Cheating in cricket and punishments that don’t fit the crime

The bans handed to Steve Smith, Cameron Bancroft, and David Warner are excessive by the laws of cricket, and unduly exceptionalise this particular incident as a particularly heinous crime.

Updated - March 31, 2018 03:46 pm IST

Published - March 30, 2018 06:13 pm IST

There are punishments and then there are floggings. The latter make a public example of a crime in a desperate bid to appear to have done justice. | AP

There are punishments and then there are floggings. The latter make a public example of a crime in a desperate bid to appear to have done justice. | AP

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On March 24, 2018, Cameron Bancroft was caught on camera attempted to tamper with the ball. By March 29, Bancroft, his captain Steve Smith and his vice-captain David Warner were back in Australia, bullied, humiliated and banned. Bancroft and Smith gave press conferences in Australia. The anodyne official description of their demeanour during these press conferences is that they were “emotional”. They were emotional in the same way the kids who have been bullied are emotional. This was despair.



It was also ritual. Press conferences — traditionally, a venue designed for scrutiny and fact-finding — have been turned into public relations events in this age where sport is multinational business. On most days, the currency of the press conference is the quote. Hence the tedious leading questions (“How impressed have been been with X?”) and the thinly disguised attempts at entrapment (“Do you think the Umpire wronged your team today?”) But on some special days — festival days, if you like — the press conference turns into a pooja , where a sacrifice is offered. This ritual sacrifice is essential to the gods of homeostasis. It offers a spectacle which promises renewal. An airing of sins. It is a confessional. Its ultimate purpose, like that of a safety valve in a closed system, is to let off steam and ensure that the system remains structurally intact.

These rituals require semantic acrobatics. In the case of Smith and his two colleagues, it was essential to turn this instance of ball-tampering into the crime of the century. A tale of venality and subterfuge had to be spun. The fall from grace had to look completely merited. Here is how this was achieved.

If, like me, your first thought after seeing pictures Cameron Bancroft’s hapless attempts to sandpaper the ball, was “Oh boy! These guys are in trouble with the match referee!”, what must you be thinking today? I’ve been thinking about how naive I’ve been. I thought ball-tampering was illegal in cricket and invited sanctions only under specific, technical laws of the game. I did not realise that it revealed something uniquely depraved in the human character.



But it’s cheating, you might say. Yes. True. It is an underhanded attempt to gain an illegal advantage by doing something which hides the truth from the umpires. So yes, it’s cheating. It involves the two necessary features of cheating — illegality and subterfuge. But this invites three or four demerit points, a 75-100% fine and potentially a one-match ban. To inflate this into a twelve-month ban involves significant semantic reconstruction of the crime in question.

This particular episode of ball-tampering had to be shown to be exceptionally heinous. This was done in two ways. First, this instance was shown to be exceptional venal. Second, it was shown to be exceptionally premeditated. So, on a two-dimensional graph (venality, deliberateness) of ball-tampering acts, this was located in the top-right corner. Let’s consider venality first.

In November 2016, the South African captain Faf du Plessis was charged with ball-tampering by the ICC’s CEO David Richardson. The South African captain pleaded not guilty. The referee Andy Pycroft found him guilty. Du Plessis appealed, but Pycroft’s decision was upheld by the independent reviewer. The MCC’s head of cricket observed that du Plessis had “flagrantly contravened the law”.

But you see, this was just lollies. As the journalist Geoff Lemon wrote at the time,

Technically a player may “polish the ball provided that no artificial substance is used”. Faf’s supposed use of sugary spit to induce swing was deemed worthy of a guilty verdict, but not of a ban. Admittedly, video of the incident looks straightforward: he’s chewing something, sticks his fingers in his mouth, then rubs the ball. But even if appearances don’t deceive, a ball-tampering charge for lolly-munching is pure confection. For one, this is standard cricketing practice. Anyone who has seen a gum advertisement knows that chewing produces spit. They also know that animated coffee cups are on a warpath to ruin your teeth, but that’s a scandal for another day. Players the world over need spit, and many share the idea that certain chewables imbue it with magical powers.

The gist of Lemon’s argument is that tampering using candy is not really ball-tampering, even though it is technically ball-tampering. There is a school of thought in England which has championed this view. If you are cynical, you might believe that they began to think this once Marcus Trescothick revealed England’s systematic use of Murray Mints during their narrowly successful 2005 Ashes campaign. Michael Vaughan, England’s captain in that series is a leading proponent of this idea.

Rahul Dravid was found guilty of ball-tampering in 2004 by referee Clive Lloyd after he was caught on camera rubbing a lozenge which had been in his mouth on the ball.



