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Analysis

Five years after Sandpapergate, what has changed in Australian cricket?

The amount of reverse swing on offer down under has dropped significantly, and so has the amount of sledging

Cameron Ponsonby
22-Jun-2023
A studio shot of a cricket ball with its seam displayed, October 20, 2012

Have cricket balls been treated more kindly on the whole since the Cape Town ball-tampering affair?  •  Tim Clayton/Corbis/Getty Images

The sandpaper incident is a painfully taboo subject. For this article, cold approaches for interviews were either ignored or politely declined, while even warm introductions were largely given cold responses. Ultimately, three former international cricketers agreed to speak anonymously, though several more spoke off the record. Each was asked the same question: in the five years since the sport suffered its most controversial fallout in recent memory, what has changed in cricket?
Accounts were consistent across the board. Sandpaper may have been a global news story but its ramifications were domestic. In Australia ball-tampering was all but gone overnight, with players speaking of a drastic dip in the amount of reverse swing seen in matches. Sledging continued to decline, in contrast to just after 2016, when Matthew Wade's selection as wicketkeeper - due to his quick wit behind the stumps as much as his quick hands - aligned with a slight rise in on-field sledging.
"It certainly reverberated down the channels in state cricket," says one former Australia international. "There were things like Rick McCosker [who led the cultural review] coming around and interviewing people on CA's behalf, about 'What the hell is going on? How have we got here?' And not just about ball-tampering, but that was a series [in South Africa] where there was a lot of animosity and on-field verbal stuff going on.
"[But] I think there's a couple of important distinctions to make. Has cricket changed? Yes, it has. Was the punishment that was handed down by Cricket Australia over the top to send a message to everyone [that] the unspoken culture and history of Australian cricket is worth more to us than anything the ICC can govern? I think it was absolutely done based off that, rather than fair process."

****

Australia was late to adopt reverse swing. The skill arrived in the country through English professionals playing at grade clubs in the 2000s. And until Cape Town in 2018, the techniques used had been in line with the rule-bending found everywhere. A touch of lip balm applied to the ball here, the odd scratch of the nail there, maybe a quick brush of the ball against a zipper.
"It was pretty similar," says one player of his experience playing in Sheffield Shield cricket compared to the County Championship. "I wouldn't have said either were doing it more than [the other].
Such was the severity of the punishment handed down to David Warner, Steven Smith and Cameron Bancroft by Cricket Australia - Smith and Warner received yearlong bans and Bancroft nine months - that the attitude to ball-tampering changed overnight.
"I know in our [Shield] dressing room we talked about it and said, 'We're not risking anything.' Dry shine, sweat shine. Like, no sweat with sunscreen on. It wasn't like anyone was suggesting we might have wiped the ball on excess sunscreen on our arm. We're talking about, you can't see [sunscreen], it literally looks like sweat on your arm - we're not using that. Just back sweat and anything under the shirt. No risk around that stuff was the line we took."
Another player speaks of how using things like lip balm incidentally while applying saliva on the ball, "to add a layer of really buffing the leather" went from being common practice to "basically not there". He said, "I think it's at a point where it's not worth the risk and also really not how we want to be viewed anyway."
The decision to leave the lip balm at the door, however, wasn't without risk: although teams could guarantee what their own manicure routines would be, they couldn't second-guess what others would do. "Absolutely, that was a concern - we were a skill-based bowling attack," said the player whose changing room had taken on a no-risks mantra.
The use of sandpaper itself, however, is cricket's bogeyman. Either side of the equator, players have heard talk of how it has been used, but claim never to have seen it actually done themselves.
"I've never in my life seen someone take sandpaper onto a cricket field at any level of cricket," says one player. "I was absolutely bewildered by the thought that anyone would think that's a good idea."
Another said: "I was always admiring of people who could [get the ball moving]. So I would have watched and watched and watched and definitely picked up on that. That would have been one of the things that I would have been a dog with a bone about. I've never seen it, genuinely."
Players were shocked at the means but not the intent. Ball management has been, and in reality will continue to be, part of every dressing room in professional cricket, and in much of the amateur game too.
Teams have long had specified ball managers, and for some within Australia, the fact that the role was given to Cameron Bancroft was no surprise at all.
"He was the ball manager for Western Australia for a long time," says one player. "That's how we saw it in our dressing room… so he's experienced in that area. I was still shocked he took a bit of f**king sandpaper out on the ground!"
Despite sightings of sandpaper being rare to non-existent, stories persist. During the 2017-18 Ashes series, England suspected foul play, with Warner's strapped hands attracting attention.
There are a number of theories about how sandpaper is used, but the premise is the same. You place the rough side of the ball in your palm, either layered in or occasionally stuck on top of, the strapping on your hand, and as you shine one side, the sandpaper roughs up the other. Two for the price of one; every batter must go.
The arrival of Covid-19 further underlined the change in the wake of the Cape Town scandal: use of saliva on the ball was banned entirely and greater scrutiny was placed on the number of players who were touching what the former British prime minister Boris Johnson called "the vector of disease" between deliveries. Nevertheless, senior Australian players are clear that where there had been ball-tampering during the 2017-18 season, from the 2018-19 pre-Covid season it had all but gone. Meanwhile younger players, whose debut came after the whole ordeal, say candidly that they struggle to even wrap their heads around the idea that saliva was once allowed to be used on the ball at all.

