Australia have been caught ball-tampering. But what was the worst aspect? And what was the funniest?

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Excuse making (all images via Sky Sports video)

Well this is very much hilarious but also reprehensible because saying the second bit is part of the unwritten contract we have all entered into as cricket fans.

Australia have been caught ball-tampering, a simple statement that doesn’t really do justice to all that’s happened and how people have reacted to it.

Australia planned to tamper with the ball, tampered with the ball, attempted to cover-up tampering with the ball and then, once they were flat out of options, admitted tampering with the ball and claimed it would never happen again (good luck taking 20 wickets in your next home Test match, lads).

It’s all a bit sordid. Let’s try and work out which was the worst bit (and also which was the funniest).

Altering the condition of the ball

The kind of cheating where you subsequently have to be incredibly skilful for it to actually have an impact is not, in our eyes, the world’s greatest crime.

The written law is that cricketers can only polish the ball. The unwritten law is pretty much: “Just don’t get caught, okay, because then we all have to feign outrage.”

Different people are happy with different things when it comes to ball “maintenance”. There will never be agreement, so the unwritten law becomes the pragmatic solution. Vithushan Ehantharajah wrote a truly excellent piece about reverse swing for The Cricket Monthly that features many of the common techniques. (In the lower leagues, a team-mate of Special Correspondent Dad’s used to apply lip balm to his trousers so that shining resulted in a sort of veneer.)

Surreptitiously altering the condition of the ball is like the ‘sticky bottle’ or ‘magic spanner’ in cycling, where a rider gets assistance from a team car under the guise of doing something else. There are circumstances where these things are considered okay and circumstances where they’re considered not okay. You do them at your own risk and if you cross the line, you just have to accept that everyone’s going to rip into you.

Verdict: Not the worst bit.

The rank incompetence

We don’t know whether it’s the worst aspect of this incident, but the Australians’ ball-tampering incompetence is certainly the funniest aspect. We’ll say that now. No real need to compare it the others.

Let’s first deal with the methodology. This is what Cameron Bancroft used on the ball.

Looks like sandpaper, doesn’t it? Looks pretty much exactly like sandpaper. That’s certainly what everyone instantly assumed.

But, no, it was not sandpaper. According to Bancroft: “We had a discussion during the break and I saw an opportunity to use some tape, get some granules from rough patches on the wicket to change the ball condition.”

Cameron Bancroft did not bring sandpaper onto the field of play to use on the ball. What he did was infinitely stupider than that. What Cameron Bancroft did was bring some raw materials onto the field of play with which to manufacture some sandpaper and THEN he used it on the ball.

Compounding this, he added: “Obviously it didn’t work, the umpires didn’t see it change the way the ball was behaving or how it looked or anything like that.”

So to run through the whole thing: Australia went to incredibly great lengths to try and alter the condition of the ball by manufacturing homemade sandpaper in full view of about 100 cameras and then they used it in full view of about 100 cameras and it didn’t work.

As risk-reward goes, that is not a great ratio.

Verdict: Not the worst bit.

The cover-up

Footage of an incident of cheating has been played on the big screen at the ground and obviously also broadcast around the world. Darren Lehmann thinks he’s probably the only one who’s spotted it though so he gets a message to the player responsible and lets him know.

Bancroft sneaks the offending material into his pants.

Now no-one will ever know!

‘Yes, yes, it was definitely this completely different bit of material that I was using,’ he told the umpires.

After he later came clean, Steve Smith said the plan was hatched by “the leadership group” but also informed the press that he was “not naming names.”

Verdict: Pretty bad.

The hypocrisy

Australia have in recent years very much positioned themselves as the moral arbiters of the game. As a rule of thumb, everything they do is fine and anything anyone else does crosses the line.

Darren Lehmann, in particular, has been roaming the world like some sort of sporting morality consultant, delivering lectures on what is and isn’t acceptable in cricket. More than that, in fact – like a judge, handing out verdicts and recommending sentences.

The whole time he’s been doing this, he – and everyone else in the team – has been going on and on and on about how the team plays hard but fair. There are so many quotes making reference to ‘the line’ and Australia’s respect for it that we honestly can’t pick out a favourite.

Verdict: This is probably the worst bit. It’s like the Team Sky thing, if you’ve been following that story (here’s a breakdown of it if you haven’t). If you set yourselves up as whiter-than-white, as moral arbiters of the sport, you will be judged against that standard.


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  1. Yep. Spot on. The Australian insistence that they know precisely where the line is, despite that line being sufficiently flexible to retract whenever any other cricket team does something and extend to cover pretty much any action someone wearing a baggy green performs, has always irritated me. I hate the hypocrisy of it. And Lehmann, who has done some pretty unforgivable stuff when a player, appointing himself as a blubbery moral arbiter has been most unpalatable.

  2. Here in Australia I was intrigued by whether the press would paint Smith as a bit of a naughty boy or Hitler, and for the most part they are leaning towards the Hitler side of things. It seems that they really can’t believe that the revered position of Australian Captain could be reduced to cheating, and they are throwing around phrases like “betraying the whole of Australia”.