Dravid and India denied that the ball-tampering was intentional, but Lloyd concluded that it was:

It couldn't have been accidental because he's been fined. It was shown he was applying a substance to it. I looked at the film and it was conclusive. The rules are there — you can only apply saliva and sweat to the ball. [India] can say it’s accidental but the point is the footage shows that something has been applied to the ball and the rules state you are not allowed to do it. Once the charge is brought you have to show the evidence. Something was being applied to the ball quite obviously and he must have known it. It’s quite conclusive on film.

This week, Lemon has taken the view that the bans handed down by Cricket Australia are appropriate because the players lied to everybody after the fact. But isn’t this precisely what India and Dravid did in 2004? And what South Africa and du Plessis did in 2016? In both cases, the players maintained that they did not tamper with the ball. And in both cases there was sufficient evidence to contradict them. If anything, Smith and Bancroft accepted their guilt. They did not try to claim that they did not break the law. It is a strange moral universe in which an outright denial is not a lie, but lying about the details is unforgivable.

What does Lemon think contesting a charge involves? Every player who has contested a charge or a decision and turned out to be wrong has essentially been “lying”. A batsman who contests a stone-dead LBW with a review is lying. Players do this routinely. It is an act of desperation, not mal-intent. A batsman who stands his ground after edging a ball to the ’keeper is lying. This batsman is trying to suggest to the umpire that there was no edge and therefore no dismissal. If we accept that the umpire is there to make a decision based on trained observation, the batsman’s decision to stand is an acting of cheating.



But the conventional wisdom marks out some types of cheating as routine and other types of cheating as beyond the pale. There isn’t a good reason for this distinction. The laws of cricket are arbitrary. Natural justice is not involved.

If anything, Smith and Bancroft were clumsier than your average international cricketer in their attempts at subterfuge. This makes them not more dishonest but worse at being dishonest than, say, Faf du Plessis. They were not more venal. And their lies were not a measure of any exceptional dishonesty.

The second charge is premeditation. This was planned. But aren’t all acts of ball-tampering “planned”? Eating candy is not a natural or regular human trait; sweating and generating saliva are. How many other workplaces (or even sports) can you think of where participants regularly eat candy? It is strange that it is always the players who manage the ball who happen to be eating candy. It is not the case that players do not know that altering the condition of a cricket ball alters its behaviour. All players know how the condition of the ball might be altered, be it by slamming it on the ground, or applying an artificial-substance on it (be it sugary spit or sandpaper, nails or teeth or zipper teeth, and many others). All ball-tampering is deliberate. That’s why it is called “tampering”. This idea that some plots are more pre-meditated than others is spurious.

All attempts to cheat are deliberate by definition. They are intentional. The elaborateness of a plot to cheat is a matter of aesthetics and not morality. Just because something looks worse, it is not automatically worse.



The idea that this was an exceptionally venal and exceptionally premeditated attempt to illegally alter the condition of the ball is fiction. But it was necessary to justify the idea that the ICC’s sanctions were not sufficient.

So, who perpetrated this fiction? This is a difficult question. When pictures first emerged, there was general glee among partisan fans. Then Smith and Bancroft made the fatal act of going before the press and admitting their guilt. Had they denied everything and pointed to, say, a “momentary lapse of judgment” without offering any specifics, they would not have gained points for candour, but at least, Geoff Lemon would not have had reason to say they had lied. Even if being economical with the truth is lying it is a competent form of lying. The Australian team management shot itself in the foot by allowing Smith and Bancroft to front up before the press on the 3rd evening of the Cape Town Test. They should have put things off until the end of the game by saying nothing until the referee’s decision on the ball-tampering charge was announced by the ICC.

From then on, it was an avalanche. Things were said by the Australian Prime Minister and the English Prime Minister and by pundits in Australia and England, which put Cricket Australia in a position in which it would require courage to back their players in the face of pressure from sponsors.



It was the forces of the status quo who perpetrated this fiction. For make no mistake, there will be no change in Australia’s conduct. There will be no change at all in world cricket. Unless Australia (like most international sides) lose their desperation to win, they will not stop trying to seek out every advantage and push the boundaries of legality. In this, they are no different from any other side. They will not stop trying to invent lines in the sand. Let’s face the fact that we want these lines in the sand because they provide the most profitable emotion of all — outrage. Outrage requires transgression and lines in the sand make transgression suitably apparent.

And so, on March 29, 2018, we witnessed emotional pornography. The vulgar ritual of the very same Cricket Australia officials who destroyed the Australian captain (and saved the Australian coach) coming out to preface Steve Smith’s press conference by telling us how distraught and emotional he was. Bancroft, Smith and Warner did absolutely nothing to merit anything more than the ICC’s penalties. Yet, they have been publicly humiliated. Test Cricket must be in rude health to afford such luxuries.

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