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Ball-tampering was, of course, only half the story, the other being how Australia had allowed an environment to develop where such a thing could happen. The fallout made as much for a cultural introspection for Australia as a cricketing one.
That 2018 series with South Africa was vicious to the point of vile. The two teams had history. In 2014, Faf du Plessis described the Aussies as a "pack of dogs", a comment that Warner barked his approval of on the pitch in response. In the first Test of the 2018 series, there was the infamous stairwell incident, where a fight nearly broke out after Quinton de Kock allegedly directed a crude comment at Warner regarding his wife.
"Watching the Australian team and what happened through that period," a former Australian international said, "I feel it started from the national team point of view to get a bit ugly.
"I don't reckon I'd seen it get that ugly at first-class level - I couldn't name a time where it had. You know, players doing things that I thought were out of character was really stealing my attention.
"A guy like Nathan Lyon, who I wouldn't have said is overly provocative. What he is, is a bit of a court jester sometimes, starts conversations about weird stuff… but when AB de Villiers got run-out in that series and [Lyon] dropped the ball on his chest when he was lying on the ground, that's like, things were getting out of control."
And so the hammer came down on Australian cricket. McCosker conducted the cultural review, Iain Roy the Cape Town investigation, and Malcolm Turnbull the prime ministerial sideline swipe.
"I have to say," Turnbull said on television, "that [to] the whole nation who holds those who wear the baggy green up on a pedestal, about as high as you can get in Australia… this is a shocking disappointment.
"How can our team be engaged in cheating like this? It beggars belief."
"Matthew Wade's selection as a keeper," recalls one player, "where he replaced Peter Nevill in 2016, and it was sort of an [endorsement of an] attack-dog mentality. Matt was and still is an incredible cricketer, so it's not a slight on him - it's more like, it was outwardly spoken by a team hierarchy that we wanted a keeper that was going to get in people's faces. Bring that attitude that we drive the contest. And that was, without necessarily explicitly saying it, very much part of the process."
"I wouldn't necessarily disagree," replied another player to the idea that the symbolism of Wade's selection (though mouthy Australian wicketkeepers have historically not been rare) had had an impact on sledging in the Sheffield Shield. "Like, yes, it might have been a little bit of an upturn, but I reckon if you're looking at a stock-market worm, it may have just been a little uptick for a little while. I'd still say it wasn't really a patch on the stuff that was going around earlier in my career."
The world has changed rapidly since then, to one where domestic opponents can also be domestic team-mates, depending on what the colour of the ball is, and international opponents can be franchise team-mates. The idea that the people you play against each week are consistently the worst blokes in the competition no longer rings true.
"You are now not just a state cricketer, you're basically on the market as a free agent. And if you're a f**kwit, people know about it - you get delisted, you don't last."
Sandpaper's impact on sledging in Australia was to yank the steering wheel back in the direction in which the game had already been travelling - and would continue to do so around the rest of the world.
"Everyone still gets in the contest," concludes one Shield player. "It's not like it's an Under-12 game of cricket. But it's more I think all of this coupled together, and [also] a bit of a realisation from everyone that we can't carry on, we should play with smiles on our faces and remember why we play cricket in the first place."
"You might get 'You're a f**king shit player' or something like that. And that's probably about it."