    For my part I had started to get the inkling that Smith was a bit of a tosser some while ago but was able to look past that on account of him scoring stupid amounts of runs. Now I’m not so sure I can, I think he’s got to go as captain, not that we really have a replacement (Warner is VC….)

    1. The whole “leadership group” is tainted really.

      Tim Paine has got the job in the short term.

  3. Wonder what charges they’ll end up facing? Suppose it depends on how toothless the ICC are…

  4. Also there’s the fact that the “leadership group” delegated the ball tampering to a guy with all of 8 tests under his belt. Apart from anything else, that’s pretty cowardly.

    1. To me, making the junior player do it is the bit that tells you this is systemic. New recruits having to do difficult, dangerous or illegal tasks, or submit to extreme punishment is classic rite of initiation stuff.

  5. Comparisons with Team Sky are interesting, although when I heard about Froome’s ‘adverse finding’ or read about the DCMS committee report into the TUE business, my overwhelming response was a mix of confusion, sadness and weariness, whereas this whole Australia business is patently hilarious.

    Is that just because (a) it’s Australia, (b) they were bad at it and/or (c) Australians being bad at any aspect of sport is inherently hilarious to a British sensibility?

    1. Yes, all of those.

      Oddly, the Sky thing, which is actually far worse, has largely been within the letter of the law, while this is outright breaking the rules.

      1. MMA had a problem with TUEs for testosterone replacement therapy. Guys who were mainly the wrong side of 30 were all getting diagnosed with conditions like hypergonadism or claiming their standard of life was no longer what it was (strangely, the near 40 year old me doesn’t feel 20 now either…), so they could get steroids prescribed by suspect doctors, then coming back like they were ten years younger. Eventually the State Athletic Commissions decided too much piss was being taken and stopped allowing it.

        As a reference point, of all the thousands of athletes the IOC has overseen, only two ever had TRT exemptions, and one them had lost his knackers in an accident.

  6. Michael Clarke, Smith’s immediate predecessor as Test captain, called it “a terrible day for Australian cricket”, described the plan as “premeditated cheating” and condemned its instigators for choosing rookie batsman Bancroft to carry it out.

    That’s Michael Clarke saying that. Michael Clarke of moving line fame. It seems that this latest incident is so bad, even the Australian line cannot be stretched around it.

    Just imagine if Ricky Ponting joins in the criticism. How bad would something have to be for even the great man himself to be unable to get the line into the right place.

    1. Michael Clarke is sort of angling for a recall as captain, so take what he says with a pinch of salt.

      I wonder if Kim Hughes is relieved now that someone else has found a more embarrassing way to get fired as captain?

  7. I was entertained that Bancroft, whilst acting as Smith and Warners’s fag (in the sadistic English Public school sense, not the homophobic one) used something bright yellow as his instrument of evil. How different history may have been if John Wilkes Booth had used a pistol in dayglow colours, festooned in bells and flashing lights at Ford’s Theatre.

    On a more positive note, Rabada is quite a bowler.

    1. Also, they could have used actual sandpaper and it would have been the exact same amount of cheating only with better results and less chance of being caught.

      1. To extend my analogy further (possibly past breaking point) as if Booth had brought his blinged pistol unloaded, assuming that he would be able to scavenge some bullets.

  8. In other news, I see Root is continuing his knack of scoring fifties when centuries are needed.

    1. Correction; 86/7.

      So far I have seen two balls today – two wickets…

      …and we’re going out five minutes ago. Rats.

      1. It was the first time, Sam…

        …and I’m really sorry and we won’t do it again…

        …so that makes it almost OK, doesn’t it?

  9. On reflection, what I think will be the most amusing part of this is when one of the headgear fetishists, like Hayden, beats Smith to death for sullying the name of his precious misshapen coloured hat.

  10. While hilarious and disturbing, all of this has been a good little insight into Aussie psychology based on their reactions. From what I’ve gathered, this should lead to Smith and Warner being taken off their leadership roles with Lehmann facing considerable censure. Will need to revise my notes if they aren’t.

  11. I think what we need is an American style TSA pat-down when teams take the field. That won’t help with Vaseline rubbers, or lolly-eaters but meh let them do that. It doesn’t do anything — I’ve tried in club cricket with both moisturizer and cough drops and nothing happened. I’m not quick enough to reverse the ball to be fair.

  12. After listening to Broad’s thoughts, I tend to agree with him. Why would you tamper with a proven/successful strategy of producing early reverse swing?

    Are there two groups of tamperers within the Australian cricket team, who operate without each other’s knowledge?

    Reminds me of Rameez Raja complaining that there were two groups of match fixers working at cross purposes in the Pakistani team in which he was playing.

    1. Not sure that was actually what he was saying. That press conference was one of Broad’s finest recent performances.

      1. Yes, I did get whay Broad was implying, but that doesn’t make sense with the amateur effort by Bancroft & #leadershipgroup

        unless there is another shadowy group unbeknownst to the #leadershipgroup working like the Ninjas

        or maybe this is is the first time the Camera’s and spotlight was focussed on the Aussies?

