.