Why is Australia so outraged at Steven Smith's team?

Ball-tampering happens in cricket, so why has what Australia did in Cape Town been decried so vehemently at home? The answer lies in the role sport plays in the identity of the nation

Brydon Coverdale
Brydon Coverdale
Test cricket was front page news across the world over the past two days, for all the wrong reasons

Test cricket was front page news across the world over the past two days, for all the wrong reasons  •  ESPNcricinfo Ltd

"It's tampering, it happens. Move on. Calls for Smith to be sacked - how many captains would've been sacked over the years if everyone did that?"
A cricket-writing colleague, not from Australia, asked me that question on Sunday. It was a valid query. Ball-tampering does happen in cricket, probably a lot more than anyone outside the game realises. Players have been sanctioned for it before. In the ICC's Code of Conduct it is ranked at the same level as making a seriously obscene gesture, and is less grave than intimidating an umpire. The maximum penalty is a fine and suspension for one Test, which Steven Smith received and Cameron Bancroft did not.
So, why is that not the end of the story? Why was there such widespread national outrage over an incident that cricket's governing body views as only of moderate severity?
To answer a question with another question, what do they know of Australia who only Australian cricket know?
To understand the public response, and why the incident touched such a nerve, you need to understand the role sport has always played in Australia's national identity. Indeed, since before we even had a nation with which to identify.
This is a young country - Australia's states did not join together in federation until 1901. But Dave Gregory had taken office as Australia's first Test captain in 1877, 24 years before Edmund Barton became our first prime minister.
Edwin Flack won Australia two Olympic gold medals before Australia existed as a nation, and Australia has prided itself on punching far above its weight in Olympic competition ever since.
What sort of leaders not only hatch a plan like this, but have the team's most junior member take all the risk? That is not leadership, it is cowardice.
The first Australian to win a world championship in any sport, rower Ned Trickett, was welcomed home by a crowd of 25,000 people when he returned to Sydney after winning the World Sculling Championship in England in 1876.
More sportspeople have been named Australian of the Year than individuals from any other broad field of endeavour.
It is written into national legislation that no company can name itself after Don Bradman without government permission. The only other person with such name protection is Australia's first Catholic saint, Mary MacKillop.
When Cadel Evans became Australia's first Tour de France winner in 2011, he was a national hero, not least because he was clean in a sport rife with cheating.
This is the context in which the country's response to the ball-tampering incident must be viewed. Rightly or wrongly, our sportspeople have historically stood on pedestals far greater than any other members of our society. And the primary obligation the public asks in return is simple: don't cheat. Don't abuse our trust.
Sometimes our sporting stars behave detestably, and are rightly castigated. Our cricketers are no exception. They say they do not cross "the line", while the rest of us wonder where the hell it is. Of course, like any line in the sand, it washes away with the tide, to be redrawn wherever it suits at the time.
The Australian public has a line, too. And with their culture of sledging, whingeing, hypocrisy and arrogance, our cricketers have been head-butting it for so long that they have become an insufferable national migraine.
So when Bancroft was seen cheating, by rubbing the ball with a shred of yellow tape, and then hiding the offending item in his jocks like a naughty schoolboy, there was no sympathy. An already frustrated nation was now also losing its trust in the team, and that trust irretrievably shattered when Smith admitted that this was a premeditated act, cooked up by the team leadership group at the lunch break.
The public response in Australia was swift and overwhelming, and came from the Prime Minister down. Opportunistic politicians joined the pile-on, but there was already an enormous bandwagon on which to leap. The Australian public feels ownership of the cricket team that represents their country, and Sunday was like a nationwide fire-sale. Condemnation is to be expected of a national side caught cheating, but the widespread nature of the reactions, and the lack of dissenting voices, tells a story about how this team is viewed.
A sprinkling of ex-players have said that ball-tampering is rife at all levels of the game, and that nobody can plead ignorance. That might be true of professional cricketers, and even of many club players. But this is not about them. It is about representing 25 million people and thus being held to higher standards. It is about the fans who trusted the wrong people.
