While the ball-tampering furore will die down Steve Smith and his side have underestimated the values Australians attach to the game.
“It ain’t true, is it, Joe?”
“Yes, kid, I’m afraid it is.”
The boys opened a path for the ball player and stood in silence until he passed out of sight.
As the Australian ball-tampering scandal began to gather its own startling emotional momentum over the weekend it was hard not to think of the story of Shoeless Joe Jackson and the greatest scandal to hit American baseball. The Minnesota Times reported the above exchange between Shoeless Joe and a crowd of boys on the courtroom steps after Jackson had given evidence in an investigation into claims he and his White Sox team-mates had fixed the 1919 World Series.
“Say it ain’t so, Joe,” ran the fabled headline in the Chicago Daily News, capturing the sense of grief over a story of tarnished American innocence so persuasive it even wormed its way into other great stories of tarnished American innocence. As F Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Great Gatsby: “It never occurred to me that one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people, with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe.”
And so we move on across the codes and continents to Steve Smith, Australian sporting exceptionalism and a more ham-fisted but still deeply traumatic sporting scandal. In trying to decipher what should happen next here it is important to distinguish the basic facts from their overpowering resonance, the extraordinary tide of mawkish grief and opportunist outrage of the last few days.
The ICC’s one-match ban for Australia’s captain, for all the outrage over its perceived leniency, is a strict application of its own rules on interfering with the ball. This is not an unprecedented cricketing crime. As my colleague Vithushan Ehantharajah wrote in these pages last year, there has been a recent correlation in English county cricket between teams with newly added zipper pockets on their whites and the ability to swing the old ball. It happens – just not, perhaps, quite like this.
Cricket Australia will surely step in now and impose a much stiffer punishment on players and coaching staff involved in one of the more public, brazen and indeed bafflingly thick-headed attempts to cheat the game.
As indeed it must. For a start Smith can surely never captain Australia again. A cricket captain speaks for his team on every aspect of the game. It will take a great deal more time and contrition before anyone feels like taking Smith’s word on any sporting subject, from a disputed catch to an lbw appeal to the rights and wrongs of the much-trumpeted “spirit of the game”. Time for a little silent reflection.
Smith should also receive an additional ban from international cricket. Australia’s next engagement is in England this summer. Some will suggest Smith should not travel at all. But this seems disproportionate, not to mention a case of not giving the public what they want. Cricket is not in such a healthy state it can afford to pass up the extreme toxic theatre of Smith walking out to bat at Trent Bridge and Old Trafford.
Steve Smith (right) and Cameron Bancroft face the music after the ball-tampering came to light in Cape Town. Photograph: Gallo Images/Getty Images
Whisper it but the only really good part of all this is the revelation that cricket really does still matter; that it can still twang some vital emotional chords; and that Test cricket – and surely only the longest form of the game – can still make a front-page story.
As for further punishment this clearly should not stop with the captain. The “leadership group” Smith spoke of includes five senior players, one of whom is said to have been absent at the time and furious at having his name linked to any ball-tampering scheme, never mind a ball-tampering scheme of such cinematic ineptitude. All of those involved should get a ban of some sort including, of course, the wretched Cameron Bancroft.
Similarly Darren Lehmann may or may not get away with the suggestion he had nothing to do with this. But he has overseen an infantilised team culture where such a plot was so easily conceived and where fear of being discovered by good old Boof was clearly not much of an issue. Nothing less than the sack will do for Lehmann. He should be profoundly embarrassed already, although past conduct suggests this may not be the case.
And this is the wider issue. Punishments to one side, there is no doubt the urge to pile in on Australia, to clutch at one’s pearls, to reach for the smelling salts has a lot to do with the attitude of this Aussie team, the unpleasant way it has presented itself over the last few years, all the while preaching about the imaginary “line” Australia alone is qualified to police. Pre-planned sledging routines, boorish pub-level insults, strutting physicality on the field: this has a corrosive effect on everyone concerned. These Australians have few friends in world cricket. They can hardly expect sympathy now.
And yet it must be acknowledged the sense of disconnect is not unique to Australia. Cricketers have never been so well paid, so powerful, so cosseted. There is a sense around the current Australia of a team slightly out of control, freed from consequences, able to dictate the weather around it.
The players did not design the system within which they are now cocooned, or introduce the disorienting revenue streams that have sprung up outside the rigidities of international cricket. Little wonder they can start to look a little odd, a little detached, even a little monstrous under the unblinking lens.
And little wonder the sense of grief at this basic disconnect appears to have been lying around, a reservoir of unease just waiting for a reason to burst. Say it ain’t so, Steve, say it ain’t so.
It would be easy at this point to row back against this, to argue that a sense of proportion must be maintained. But this would be to misunderstand the importance of cricket to the Australian soul. If the Shoeless Joe scandal shone a light on America’s own great pastoral sport, reflecting a hackneyed vision of itself as a cloudless, youthful world of fecund greens and whites, then the ball-tampering affair appears to have twanged something similar in the Australian national psyche.
Even the most seductive stories often turn out to be bunk, just as it later emerged the one about Shoeless Joe and the blue-eyed kids on the courtroom steps was invented by a reporter. But, if there is a value in this extreme, sustained reaction, it is the reminder of the value of a sport that has been a little uncared for in places that matter, allowed to mutate into something a little alien.