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Sambit Bal

This is Australia's moment of truth

It's beyond ball-tampering. It's about how they want to play the game

Sambit Bal
Sambit Bal
There can be no pleasure from gloating about the misfortune of cricketers for it only lowers our game, fragile as it already is. It's a time of great embarrassment for Australian cricket, and the wheels of repercussion have already been set in motion with the captain and vice-captain being moved aside for this Test. It's a shame that this terrific series will be more remembered for the misdemeanours of the players rather than their skills. Whatever the indignation towards the haughty righteousness of the Australian cricket team, there is no joy to be had from Steven Smith's misfortunes.
And also, let's not be so sanctimonious about ball-tampering. Reverse swing has forever been cricket's dark art, obtained not merely by considerable skills - which no doubt is essential, otherwise there would been a hundred Waqars - but also by whatever means that aid it. From fingernails to dirt to sandpaper to bottle corks to hidden zippers, all have come to use one time or another, and from the great and the good, many players have been involved. In the eagerness to dig the boot into their unloved opponents, South African fans must not lose sight of the fact that their own captain has been found complicit in two such instances in the recent past.
But for Australia it is a moment of truth. There will be more punishment, as there should be, under the code of conduct regulations, though going by precedent (none of the last few infractions have invited suspension) the ICC penalty might well be less severe than what the world is baying for. And irrespective of the outcome, the outrage and indignation will continue. But away from all that, it is an opportunity for Australian cricket for an unsparing self-appraisal. The "hard but fair" line is blown now, the self-assigned moral high ground sunk, and their credibility in tatters.
"If we weren't caught, I would still regret it," Smith said. Would Smith really have gathered the troops in the dressing room and chastised himself and the leadership group openly and sworn the team to never again veer from the spirt of the game?
Before they ponder how they want to be regarded, they must ask themselves how they want to play the game. And in that, the questions go far beyond the ball-tampering episode.
The only redeeming aspect of this event was that there were no greys. The attempt to tamper was so luridly captured that it left no room whatsoever to mount even the feeblest of denials. There is no moral ground to be taken in owning up, because was there really a choice?
One could argue that Cameron Bancroft, one of the youngest members in the team, could have been hung out to dry, but could the captain, as the lead orchestrator, have led his men out to play with any sense of authority? It was Bancroft whose words were the most revealing when he confessed to have been worried about a "hundred cameras". By that account, this was as big a brain fade as there ever was. And a collective one too. Only that the pre-meditative nature of it makes it impossible to classify it as a temporary departure of sense.
And unfortunately, and inevitably, glances will be now cast at the original brain fade, which involved Peter Handscomb, another greenhorn, upon whose prompting Smith sought assistance from the dressing room for a DRS review in that fateful moment in Bengaluru last year. Smith's owning up in Cape Town was as absolute as his denial in Bengaluru that it was a systemic practice.
As cruel as it may be, would it be completely out of place to wonder what would have happened had Australia gotten away with this in Cape Town? "If we weren't caught, I would still regret it," Smith said, but would he really have gathered the troops in the dressing room and chastised himself and the leadership group openly and sworn the team to never again veer from the spirit of the game? Or would there be the temptation to try it again? Who can say now how many times how many teams have tried it in the past without getting caught?
But the questions for Australia, and indeed the rest of the cricket world, are bigger. It was desperation, Smith said, that drove them to this. But this was about saving a match, not lives. How far elite sportsmen stretch their bodies and mind in search of victory forms part of sports' intrinsic appeal, but the attendant danger of the win-at-all-costs approach is that it thins the line between ultra-competitiveness and sharp practice. In the days leading to this, it became clear how easily "hard" can descend to ugly, and bring out the worst in all; now there is evidence where desperation can lead. To address it, Australia must go down to the roots.
It was Steve Waugh, admirable cricketer that he was, who created the impression that his teams need to go that extra mile to flatten the opponents. The Waugh doctrine of mental disintegration became the default culture because his team was so enormously successful, and those who followed have been paying the price for it. Waugh won because he had the world's greatest bowling duo in Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath and the most destructive No. 7 batsman in the history of the game to follow the most prolific batting machine of that era. Mark Taylor handed a great team to Waugh, and like the great West Indians who preceded them, this Australian team would have been as successful without gnarled teeth and cuss words. Their successors have sought to keep up the act, but without the resources, the returns have dwindled.
Australian cricket made an interesting choice in Darren Lehmann as coach after dispensing with Mickey Arthur. Lehmann was a throwback, a lad's lad, or a man's man, if you will. Around him, there was fellowship and mateship, a few beers and guffaws, and licence for the players to express themselves. And certainly no homework. It was about creating a culture. But Lehman also had a past.
Even if we were to take just a couple of his indiscretions - the racial vilification of Sri Lankans in 2003, and more recently, his call to Australian fans to get stuck in to Stuart Broad so that he "cries and goes home" - as lapses in unguarded moments, they are still revealing of a certain outlook. Who knows what the impressionable young Australian players hear in the dressing room?
Understandably, there is outrage in Australia. This is an affront to their sense of fair play. In fairness, rarely have their cricketers been caught with their hands in the cookie jar. They were at the forefront of eradicating illegal actions. They are not known to doctor pitches to the degree other nations do. And this happens to be the first instance of proven ball-tampering against an Australian team. But what they need to address is something broader and deeper, and into the circumstances that led to it. Bancroft will have to live down that image of him furtively shoving the tape into his pants, but real culpability, and accountability, lies at the top.

Sambit Bal is editor-in-chief of ESPNcricinfo @sambitbal