Meredith: What really happened in Cape Town?

With Smith and Warner free to play for Australia again, Adrian Meredith asks what really happened in Cape Town.

On 24 March 2018, at about 1pm, Australia’s opening batsman, Cameron Bancroft, in his 8th test match for Australia, decided to cut sandpaper from his kit into the shape of a small square, small enough to fit into the palm of his hand. At 1.40pm, following the luncheon adjournment’s end, he took this square of sandpaper onto the field, and at about 2pm he was caught on the big screen rubbing this sandpaper onto the ball, to tamper with the ball in the most obvious fashion since Shahid Afridi bit on the ball in a T20 international back in January of 2010.

We know these facts, which are not in any dispute at all, but what we don’t know is why Steve Smith and David Warner, who were not the ones tampering with the ball, faced any penalty at all, let alone a year out of international and Australian domestic cricket, in addition to a 2 year ban from captaining any team in Australia for Smith and a life ban from holding any leadership positions in Australia for Warner. How on earth did we get there?

There are some more pertinent facts, it should be noted, facts that most people know. Following being caught red-handed, then Australian coach Darren Lehmann was on the walkie-talkie to 12th man Peter Handscomb, who soon afterwards went out onto the field and said something to Cameron Bancroft, who in turn put the sandpaper down the front of his pants and, when confronted to the umpires, he showed them a black felt sunglasses case, presumably suggesting that that was what he had used to tamper with the ball (which would still be illegal, it should be noted).

As for Smith and Warner’s involvement, we know that Smith, in a press conference after the match, with Cameron Bancroft sitting next to him, said that it was yellow sticky tape that was used to pick up grit from the ground and rub on the ball (which is still ball tampering) and that it was planned by the leadership group.

We then know that, later, Cricket Australia announced that it was sandpaper, and was neither yellow sticky tape nor a black felt sunglasses case.

None of the above is in dispute. Those are the facts of the case. What is in dispute is whether the official story is really what happened.

The official story, as announced by then Cricket Australia chief James Sutherland soon afterwards, is that, following a discussion between Steve Smith and David Warner, David Warner instructed Cameron Bancroft to use sandpaper to tamper with the ball.

Few in Australia believe that story. If nothing else, they note that Steve Smith said “leadership group”, which we know includes Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Nathan Lyon, as well as Smith and Warner, and also includes the coach Darren Lehmann. Surely if it was decided by the leadership group then 6 people were involved, not 2. The idea that Lehmann was not involved was not accepted by many, in spite of Lehmann’s claim that he had said “what the f**k are you doing?” and Bancroft’s decision to shove the sandpaper down his pants was a coincidence. At minimum, Lehmann knew what was going on and tried to cover it up. More likely, according to most who commented on the situation, Darren Lehmann was involved.

Lehmann resigned over the issue, it should be noted, and eventually so did James Sutherland and a number of other people. In fact, just about every major administrator in Cricket Australia has either been sacked or forced to resign over this issue. Even Mark Taylor, who seemed to many to be the voice of reason in this whole situation, ended up quitting over this.

Everyone was punished, but we were no closer to finding out who did what.

The press conferences by Cameron Bancroft, Steve Smith and David Warner brought us no closer to finding out the specifics of who did what, with all of them giving “no comment” interviews, where they were sorry for “what they had done”, while refusing to say what it is that they had done. They were the kinds of press conferences that people accused of murder say before their trial, leaving it open for them to change their plea to guilty or not guilty, depending on what the evidence says.

And yet there actually was evidence of what was really going on.

We knew that David Warner’s wife Candice Warner was accused of cheating on him with her ex-boyfriend, Sonny Bill Williams, a New Zealand Rugby League player. The taunts were so vulgar that fans in the stadiums were seen wearing masks of Sonny Bill Williams, designed purely to anger David Warner, in an aim for him to get angry at some stage and then get banned for a test.

The Sonny Bill Williams taunt was not limited to fans either: South African players A B de Villiers, Quinton de Kock and Kagiso Rabada had also taunted David Warner about the possible affair, which led to angry confrontations that saw Quinton de Kock warned and Kagiso Rabada banned for 1 test for bringing the game into disrepute.

That ban in turn was overturned on appeal, after Kagiso Rabada claimed it was racist that he was banned when Quinton de Kock and A B de Villiers weren’t, in spite of all three doing the same thing. Forget the fact that all three did the wrong thing, and that, regardless of their race, they all should have been facing one test bans, Rabada claimed that he had been singled out.

To many, David Warner was seen as being the one who was really at fault, as the ugly taunts wouldn’t have affected other players anywhere near as much. Warner, who had a long history of lashing out in response to perceived slights, including Twitter rants and even going so far as to try to punch Joe Root in a bar after he thought that Root was racially abusing Hashim Amla by wearing a beard (he was actually just saying that he was youthful-looking, as he couldn’t wear a beard), was the perfect target, the perfect way for South Africa to try to trick Warner into getting banned.

