The Australian men’s cricket team – hoist by their own petard

The drama of the Australian men’s cricket team’s ball-tampering scandal appears to be finished. Steven Smith, Cameron Bancroft and David Warner have all now confirmed that they will not contest their Cricket Australia (CA) imposed bans – One year, One year, and Nine months respectively.

A lot has been written about these events already, but it’s worth exploring a few issues it reveals about the Australian public attitude towards the cricket team.

Cameron Bancroft used sandpaper to try and rough up the ball (Credit: Deccan Chronicle)

The three players – Smith, the captain; Warner, the vice-captain; and Bancroft, a junior player – planned to illegally alter the condition of the ball during the South African second innings at Cape Town, the third test of Australia’s tour of South Africa.

Allegedly Warner is responsible for coming up with the plan and delegating the actual tampering to Bancroft while Smith knew about it and did not stop it. Bancroft snuck sandpaper onto the field and used it to rough up one side of the ball covertly to encourage the ball to reverse-swing.

Steve Smith and David Warner (Credit NDTV)

Television cameras captured images of him with the sandpaper and he confessed to the umpires, and subsequently the media.

The reaction was swift – demerit points for all three and a one-match ban for Smith from the ICC the day after; the longer CA bans a few days further.

There’s an interesting inconsistency here though. Ball tampering is widespread, rarely punished, any punishments are generally very light compared to the year long bans Smith and Warner received, and the public reaction has generally been muted at worst. Notable examples to illustrate:

  • 2001 – Sachin Tendulkar was suspended for one match by the match referee for allegedly tampering with the ball. The Indian public reacted with outrage – but not towards Tendulkar. Their ire was aimed at the ICC and match referee and Tendulkar was later cleared of the charges.
  • 2004 – Rahul Dravid was seen on TV footage rubbing the ball with a cough lolly and fined 50% of his match fee.
  • 2005 – Marcus Trescothick revealed (in 2008) that the English team had used specific mints to shine the ball and produce more swing, systematically through the entire 2005 Ashes series. No charges resulted and public reaction was non-existent.
  • 2013 – Faf du Plessis (current captain of the South Africa men’s cricket team on the other side of the topical controversy) has twice been charged and found guilty of ball tampering, against Pakistan in 2013 and against Australia (!) in 2016. The first time he was fined 50% of his match fee, the second time a full 100% match fee fine.

Why then, given that the worst sanctions historically received for ball tampering are a single match ban administered by the ICC, has Cricket Australia gone so far as to ban its star players for a whole year on top of the ICC bans?

The immediate cause is the massive public response in Australia which included the Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull issuing a statement of condemnation on the matter (which given the Australian government’s record on human rights is a bit rich).

To dig further, there are three major reasons the Australian public (which in this context obviously refers to the sub-section of Australian citizens who watch cricket) turned so harshly on their captain:

  1. The mythos around Australian sport which reflects the myth of Australian national identity
  2. A history of behaviour by the Australian men’s cricket team which goes against that mythos without being technically illegal
  3. A complete lack of plausible deniability in this specific incident.

There is a well understood, if deeply inaccurate, ahistorical, and somewhat nebulous, concept of ‘being Australian’ built into the collective national psyche. It grew out of the experiences of Australian soldiers during the World Wars and emphasises a healthy disrespect towards authority, an egalitarian attitude, and a stubborn desire to succeed.

As this has been adapted in the post-war years to apply to Australian sports teams, it is best described by the phrase “hard but fair” – Australians demand their sports players work tirelessly until the game is over while playing by the rules both written and unwritten.

Like other deeply flattering national identities, many Australians react with anger towards those who question either its accuracy or origin – the regular hatred targeted at protestors of Australia Day every year being the most obvious example.

The Australian men’s cricket team has shown a casual disregard for the unwritten rules of cricket for roughly a quarter of a century now. Beginning with the captaincy of Steve Waugh in the 1990s, Australia embraced the “hard” part of “hard but fair” while not bothering with the rest.

Waugh’s famous phrase “mental disintegration” referred to the outright hostility with which Australian bowlers and fielders would treat opposition batters – nasty sledging and open disrespect becoming the norm.

This was coupled with a sanctimonious attitude towards any misbehaviour or potentially unsportsmanlike acts from opponents. While Waugh and then Ricky Ponting were leading Australia to record test win streaks and three consecutive world cup wins, this behaviour was largely tolerated.

Shane Waugh was an integral part of Australia’s golden generation (Credit: Melvin A)

As Australia’s golden generation of cricketers retired in the late 2000’s though, the team’s performance suffered. Behaving in an arrogant and hypocritical manner towards opponents is perhaps forgivable with victory, but as losses became more common, the public grew increasingly tired of it.

Most cricket fans stopped short of sustained criticism though, perhaps because the team broke no laws of the game until the Cape Town test of 2018.

The key ingredient which explains the outpouring of anger from Australians towards the men’s cricket team is the complete lack of plausible deniability in this ball tampering incident.

Most previous ball tampering charges involved actions and objects which could be defended as legitimate; e.g. mints, cough lollies, dirt, rubbing the ball on the trouser zipper.

This tends to split supporters of the charged player as many would rather give the benefit of the doubt to their team if possible.

By taking highly visible yellow sandpaper onto the ground and then admitting to the plan in the press conference after the day’s play, the Australian team left fans with no legitimate “out”.

Supporters who had little patience left with the team were confronted with a cast-iron admission of cheating both the laws of the game and the national identity. The resultant savaging of the team online, in the press and public sphere was inevitable.

The Australian men’s cricket team as of 2018 has a legacy of playing hard and unfair while lecturing sportsmanship at others as the most important representative team of a country with an aggressively held identity of fairness.

This context when combined with how indefensible Warner, Bancroft and Smith’s actions were to even the most fanatical Australian fan explains why this ball tampering incident has been so radically different to all previous ones.

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