There is no sight in cricket quite like reverse swing, that late tail in, the stumps cartwheeling. But like a steak-lover who turns vegetarian after a visit to the abattoir, the average Australian cricket fan would be happy never to see reverse swing again, now that they have witnessed for themselves what goes into it. The challenge for Australian cricket is to stop fans abstaining from the team entirely.
To hear the doyen of Australian cricket commentators, the ABC's Jim Maxwell, becoming emotional on radio while saying that he could not remember ever feeling as disappointed in an Australian team as now, told of the gravity of the situation. The players involved should be forced to listen to that audio as part of their punishment.
And nobody in the Australian squad who knew about the plan beforehand can play in the next Test in Johannesburg. It would be utterly unconscionable. What sort of leaders not only hatch a plan like this, but have the team's most junior member take all the risk? That is not leadership, it is cowardice. Even if Bancroft was not asked to tamper, but simply overheard the discussion and took it upon himself, responsibility is still on the captain. It was cricket's equivalent of loudly asking: "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?"
And that is why Smith's position as captain is now untenable. Captaining Australia is not a right, it is a privilege, and a responsibility, and one that cannot be given to anyone who was part of this. As for the coach Darren Lehmann, even if he didn't know about the plan - and that is hard to believe - he has fostered whatever sorry culture brought the dressing room to this point. He cannot realistically stay on either.
History tells us that the outcry will eventually die down, but it will take time. Smith will lose the captaincy and serve a ban, probably a short one, but he will return to the side, and will, hopefully, over time earn the nation's forgiveness. So too the other players involved. The stain will never fully disappear, but it will fade.
Shane Warne was suspended for a year for taking a banned diuretic. Warne and Mark Waugh were the subjects of public shame for providing pitch and weather information to a bookmaker. These incidents were dubiously explained away by naivete. Greg Chappell ordered his brother Trevor to bowl underarm, which was within the laws of the game, and in later years admitted that at the back end of a stressful and demanding season, he had not been mentally fit to be captain. The incidents are remembered with distaste, but the men involved are not outcasts.
Outcasts certainly emerged from the biggest recent controversy in Australian sport, an AFL scandal involving the Essendon club and their practice of injecting their players with banned peptides. Players served bans and the coach, James Hird, previously considered of unimpeachable character, eventually lost his job and was effectively shunned by the sport. In 2017, four years after the scandal emerged, he was hospitalised for a suspected drug overdose.
That is in part a reflection of how premeditated cheating is viewed in Australia, but also the way social media and the 24-hour news cycle magnifies events. Jon Ronson's excellent 2015 book, So You've Been Publicly Shamed, examines how social media has led to a return of the days of public shaming. Twitter pile-ons bring out the worst kind of mob mentality, and can lead to a loss of all sense of proportion. Suggestions of life bans fall firmly in that category. There will be official sanctions, but the unofficial punishments - shame and humiliation - will hurt the most.
It is worth noting that in the lead-up to the Cape Town Test, Smith actually admitted that his mind was not in a good place. His comments were in specific relation to his batting struggles, but with hindsight, it is hard not to wonder if the words had a wider meaning: "I didn't feel I was hitting the ball that well [during the summer] but my mind was in a good place. Maybe now my mind is not in as good a space as it was."
It will hardly be in a better space after the past two days. While Cricket Australia has a responsibility to punish the players involved, it also has some responsibility for their welfare while doing so. These are young men who made a stupid mistake and must pay the price, but in the process they cannot be left without support.
Still, in the here and now, this scandal is bigger than just cricket. It goes to the heart of Australian national identity. Australia's cricket team is older than the country itself and historically, cricket has been the team sport with the greatest nationwide support in Australia. The public response reflects this affection. Short bans and a loss of leadership positions are the appropriate response. The written Laws of Cricket might tolerate Smith and Lehmann staying on as captain and coach, but the unwritten rules of Australia will not.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo @brydoncoverdale