That’s not legitimate sledging, it should be noted. Legitimate sledging are jokes that get under your skin, the kinds of things that we have heard Rishabh Pant and Virat Kohli say to the Australians in the ongoing test series, and which, at least once, Tim Paine retaliated to. What the South Africans were saying in March to David Warner, about his wife’s possible affair, was beyond that invisible line in the sand, the line that separates jokes from abuse.

It isn’t the first time that players have gone past the line that separates jokes from abuse. Jimmy Adams, the former West Indian test cricketer, once made fun of Glenn McGrath’s wife having breast cancer (she eventually passed away from the condition), resulting in a fiery response from McGrath and Jimmy Adams was found guilty of bringing the game into disrepute.

Arguably this situation was at a similar level, and it was well and truly beyond the line of acceptable behaviour.

That was just one thing that South Africa were doing in the series to get an unfair advantage over their opposition.

We know that, following the ball tampering being exposed, South African coach Ottis Gibson said in a press conference that he was thankful it wasn’t his players, as when he first heard the news that it was ball tampering, he immediately thought it was South Africa’s players being caught. When asked why, he pointed out that his bowlers were officially warned by the umpires for deliberately throwing the ball into the pitch, and he was expecting for them to face a hearing as to whether that constituted ball tampering.

The hearing never happened, it should be noted, and neither Kagiso Rabada nor Vernon Philander were proven to have tampered with the ball, but they perhaps might have if not for the Cameron Bancroft incident.

It wasn’t just South Africa who had deliberately thrown the ball into the ground either. Australia’s Pat Cummins and Mitchell Starc were both shown on South African television, and South African newspapers deliberately scuffing up the ball. Cummins had trod on the ball with his spiked boots, while Mitchell Starc had done the same thing as Rabada and Philander, deliberately throwing the ball into the pitch.

Neither Cummins nor Starc were charged or even warned, it should be noted, but if you had followed the newspapers at the time you’d think that it was a one-way thing, that South Africa had done nothing wrong and it was Cummins and Starc who were tampering with the ball.

For people who were following the accusations against Cummins and Starc, the claim that Bancroft had tampered with the ball seemed to be related. It was assumed that Cummins and/or Starc had ordered Bancroft to do it, that it was bowlers who were in control, not batsmen.

So why weren’t they banned? Why not ban Cummins, Starc and Bancroft? Why bring Smith and Warner into it?

If Smith had simply never said that it was the “leadership group” in that press conference, Smith and Warner are unlikely to have faced any penalties at all, and, in reality, it is unlikely that Cummins or Starc would have either.

The problem is that once Smith made the leadership group claim there was suddenly a need to penalise someone more than simply Bancroft.

According to reports, there was a dressing room conversation after the press conference, in which David Warner said to Mitchell Starc “Don’t pretend you didn’t know what was going on”, and in response Starc stood up, told David Warner he never wanted to be in the same team as him ever again and wanted him banned for life, and then walked off.

This, we were told, was proof that David Warner was guilty, but that has never really made any sense.

Why was Mitchell Starc the one who stood up? Why was he the voice of reason?

The reality is that Starc and Warner’s feud has been ongoing for several years, and is basically a philosophical dispute, in which Warner likes to say everything while Starc likes to say as little as possible. Warner likes to be as honest as can be and to speak with his fists, while Starc takes the opposite approach, to keep things close to his chest.

The Australian dressing room didn’t turn on Warner, contrary to reports. Rather, they split in half, with half of them taking Warner’s side, that they should be honest, and half of them taking Starc’s side, which was that it was unfair that Australia take the blame when South Africa were doing so much that they were getting away with.

Had Rabada and Philander been banned for ball tampering, things might have been different. We could have had 1 test bans for Rabada and Philander from South Africa and Starc and Cummins from Australia, and perhaps a 7 test ban for Bancroft, who not only used sandpaper but also lied about it twice and implicated people such as Steve Smith who were standing up for him.

Under the current ICC regulations, that is what the penalty should have been, and, had Cricket Australia not taken over, that is likely what would have happened. Banning the guilty South African parties would have been fair as it would have made it obvious to the cricketing public that this wasn’t a one-way issue. Indeed, given that Rabada was already meant to have been banned for abusing David Warner, Rabada should have faced a 2 or perhaps even 3 test ban.

The problem is that, after Starc’s outburst, Cricket Australia had no choice but to lie. Starc was threatening to quit cricket if he didn’t get his way, and half the team were supporting him. If they didn’t ban David Warner, then we’d have been going into our next test with half the team missing. Better to lose one player than 6. It was damage control.