      2. It sounds like the broadcasters were making a very conscious effort to follow the ball between deliveries during this last Test due to suspicions. This might of course just be one of a whole repertoire of tactics. It isn’t to say they were looking for this specifically. Sounds like use of Warner’s strapping was perhaps what they expected to catch.

  13. Cameron Bancroft explaining in broken English that events ‘obviously resulted’ in him shoving it down his, erm, his trousers is possibly the funniest thing I have ever seen in a cricketing interview. The guy should seriously consider moving into stand up comedy.

      1. Oh Exile, a blast from the past. You reminded me of when I conducted an assembly at the College of FE where I was working in the 60s. It was during Safety Week and I used Hoffnung’s the Bricklayer’s Lament. It brought the house down.

  14. Fabulous article on Cricinfo today, not least because it mentions Edmund Barton, St Mary MacKillop, Ned Tricket and Henry II. You have to love an article that links a 2018 ball-tampering scandal with events of 1877.

    The wider point of the article is absolutely right, put beautifully when he says that the Australian sport-watching public have their own line. Far from being a national embarrassment, the reaction of Australians shows the world how sport should be watched and supported. But I wonder if this is the point of greatest disconnection between the teams and the fans, not just in Australia, but here as well.

    We all love it when our team wins, and we complain mercilessly when they lose. We know what we mean by this, that we want endeavour and skill and expect our sports stars to show this. But we do not express ourselves well enough, and too often the message is misinterpreted by the teams. We say “Win”; they hear “Win at all costs,” which is never what was meant. So in a naïve attempt to satisfy what they think the requirement is, they scuff the ball / dive in the penalty area / inject themselves with distilled cheating juice.

    The current Australian reaction is one of those occasional times when the message from the fans to the teams is made crystal clear. But actually, we need to be clear about it all the time, even when (especially when) our teams are winning. Here in the UK we are currently being less than clear about Team Sky. Is it any wonder that they misunderstand what the fans want when the fans are so reticent to say what they think?

    1. Very good piece, that. It also references Jon Ronson’s ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’, the themes of which seem to apply more and more to basically everything

    2. An excellent piece. The main point was reinforced to me by an Aussie’s comment on a Facebook posting made by a South African friend of mine who was at Newlands:

      “it really stings to call them my team today. Give me a decade of Ashes losses rather than this.”

      That’s shame, that’s hurt.

      1. Has that Aussie ever experienced a decade of Ashes losses, though, Ged – it’s not much fun from what I remember.

        With reference to the wider point, I’m not sure that there isn’t a signficant minority of sporting fans who really DO just want their team to ‘win’ even if it’s by breaking the rules, especially with a rule that’s often bent (or even broken) by a lot of participants, as was frequently argued in the case of EPO in cycling, and is often mentioned with regard to ‘going down easily’ in football. It seems a bit less prevalent an attitude in international cricket compared to other sports (partly because being a ‘fan of the game’ is more common in cricket than it seems to be in more nationally prominent sports?), but that might just be the biased opinion of a blinked cricket fan.

  15. I feel I should contribute. But this is all I have.
    At primary school, Andrew Dawson, Simon Heywood and Ian Lancaster were busted for writing in wet cement; cement, coincidentally, on a path around the local cricket pitch which lay just behind our school.
    But how were they caught? You ask. How could Mr Harrison be so sure they were the culprits?
    Because not only did they have claggy cement fingers when they returned to class but they had written their own names in the cement.
    I don’t know what this means in relation to this debacle exactly, except they were idiots. But also, they were ten.
    Will that do?

    1. Much to ponder there. An excellent and worthwhile contribution (and also a story you haven’t told us before – how many more of those can there possibly be?)

    2. Do we know what became of your primary school’s Three Stooges, Prince Prefab -both in the immediate aftermath of the incident and also in the ensuing decades?

      There might just be some useful foreshadowing of the denouement of this cricket debacle in the answers to my multi-part question.

      1. Hi Ged,

        As far as I’m aware not one of them has ever played international cricket so I think that tells us all we need to know. FINISHED.

      2. Andrew Dawson appears to have gone on to a successful football career with Scunthorpe and Hull, though. So that’s something.

  16. I think the funniest was the kid asking Lyon to autograph the back of a sheet of sandpaper.
    The worst, I fear, may yet be to come. Smith has always struck me as a boy who is on the ‘wired differently’ side of life, as evidenced both by his unusual mannerisms, his single-mindedness at the crease, and by his occasional naivety, as manifest in that press conference. (That’s how I read the ‘move on from it’ bit, rather than out-and-out arrogance, hubris etc. ) I think he could be in part a victim of ‘make the best batsman captain’ syndrome, when he may not have been temperamentally best suited for the role, leaving him at the mercy of stronger and more devious personalities. I hope he has the resilience and support to deal with the consequences. The vilification here in Oz is extreme. If only governments also employed Heads of Integrity.

  17. According to CA, the team did indeed use ‘sandpaper.’

    They’re Australians, though, so would you trust them now?

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