Between wickets Cricket

Nothing is sadder than the death of an illusion via the dreaded ‘C’ word

A file picture of Australian cricket captain Steve Smith.

A file picture of Australian cricket captain Steve Smith.   | Photo Credit: Reuters

In the hierarchy of misdemeanours, ball tampering might not rate high but Smith’s crime was to get the team together and plot to cheat

If Australian commentator Jim Maxwell was close to tears while broadcasting the cheating episode in the Cape Town Test, it is understandable. It has been a miserable weekend for anyone connected with cricket. For cricket belongs to all of us; as much to Maxwell, and the fan who paints his face and those who make millionaires of players, and all who play at any level, as it does to its biggest stars.

And just as match-fixing killed something in all of us, so has this Australian team. The team we would wake up at 4 and 5 in the morning as schoolchildren to hear play, and later watch. The novelist Howard Jacobson once spoke about how his contributions to cricket have never been properly acknowledged by Wisden.

Did he not once go hours in bed refusing to move even go to the bathroom so English batsmen would not be dismissed?

Haven’t we all done that? I would walk to school touching every electric pole en route to ensure that Gundappa Viswanath made runs, and felt personally responsible if he failed.

We feel personally responsible if someone fails cricket. Not because cricket is a gentleman’s game, it isn’t. But because — to adapt John Donne — no fan is an island, and any player’s misdeeds diminish us.

If Steve Smith captains Australia again it would be a travesty. In the hierarchy of misdemeanours, ball tampering might not rate high but that is not what he should be punished for.

His crime was to get the team together and plot to cheat. It was a coldly calculated move and is as low as you can get in sport.

Smith’s mealy-mouthed mea culpa was not remorseful. It didn’t once strike him that he ought to resign as captain, that he might have done something wrong. In his final television interview, asked what he would like to be remembered for, Don Bradman said, “Integrity.” It is not a word Smith can now use without provoking derisive laughter.

Doing nothing

The International Cricket Council has done what it usually does — virtually nothing; it can always claim to be simply following its own rules. Cricket Australia speaks of inquiries and investigations. We have heard that before.

An investigation allowed Smith to get away when his brain fade occurred in a Bangalore Test. He just happened to accidentally look towards the dressing room when he was given out. He wasn’t looking for a signal to decide on the DRS. Or so he said then. How hollow that sounds now.

If Cricket Australia has to restore some dignity to its game, it must name the “leadership group” and lower the boom on it. Bans and fines would mean that Australia go into the final Test with half the team sacked. Darren Lehman too; the coach cannot be innocent.

The captain’s role calls for a longer ban. Two years, if not five. Smith is only 28, and his career will not be over.

Yet, history has shown that when there is a threat to cricket’s integrity, administrators tend to soft pedal. Even acknowledging misdemeanours does not come easily. If there is a scandal, players can usually rest assured their governing body will be fighting on their side.

A quarter century ago, Cricket Australia fined Shane Warne and Mark Waugh for providing information to a bookie. It then kept quiet about it till a reporter broke the story some years later. The Board of Control for Cricket in India set up a commission to look into match-fixing at the turn of the century. It gave a clean chit to everybody. The BCCI was keener than the players involved to get their names cleared.

Two reasons

There are two reasons for this. One, the desire not to sully the fair name of the sport. This might sound honourable except for the second reason: to ensure that sponsors do not withdraw. Commerce trumping ethics is almost inevitable. Unless the sponsors feel strongly enough to reverse that!

Ball tampering is as old as the game, but rules against it are not. Spinners once used resin — the leg-spinner Arthur Mailey boasted of carrying it in his pocket — for better grip; the practice was outlawed in 1930. In the decades when the great spinners led India’s bowling attack, skipper Tiger Pataudi often rubbed the ball on the ground to remove the shine.

West Indies captain Trevor Goddard performed the same service for his spinners Ramadhin and Valentine.

Only in 1980 was that made illegal. Sir Richard Hadlee has been saying that ball tampering should be legalised so bowlers are given a boost in the age of sophisticated bats and short boundaries.

Thus, “This is not such a big deal” has been an argument in some quarters on Smith’s cheating. But it is a big deal because it is both illegal and immoral, an unusual combination. It is immoral to claim a catch you have not taken, but it is not illegal. A no-ball is illegal, but it is not immoral.

“I will not do it again” is hardly a satisfactory response to getting caught with incontrovertible evidence (perhaps had there been no proof there might not have been a confession). Where is the remorse?

Smith must pay, along with his teammates. Or cricket will pay, and that price might be too high.

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Printable version | Feb 17, 2020 7:12:25 PM |

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