****

So ball-tampering in Australia is gone. Good. One for the good guys. Except, it isn't that simple. One of the reasons that players are so reluctant to talk about the issue is the disparity between the attitude towards tampering within the professional game as a whole and outside it. The line between ball management and tampering is vague. Something that a professional may consider as part of the game, the average fan on the street may interpret as tampering, and therefore, cheating
For an example of the confused state in which ball-tampering exists within cricket, consider Bancroft's punishment for his involvement in the saga of Cape Town. The ICC, the sport's literal international governing body fined him just 75% of his match fee. His own board banned him for nine months - although admittedly, the players' subsequent attempted cover-up played a major role in the harshness of that decision.
Nevertheless, get caught tampering and you can be an international news story, banned by your own board and criticised by your own prime minister, while still getting paid (as Bancroft was for that Test), all at the same time.
It's why players from outside Australia largely reflected on the sandpaper affair with a shrug rather than anger. A look down the nose at an over-the-top act they considered weird as opposed to important.
It would be easy to come to a shocked and startled conclusion that the game not shifting in attitudes to ball management elsewhere should be an indictment of everyone else and a gold star for Australia. But ball-tampering being so common in Australia, rather than in the UK, for example, wasn't down to a difference in attitudes but a difference in conditions.
The UK uses the Dukes ball and conditions tend to be damp. So the name of the game is to keep the ball as pristine as possible so that it continues to swing conventionally for as long as possible. Whereas in Australia, it is dry and the less bowler-friendly Kookaburra is used, so more work is required on the ball to extract any movement.
"I think, largely, reverse swing has gone out of the game," explains one player of the Sheffield Shield post-sandpaper.
"I think the danger - not that I'm advocating for ball-tampering one bit - is, we're looking at probably 15 to 20 overs of genuine swing then no reverse swing. Literally no movement off the straight at all. You're just pushing s**t uphill to try and get something to happen in Australia."
However, since 2018, batting averages against fast bowlers in overs 50 through 80 in the Sheffield Shield have actually dropped ever so slightly from 29.59 in the four seasons preceding, to 28.43 since. A figure that suggests despite reverse swing largely disappearing, bowlers have nonetheless managed to find a way to extract advantage successfully without the aid of a nail or some lip balm.
Overall, ball-tampering carries with it a mystery, and because it's illegal, some excitement. But to some extent it is fans getting giddy over someone going a mile per hour over the speed limit. Within the game, players who are known for their ability to get the ball moving are known as magicians as much as cheats. Revered as much as they are reviled.
"I'm of the opinion," concludes one player, "that I want to see the greats move the ball off the straight at pace and do things that I can't do. We've got to be very careful that the game needs to be played on the edge - of course it does. We don't want to cross over that. But we need to see the cool bits of the game as well."
Sandpapergate crossed a line and a necessary overreaction came in response. And as a result, Australia woke up with a stinking hangover, and vowed to never drink again. It's just that much to everyone's shock, it appears that, so far, they've stuck to their promise.

Cameron Ponsonby is a freelance cricket writer in London. @cameronponsonby