Smith was banned alongside Warner because it made more sense with the cover-up, but it was only Warner that Starc and his supporters wanted banned. Nobody in the Australian cricket team wanted Smith banned.

In fairness, David Warner showed bad teamwork. Had he thought it through, he would have realised that Starc and Cummins shouldn’t have come clean, as it was unfair that they be punished when South Africa weren’t. They all did the same thing, a low level of ball tampering, by deliberately throwing the ball into the pitch, the kind of thing that sometimes warrants a 1 test ban for ball tampering, but sometimes simply gets a warning. Vernon Philander had previously been banned for ball tampering for a similar offence. Many others had simply been warned. It wasn’t the same thing as using sandpaper.

We also know the real reason why Cameron Bancroft decided to cheat.

Steve Smith said it in his initial press conference. They had got together, the leadership group (Smith, Warner, Lyon, Hazlewood, Starc and Lehmann) and were talking about how unfair it was that Kagiso Rabada’s ban was overturned, and how South Africa seemed to be cheating because they got reverse swing so quickly. They pointed to the fact that they were warned by the umpires but were frustrated because the South African media were making it seem like Starc and Cummins were tampering with the ball and that South Africa weren’t. It was unfair, they said. South Africa were cheating.

Cameron Bancroft was not a part of that conversation, and didn’t understand the context. He overheard it, Smith had said, and misunderstood what they were trying to say. While they were actually just having a random whinge, Bancroft decided to take action.

Nobody told Bancroft to tamper with the ball. There was no great conspiracy. He just decided to do something to help out his mates.

Arguably, what Bancroft did was very honourable. After all, he was risking his own career for the sake of Australian cricket. He knew the risks. He knew that he could be facing a 1 test ban, maybe worse, if he was caught. He was falling on his sword. He was taking on the invaders, sacrificing his life so that his king could get away.

In other words, it was a professional foul, and indeed arguably all, or at least most, ball tampering fits into this category. Cameron Bancroft did the team thing, doing it for his team.

I think back to the 1980s in the Australian Football League when it was common, especially in grand finals, for teams to knock each other out, with fringe players knocking out top players so as to maximise the chances of winning. In the 1984 AFL grand final between Hawthorn and Essendon, so many people fell victim to professional fouls that in 1985 half of each team were either out suspended or out with serious injuries suffered as a result of the attacks that led them to be suspended.

Professional fouls are commonplace not just in cricket and football but in all sports at all levels, the only difference being how they occur. In 1980s AFL football it would be a physical attack, and in 2010s international cricket it is ball tampering. Professional fouls occur in basketball, cycling and every sport you can imagine.

Considering this as a professional foul puts it into proper context.

Cameron Bancroft needs to face a ban, and a significant one, to make an example of him. A 7 test match ban would have been appropriate, and the fine he was initially given was grossly inappropriate. We also should have penalised everyone else who was involved, which wasn’t just Australians. Starc and Cummins each should have faced 1 test bans, as should Rabada and Philander, and Darren Lehmann should have been sacked as coach, rather than being allowed to resign.

As for the claim that Warner had been ball tampering previously, that is patently false and has no semblance of truth to it. Warner was a thug, yes, but he was not a cheater – he was the exact opposite. Warner would punch someone in the face for even considering cheating – he was never going to do it himself, and indeed there is no evidence that he ever did tamper with the ball. Even his worst critics suggest that he feigned an injury in order to tamper with the ball – nobody is suggesting he used sandpaper. So it stands to reason that if he was showing Bancroft how to tamper with the ball, he would have shown him the same way to do it, to feign an injury and then rub the ball onto the strapping he had on his injured hand. Nobody had ever used sandpaper – not Warner, nor anyone else.

The problem with the claim that Warner was the ringleader is very simple: Warner is a batsman, and batsmen don’t benefit from ball tampering – bowlers do. If we were accusing Starc or Cummins or Hazlewood, or all of three, or any two of them, of organising the whole thing, then that would make sense, but we aren’t making that link. In spite of Starc and Cummins being shown to have tampered with the ball in the same test, they aren’t being linked.

There’s really only two possibilities: either Bancroft decided to do it himself, as a misunderstanding of what the team said about South Africa cheating, or else Starc told him to do it. The idea that Warner told him to do it is nonsensical. It simply doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.

But once we put together all of the known facts, we know that Starc wasn’t the ringleader because we know that there was no ringleader. Starc was just scared that he’d look like the ringleader if they confessed to their involvement, like Warner suggested.

Cameron Bancroft is guilty of ball tampering. There was no conspiracy. The rest of it was just a bunch of people trying to do the right thing, with different views of what the right thing really was.

It’s time for us to stop over-reacting.

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