SYDNEY, Australia (CNN) – It’s been a shocking fall from grace.
The most famous and (previously) popular athlete in Australia has had his previously untouchable reputation destroyed, and his position as captain of the most prestigious sporting team in the nation made untenable.
He has earned the wrath of the Prime Minister, made everyone forget for a moment how unpopular the PM is, and evoked a nationwide reaction of disgust.
Steve Smith has admitted that the national cricket team is cheating.
Only months after being feted as the best since Don Bradman — we’ll explain that in a second — he’s become the most loathed athlete in the land. Without exaggeration, it’s been an extraordinary and scandalous demise.
Some context. Cricket is to Australia what baseball is to America and what football is to Brazil. Bradman is Australia’s version of Babe Ruth or Pelé – the greatest of all time, and the benchmark by which future athletes are measured.
As well as being the best cricketer in a cricket-mad nation, Smith was captain of its national team. It’s long been said down here that the position of Australian cricket captain was second only to the prime ministership. That was until former Prime Minister John Howard, a famous “cricket tragic,” declared that the nation’s cricket captain was its real representative.
So, the 28-year-old Smith had the keys to every city … until 48 hours ago. Until an incident that is front-page news, back-page news, every-page news from Darwin to Dunedoo.
‘A day of national shame’
The Australian team was playing a five-day Test match against South Africa in Cape Town. Television footage showed Cameron Bancroft, one of Smith’s inexperienced teammates, using a sandpaper-like strip of tape to scuff up the ball. That’s a no-no in cricket, a big one, and all hell has broken loose.
To make matters worse for this sports-obsessed country, Smith revealed to the media that it was all his idea. When Australians woke to the news we nearly choked on our cornflakes. The best since Bradman had admitted to cheating. Australians howl at offenders from other countries but now it’s one of our own. “It’s a day of national shame,” ex-Australia cricketer Jimmy Maher bemoaned, even as Smith claimed he was still the right man to lead the team.
You know it’s big when the prime minister gets involved. Malcolm Turnbull is coming off 29 straight disapproval ratings but he had no hesitation in saying how much he disapproved of Smith and the actions of the Australian team, whose signature uniform is topped off by the so-called “baggy green” caps.
“We all work up this morning shocked and bitterly disappointed by the news from South Africa,” Turnbull said. “It seemed completely beyond belief that the Australian cricket team had been involved in cheating. After all, our cricketers are role models and cricket is synonymous with fair play.”
“How can our team be engaged in cheating like this? It beggars belief. I have to say 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. It’s wrong, and I look forward to Cricket Australia taking decisive action soon,” Turnbull said.
Cricket Australia, the governing body, did exactly that. Smith and his vice-captain, the combustible Dave Warner, were stood down from their leadership positions for the last day of the match at Cape Town, which Australia lost.
Smith was suspended from the next Test by the International Cricket Council, the sport’s world body. Cricket Australia boss James Sutherland dispatched senior officials to South Africa to interview the players and investigate before deciding on further punishment.
“This is a very sad day for Australian cricket,” Sutherland said. “Australian cricket fans want to be proud of their cricket team. And I think that this morning they have every reason to wake up and not be proud of the Australian cricket team. I’m not happy about this at all. I feel like Australian cricket fans feel right now. We have a responsibility to take this further.”
It was an extraordinarily dumb thing for Smith’s team to do. At the lunch break on day three of the third Test, they agreed on a plan with unnamed senior members of the team to use the tape to change the condition of the ball. The color of the tape? Bright yellow! As if that would not stand out enough! Bancroft used the small strip of tape to scuff up the ball to make it swing more than it should.
The more the ball swings, the harder it is for a batsman to hit and score from, and the more likely it is to get him out. South Africa’s bowlers were getting a lot of swing, and Australia’s were not.
Ball-tampering is forbidden in elite cricket, park cricket, backyard cricket, any cricket. It’s in direct contravention of the laws of the game. It’s so obviously wrong that a 12-year-old school kid would baulk at doing it.
TV cameras were virtually guaranteed to bust Bancroft, which they did in what played out like a scene from Dumb and Dumber. The reaction at home ranged from disbelief to disappointment to frustration to anger. And now Smith is no longer best known for his batsmanship.
“I’m not proud of what’s happened,” he told reporters. Soon, his predecessors weighed in.
“It is premeditated cheating,” said former captain Michael Clarke. “It’s blatant cheating. It’s disgraceful and it’s not accepted by anyone. ”
Cricket legend Allan Border wrote in a column for Fox Sports Australia: “It’s hard to explain your emotions when it comes to seeing the Australian team doing something like this. You just feel embarrassed and disappointed … they’ve got to suffer the consequences. It’s as simple as that. It’s like any situation, you do the crime you’ve got to do the time.”
‘Don’t do it!’
The incident has drawn comparisons to another groan-inducing episode in Australian cricketing history: Bowler Trevor Chappell’s infamous underarm delivery at a crucial match-deciding moment against New Zealand in 1981.
Australia’s 56-Test player Simon Katich felt “sick to the stomach” and insisted Smith, Warner and coach (and former national team member) Darren Lehmann should all be sacked.
“They (Cricket Australia) have got no option but to stand and then sack Smith, Warner and Lehmann,” said Katich.
“They’ve got no option because this was premeditated and calculated at the break and those guys are in charge of Cameron Bancroft behaving the way he did. It’s a bigger problem than that, he’s been instructed to do this and anyone in cricket knows the captain and coach are in control of what happens in the team.
“I love Steve Smith … but unfortunately he’s made a serious error and I think it’s going to cost him the captaincy of Australia.”
For a country whose national psyche is wrapped up in the fortunes of its national cricketing team, this blow will take longer to recover from than most pundits are willing to speculate.
Chappell played three Tests for Australia but he’s only really known for the underarm delivery he rolled along the ground to New Zealand’s Brian McKechnie in 1981. It was a last-minute decision that prevented McKechnie from being able to hit a six to tie the match. His older brother and the Australian captain, Greg Chappell, asked him before the final delivery of the match if he was any good at underarm bowling. Trevor replied that he did not know because he had never done it. Greg told him, “Well, you’re about to find out.”
Trevor did as big brother instructed. McKechnie blocked the ball and then threw his bat in disgust.
Australia won the match but was booed from the field at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. NZ Prime minister Robert Muldoon called it the “most disgusting incident I can recall in the history of cricket.”
On a day that scarred Australian cricket, one player had attempted to prevent it: Rod Marsh, the wicketkeeper. He folded his arms, shook his head and shouted the two words that Bancroft or someone else inside the Australian dressing room should have told Smith at Cape Town, “No, mate! Don’t do it!”