On Saturday 25thMarch, the Australian cricket team admitted to ball tampering in the third test match of their South African tour. Cameron Bancroft, the team’s most junior member, had been trying, he said later, to improvise some sandpaper with some yellow sticky tape and some dirt granules from the ground. The idea was to rub this confection on one side of the ball in order to scuff it up. This would then make the ball “reverse swing” through the air when bowled, deceiving the South African batsmen. Big deal, you might think.
And of course, you’d be right. There is a civil war in Syria, people are being massacred in the Congo. There are any number of evil things afoot in the world and messing about with a cricket ball seems like a fairly harmless and insignificant concern. First World problems. But then why would the Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, immediately feel that he had to get involved and roundly condemn his fellow countrymen and sporting superstars? Because.
To begin with, it transpired that the ball-tampering incident, which is expressly forbidden by the rules of the game, wasn’t some wild, whacky scheme invented by the side’s most naïve player. It was, in fact, the result of a planned strategy which had evolved from a “Leadership Team” meeting. In other words, the captain, Steve Smith, and the vice-captain, David Warner, had decided that the best thing that they could do at this juncture of the game was to cheat. It was an entirely premeditated course of action. One again, it’s not as if cheating in sport is anything new; it’s going on all the time. It is institutionalised in cycling and athletics and has been state-sponsored and organised within Russian Olympic teams. Eastern European weightlifting women have all got moustaches.
But cricket is different, or at least it should be. The Japanese have their bushido, the code of ethics of the samurai class. The English-speaking peoples, with the notable exception of the Americans, have cricket. Cricket is a game of infinite subtleties and one that is almost impossible to explain to anyone who hasn’t tried to play it. Inhabitants of non-cricket-playing countries just don’t get it. They can’t see the point. What they don’t understand is that cricket is the point in itself.
This is made apparent when you listen to Test Match Special on BBC Radio 4 – the programme that goes on all day telling you about action you can’t see. It is probably more exciting than the cricket itself. What comes across is that the result of any cricket match is secondary to the entertainment of the match itself and more importantly the spirit in which it was played. A batting collapse is felt as ignominy because it appears as if the batting side have just given up and rolled over. And that isn’t on. When the West Indies, now a shadow of their former glorious selves, beat England in a test match last year in England, the sentiment was that this was a good thing. It was good because it was good for cricket, never mind that the national team had just lost to a supposedly second-rate one. This was an indication of a West Indian cricketing spring. The cricket-lover wants everyone to be good at cricket. National glory, at least in England, comes second to this sentiment.
The ethics of cricket have entered the language in a myriad ways. “It’s just not cricket” means that something is deeply unethical and to be frowned upon. You “keep a straight bat” when dealing with potentially ethically dubious matters. You “play the game”. And so it goes on. Cheating, clearly, “just isn’t cricket”.
The sad reality, though, is that cricket is not, in fact, as chivalrous a pastime as the cricket fan would like to think. The most obvious example of this is “sledging” which is a form of psychological warfare aimed at a batsman in order to put him off his game. This might be just amusing banter, but it often seems to degenerate into personal invective and insults which are so noxious that you wouldn’t want to be sharing a pint with your adversaries after the game. Any game where you can’t share a pint with your adversaries afterwards is not being played in the right spirit. And the past masters of sledging are the Australians.
In cricket, whilst there is huge respect for the Australians as a team, based on their determination and ability to win, there isn’t much love for them. For an Englishman, it doesn’t really matter who you lose to so long as it isn’t the Australians. The South Africans can’t stand them, and Australia has always looked down its nose at New Zealand who probably don’t appreciate the attitude. Australia takes itself very seriously as a sporting nation. Australia is sport, in the same way as Sparta or Rome was fighting. The notion of Australianness is inseparable from sporting prowess. And senior members of the Australian cricket team are demi-gods. As Turnball said, the captain of the national cricket team is far more important in the land than any politician.
So, what is the reaction of the Australians when they find out that their heroes have been cheating? Disbelief, disavowal, rage. All the love that they lavished upon these people is, at one fell swoop, retracted. We are, in some respect, the sporting heroes that we admire, or at least, we like to think we are. Just like David and Goliath being picked to represent the Jews and the Philistines so that the greater armies didn’t have to fight, so the players in our national teams are our proxies. If they are cheats, we are, by extension, cheats. How sad for all passionate cyclists to see that nearly all top cyclists are in fact cheats, that their hobby is pervaded by cheating. They become, in some way, lesser people themselves.
