An ICC suspension from the final Test against South Africa may be just the start of sanctions for Australia's captain Steven Smith, who alongside his deputy David Warner faces anything up to a life ban for cheating under Cricket Australia's code of behaviour.
While Australia slid towards their heaviest defeat to South Africa since readmission, the problems raised by another batting surrender were nothing next to the potential ramifications from the ball tampering attempted on the third day of the Test.
Smith, Warner and Cameron Bancroft all fell amid the rush of ten Australian wickets for 50 runs to end a match that had long since ceased to be a contest of any recognisable form, so hijacked had the visitors been by the ball-tampering fiasco. Each was roundly booed upon their arrivals at the batting crease, then given still louder rebukes upon their departures, with fans rushing to vantage points either side of the players' race to deliver invective at close range.
As CA's head of integrity Iain Roy and team performance manager Pat Howard travelled to Cape Town to commence an investigation, the CA Board bowed to pressure from the Australian Sports Commission to strip Smith and Warner of their leadership roles for the remainder of the Newlands Test, following their roles in orchestrating the ball tampering attempt that also involved Bancroft.
The focus has sharpened on Smith and Warner, after it was clarified that the lunchtime discussion did not involve the full "leadership group," which has also featured Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Nathan Lyon, but was instead undertaken by "senior players".
The CA chief executive James Sutherland also issued a public apology to Australian followers of the game, with the Board at a delicate point in the multimillion dollar television rights negotiations for the next five years with the Nine, Ten and Seven networks and the pay television network Fox Sports.
"To our Australian Cricket Fans, we are sorry," Sutherland said. "We are sorry that you had to wake up this morning to news from South Africa that our Australian Men's Cricket team and our Captain admitted to conduct that is outside both the Laws of our game and the Spirit of Cricket. This behaviour calls into question the integrity of the team and Cricket Australia."
The outraged response of the Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who spoke to the CA chairman David Peever the moment he touched down on his return from South Africa, was given further heft by the joint call from the ASC chair John Wylie and chief executive Kate Palmer for Smith and Warner to be stood down immediately from leadership until Roy's investigation is complete.
"The ASC condemns cheating of any form in sport. The ASC expects and requires that Australian teams and athletes demonstrate unimpeachable integrity in representing our country," the ASC said in a statement. "The Australian cricket team are iconic representatives of our country. The example they set matters a great deal to Australia and to the thousands of young Australians playing or enjoying the sport of cricket and who look up to the national team as role models.
"Given the admission by Australian captain Steve Smith, the ASC calls for him to be stood down immediately by Cricket Australia, along with any other members of the team leadership group or coaching staff who had prior awareness of, or involvement in, the plan to tamper with the ball. This can occur while Cricket Australia completes a full investigation."
That investigation will likely feature interviews with Smith, Warner, Bancroft and the Australian coach Darren Lehmann, and will determine how many players and staff will be charged under the code of behaviour. Once Roy has recommended charges, a code of behaviour hearing would be held with an independent commissioner, who would then decide on the guilt or otherwise of the players and staff concerned and the penalties to be imposed.
A charge of conduct contrary to the spirit of the game includes the clause "any conduct that is considered 'unfair play' under Rule 42 of the Laws of Cricket or against the spirit in which the game of cricket should be played". The maximum penalty available to the code of conduct commissioner is a life ban from the sport, with factors to be taken into account including "the seriousness of the breach" and "the harm caused by the breach to the interests of cricket".
CA's decision to stand down Smith and Warner was announced minutes before the start of play on day four. "Following discussions with Steve Smith and David Warner they have agreed to stand down as Captain and Vice-Captain respectively for the remainder of this Test match," Sutherland said. "This Test match needs to proceed, and in the interim we will continue to investigate this matter with the urgency that it demands.
"As I said earlier today, Cricket Australia and Australian cricket fans expect certain standards of conduct from cricketers representing our country, and on this occasion these standards have not been met. All Australians, like us, want answers and we will keep you updated on our findings, as a matter of priority."
The CA chairman David Peever said the appointment of Paine followed an emergency Board meeting. "The Board of Cricket Australia has endorsed Tim Paine to step in as Acting Captain for the remainder of this Test," he said. "Both Steve and David will take to the field today under Tim's captaincy. The Board fully supports the process for an immediate investigation into what occurred in Cape Town. We regard this as a matter of the utmost seriousness and urgency. We will ensure we have all information available to make the right decisions for Australian cricket."
The ICC confirmed that the umpires had first been made aware of the possibility of ball tampering by television replays on the big screen at Newlands. The on-field umpires Richard Illingworth and Nigel Llong then spoke to Bancroft and Smith before they, the third umpire Ian Gould, and fourth umpire Allahudien Palekar laid the ball-tampering charges. They did not replace the ball nor award South Africa five penalty runs because they did not believe the ball's condition had been changed.
"The decision made by the leadership group of the Australian team to act in this way is clearly contrary to the spirit of the game, risks causing significant damage to the integrity of the match, the players and the sport itself, and is therefore 'serious' in nature," the ICC chief executive David Richardson said. "As captain, Steve Smith must take full responsibility for the actions of his players and it is appropriate that he be suspended. The game needs to have a hard look at itself. In recent weeks we have seen incidents of ugly sledging, send-offs, dissent against umpires' decisions, a walk-off, ball tampering, and some ordinary off-field behaviour.
"The ICC needs to do more to prevent poor behaviour and better police the spirit of the game, defining more clearly what is expected of players and enforcing the regulations in a consistent fashion. In addition, and most importantly, Member countries need to show more accountability for their teams' conduct. Winning is important but not at the expense of the spirit of the game which is intrinsic and precious to the sport of cricket. We have to raise the bar across all areas."
The match referee Andy Pycroft said he hoped Bancroft would learn from the episode. "To carry a foreign object on to the field of play with the intention of changing the condition of the ball to gain an unfair advantage over your opponent is against not only the Laws, but the Spirit of the game as well," he said. "That said, I acknowledge that Cameron has accepted responsibility for his actions by pleading guilty to the charge and apologising publicly. As a young player starting out in international cricket, I hope the lessons learned from this episode will strongly influence the way he plays the game during the rest of his career."
There was no indication, meanwhile, that Smith or Warner were under threat to retain their roles as captains of Rajasthan Royals or Sunrisers Hyderabad in the IPL. The Twenty20 tournament is due to commence shortly after the conclusion of tour of South Africa.