Steven Smith must go. Whether it is today or tomorrow, or a week from now, the man regarded as the best batsman from his country after The Don has to be given the boot as the captain, of that there is little doubt.
This is not a question of credibility or accountability, but of integrity and the standards expected of international sportspersons, much less captains of example-setting international teams. For the second time in a little over a year, Smith has come out of an international incident smelling of less than roses. He managed to survive the brainfade in Bangalore in March 2017. It is unlikely that he will survive the ball-tampering in Cape Town in March 2018. He should not, as simple as that.
Beware the Ides of March is something the Australian skipper (only for now, hopefully) hasn’t heard of. If he has, he surely hasn’t heeded it. Last year, the Australians threw Peter Handscomb under the bus after he ‘confessed’ that the glance at the dressing-room to see if a review ought to be sought after Smith was trapped leg before had been his suggestion. On Saturday (March 24), it was the turn of Cameron Bancroft to look at the underside of the bus after being instructed/prodded/encouraged to use a yellow tape to artificially alter the condition of the ball, then slide the offending piece into his underpants.
A fair few have lauded the ‘courage’ of Smith and Bancroft in owning up their mistakes. Do we accord the same luxury to a bank robber caught red-handed and then confessing that he erred in judgement? Did we accord the same luxury to Suraj Randiv when he deliberately bowled a no-ball to deny Virender Sehwag a One-Day International century? Where is the courage when you wilfully, in a planned manner, tamper with the laws and the spirit of the game, and slip into contrition and remorse? This wasn’t a crime of passion, it was a crime of desperation, well thought out and yet thoughtlessly planned — did you guys honestly believe the omniscient camera could be fooled that easily? — and its repercussions must be commensurate.
Smith has been the Test skipper for three years now, no rookie on the job, and is therefore well aware of the dos and don’ts. He is not wet behind the ears, having been a part of numerous scheduled and unscheduled meetings with match referees. He has cried foul over the behaviour of opponents, has always found a moral high horse to clamber on to, taken offence to being likened to a cheat by an opposition captain and yet not chary of using the same word — preceded by an expletive, both of them caught by television cameras — when a fielder close-in claimed a catch in the same series when it took numerous inconclusive replays to award the benefit of doubt to the batsman.
Australia have forever taken pride in setting the pace for the rest of the world to follow. They have existed in a bubble of denial and arrogance, convinced that they are the moral guardians of a sport that is increasing polarising opinions and throwing up divisiveness that is independent of such reprehensible behaviour. There is a certain sanctimonious posturing that they have perfected; they will lay down what the accepted norms of conduct are, they will decide, and then decide to stretch, the ‘lines’. If those lines end up in the underpants of a young man trying to cut his teeth in international sport, then they are most welcome to their lines.
Cricket Australia find themselves in a deep hole, some of which is of their own making. It is one thing to stand by your employees — which is eventually what the players are — but it is quite another to condone conduct bordering on the boorish, to back behaviour that is at once churlish and insensitive, not to mention immoral and illegal. Like the big bullies that invariably don’t know how to react when their bluff is called, Australia have gone running to the authorities every time they have received in kind what they have sought to dole out. This time around, the authorities have come running to them; hopefully, it is not just with a slap on the wrist and a pat on the back.
Under pressure for their handling of the Kagiso Rabada ban, for the leniency they showed Shakib Al Hasan in Colombo, for their decision to downgrade the next World Cup to 10 teams, as well for their silence on global warming, Donald Trump’s sack-hungry mindset and Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s move from Manchester United to Major League Soccer, the International Cricket Council face one of their biggest challenges in recent times. To merely castigate and punish Bancroft for following the instructions of the ‘leadership group’, whatever that means, will be taking the easy way out, especially when there is a full-blown, public, taped confession from what we must assume is the ring-master.
“I’m not proud of what’s happened, it’s not within the spirit of the game,” Smith has said in the last 12 hours. “My integrity, the team’s integrity, the leadership group’s integrity has come into question and rightfully so. It’s certainly not on and it won’t happen again, I can promise you that under my leadership. That’s a mistake on our behalf. I’ve made it clear, we’re regrettable and we’ll move on from this.”
Move on from this, Mr Smith? Like you move on from a misfield that has cost you a World Cup final? Like you move on from a dropped catch or two? Like you move on from a cricketing mistake? And what do you mean, ‘It won’t happen again, I can promise you that under my leadership?’ People have taken moral responsibility for far less and quit. Why do you want to be pushed out when there is an honourable — oh wait, what is that? — way out?
Clearly, whatever the composition of the leadership group which obviously extends beyond Smith, the buck stops with the captain. No matter the exhortations of the senior core, it is Bancroft who will face the immediate charge of ball-tampering, or whatever legalese applies in this case. Likewise, no matter who all formed the think-tank that thought tampering was acceptable because the ball was doing nothing, no one is more complicit than the captain.
This is the moment of truth for Australian cricket. No platitudes and assertions of ‘sad day for Australian cricket’ will hold any meaning if the action is tepid, meek and disproportionate to the premeditated disrespect of rules and ethics. Andy Pycroft and the ICC have the legacy of several years of inertia and looking the other way to contend with. Much of that inertia is a gift from Cricket Australia, who simply have to do the right thing and make an example of their captain. As we said earlier, Steven Smith must go. And that should only be the beginning.