“Cheat, cheat, no reason to be fair.
Cheat, cheat, or don’t get anywhere.
If you can’t win, cheat.”
Sang The Clash
We now live in a world where cheating is all pervasive. Everyone in power is syphoning off public money to their own bank accounts. Everyone who earns any money is hiding it from the taxman in offshore accounts. Corporations are cheating enterprises. No one is playing fair.
But one thing you could rely on in all this is that cricket is being played fairly because cricket is synonymous with fairness. So long as cricket was fair, there was a hope for mankind. Ludicrous hyperbole or course, but somehow, this is what the cricket-conscious public thought. And then you find out that the world’s most prominent cricket team was cheating. It was cheating, and having meetings planning on how and when to cheat. And for Australians, at any rate, it was admitting that it might not be able to beat South Africa without cheating…
And then it transpired that the culprits had been lying about the cheating. They hadn’t been using a Heath Robinson ball-scuffing device made of sticky tape and dirt, they’d been using something a whole lot more sensible: sandpaper. And then, after cheating and lying, they did something else even more un-Australian. They all burst into tears.
It was at this point that that the cricket-ball-tampering-conscious public divided swiftly into two camps. In camp A were all the people whose hearts now melted: “Aw, we’re being too hard on the poor guys. All they wanted to do was win for us. Everyone makes mistakes. Leave ‘em alone, they’re still young!”. And in camp B: “And now they’re blubbing about it for Christ’s sake! You couldn’t make it up!”
But we were all mostly in Camp B. Not for the cheating. Not even for the premeditated cheating. Or the lying. But for the fact that as a team, the current Australian cricket side had been obnoxious for years, unpleasant to their opponents, swaggering, hubristic, full of themselves. They had spouted off about how they were the moral guardians of the values of cricket when anyone who played against them felt this to be a cavernously hollow boast. Nope. The chickens had come home to roost. They brought this upon themselves, and now we were going to enjoy watching them squirm.
Cameron Bancroft, gone for 9 months. No big deal, as the Aussie team doesn’t even have any test matches lined up for the next 8. But then, he was the least experienced member of the side and there are plenty more to choose from. Why pick a cheat? He’ll have to play some remarkable cricket to get himself back into the side.
Steve Smith, gone for a year and won’t be considered in a leadership role for at least two. But realistically, he won’t captain Australia again. In cricket, captaincy is all about judgement and he has shown he doesn’t have any. Still, he is a prodigious batsman so he will reappear in a year or so when his countrymen have found something else to be outraged about. Well he might breakdown in front of the media, as he watches his IPL contract in India and his lucrative sponsorship deals flow away on the tide of his tears. Bye-bye millions of dollars.
And what of the toxic David Warner, the man who was surely behind the whole thing (but who steadfastly refused to say that he was)? He also has become instantly unemployed and several million dollars poorer. He managed a few sniffles of crocodile tears as he finally faced the cameras and microphones, days after his teammates, but he wouldn’t say that it wasn’t the first time the cheating had occurred, just blithely stuck to his prepared script, almost certainly thrashed out for him by his lawyers. The vice-captain will not, in the future, be considered for any further leadership roles. And doubtless, Australia will find that he isn’t that indispensable in any case. The team will move on and David Warner will be consigned to the footnotes of sporting history. He will surface on I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here, where, after scoffing a few witchetty grubs, he’ll be voted off at the first available opportunity, unless he really does take his time out to reflect on “who he is as a man” and hopefully enact some change.
And the coach Darren Lehmann? Gone too, permanently. Well, he was the orchestrating conductor of this sorry side. If they were so reviled, what does that say about the culture he created for the team? How sorry should we all be?
I can’t believe that people with no interest in cricket will have read this far, but if they have, imagine this: Imagine that Roger Federer is suddenly shown up to be a cheat and that he isn’t, after all, the ideal sportsman, possessed of prodigious talent, intelligent, magnanimous in victory, stoic in defeat, hardworking, multilingual, charitable and humorous. Suppose he was suddenly shown to be a sham. See? How would you feel then, eh? So yes, a little ball-tampering between friends is no big deal, but then again, it is, isn’t it?