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Cricket needs a global ball-tampering inquiry to clear the air

While Australia's transgression was by far the most brazenly egregious, ball-tampering had been a global issue

Daniel Brettig
Daniel Brettig
Cameron Bancroft recently said it is "self-explanatory" other members of the team had to have known about the benefits of using sandpaper  •  Gallo Images/Getty Images

Cameron Bancroft recently said it is "self-explanatory" other members of the team had to have known about the benefits of using sandpaper  •  Gallo Images/Getty Images

In July 2018, a couple of months after the Newlands fiasco that sent Australian cricket into a flurry it has never quite escaped, the ICC's most senior figures agreed on levying harsh new penalties for ball-tampering under its code of conduct.
Where the Cape Town episode itself had played out with a farcical distance between the sanctions applied to Cameron Bancroft (a 75% match fee fine), Steven Smith (a one-game ban) and David Warner (no penalty) by the ICC and then by Cricket Australia (playing bans of nine months, one year, and one year respectively), these subsequent rulings closed the gap.
Notwithstanding the millions of dollars it cost them, Smith and Warner ultimately missed eight Test matches because of the bans imposed by CA. As per the updated ICC code, a player found to have transgressed in a similar manner could be suspended for a maximum of six Tests.
Dinesh Chandimal transgressed for Sri Lanka in June 2018, missing one Test, but there hasn't been a single ball-tampering offence listed in the ICC's code of conduct breaches and penalties register since. At the same time, there has been next to no reverse swing, a state of affairs that has helped plenty of batting sides and deprived the long form of the game of some of the more dramatic passages of play it has ever witnessed.
Those frenzied half hours, orchestrated by the likes of Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Simon Jones, Andrew Flintoff, Zaheer Khan, Ishant Sharma, James Anderson and Mitchell Starc, were brilliant for broadcasters. All the more ironic then, that so many of the ball-tampering instances of the past 20 years were uncovered and prosecuted so aggressively by those same broadcasters. Test cricket might be cleaner now, but it is less likely to twist on a rush of wickets on an unhelpful surface.
What this change in the game's officiating should have reflected was the fact that, while Australia's transgression was by far the most publicly obvious and - by using sandpaper - most brazenly egregious, ball-tampering had been a global issue, the scale of which had grown enormously over many years prior to the fateful week at Newlands. Between 2000 and 2018, no fewer than 13 instances saw sanctions imposed.
The slightly more open words offered this week by Bancroft and Australia's former assistant coach David Saker have underlined how public fascination, and in many cases cynicism, about the Newlands episode and what led up to it have scarcely cooled over the course of more than three years.
When Bancroft told the Guardian that it was "self-explanatory" other members of the team had to have known about the benefits of using sandpaper to rough up the ball in pursuit of reverse swing, plentiful antennae went up. When Saker followed this by stating, among other things, to the Age "there was a lot of people to blame. It could have been me to blame, it could have been someone else. It could have been stopped and it wasn't, which is unfortunate" the swirl of questions only grew.
An initial investigation, conducted by CA's then head of integrity Iain Roy in a hotel room in Cape Town in the company of two ICC anti-corruption officials, was focused on events at Newlands and took place over 48 hours. Interviews featured 10 of the 15 players on tour and six of the 12 support staff.
The measure of the investigation was to be speed as much as thoroughness: Australia needed to select a team for the final match of the series in Johannesburg and needed to know how many new players had to be flown in. But CA also needed to find a way to put a cap on the issue as quickly as possible, not least because it was at that stage deep into negotiations for the broadcast deal that would ultimately see the game move to Foxtel and Seven for AUD 1.18 billion. When none of the banned players pushed back via the means of asking for a code of conduct hearing, as was their right, the process was seen to have been successful.
Next, CA had an overall cultural review, conducted by Dr Simon Longstaff of the Ethics Centre, that was released in October 2018 and heralded the end of David Peever as CA's chairman a matter of days later. But this was an exercise in examining the broad strokes of the organisation over the preceding few years rather more so than the specifics of what had happened within the Australian team over the same period. So it was that CA had two separate reviews of events around Newlands without satisfying all possible questions.
Those close to Roy's investigation have long maintained that it did its job in the sense that ultimately, any sharp practice on the part of the team could only be stopped by the captain alone, and Smith had chosen to walk past it. It also gave the rest of the team and staff such a fright that they would never dare try anything even close to that ever again.
CA have, of course, never retreated from a public position that any "new information" about the affair should be brought forward to them, and if enough were to be tabled, an investigation would re-commence. That line has maintained a veneer of openness about wanting to know more, while at the same time not showing anything like the sort of zeal for the truth that would be required for a broader inquiry to ever actually take place.
Without volunteering an offer of amnesty to potential informers, or stating flatly that the sanctions meted out to Bancroft, Smith and Warner will be the only ones CA will levy, there is very little chance of any player, coach or member of support staff ever coming forward. They may, as Bancroft and Saker have done, offer a little more insight into the state of things under media questioning. They may also, as most suspect Warner and Smith will do, deliver a franker recollection of events in their post-playing autobiographies.
But apart from those sorts of avenues, there is too much to lose in terms of career or reputation for those who have managed to escape the formal humiliations that Bancroft, Smith and Warner faced in 2018. Everyone working with CA at the time, from the top tier of executive management down to Bancroft himself, is still playing or working in some capacity, whether in cricket or corporate Australia, and will not want to face the possibility of being ruled out of future employment.
The former head coach, Darren Lehmann, resigned a few days after Newlands having seen Bancroft and Smith make their emotional early returns home, but served out his contract with CA and has since been rejuvenated as the coach of the Brisbane Heat. Saker, meanwhile, is a prominent contender to return to his former post as head coach of the Melbourne Renegades.
Players and less senior support staff all live on year-to-year contracts that have only been made sparser by Covid-19 and related spending cuts. Even the likes of Bancroft, Peter Handscomb and Usman Khawaja still hold out hope of returning to the international scene one day. Survival is, in many ways, the name of the professional game, something that goes beyond how one might bat or bowl to how they might choose, or choose not, to speak.
That's why the only feasible re-opening of investigations into ball-tampering would need to be done on a "truth and reconciliation" basis that applied no fresh penalties to those who speak out. It's also why the scope would need to be broader than that of Australia alone. Saker said it rather well in recalling the Australian "bubble" view: "We all know that we made a monumental mistake. The gravity wasn't as plain until it all came out."
In other words, Australia's creep towards a move as obvious and outrageous as Bancroft trying to apply sandpaper to the ball in the middle of a session of play was pushed as much by a sense that everyone else was cutting corners in "ball management" as by the decay of the culture in the team and CA more widely. That sense had been enhanced by the sorts of meagre penalties applied to previous transgressors in numerous other countries, before the code of conduct changes made later in 2018.
Cricket, then, should be having a wider discussion of reverse swing and how it has been attained in the past and may be again in the future. Undoubtedly the only way to coax out a fuller picture of what happened in the Australian team leading up to and during the Cape Town Test would be a review of ball management practices around the world during the same period. A deep dive into how the ICC came to view ball-tampering as a problem requiring a global remedy, not just an Australian one.
Once that has been done, the cricket world can decide once and for all whether or not reverse swing is an ailment for the game or one of its most entertaining subplots.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig