When we first saw Cameron Bancroft tampering with the ball using sandpaper, we thought to ourself: “That is sandpaper” – and so did everyone else.
We were therefore very much surprised when he later claimed that it was not in fact sandpaper but something akin to home-made sandpaper.
“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,” he explained.
It has since turned out that no, actually it was sandpaper all along because of course it was.
This revelation both made sense and also entirely didn’t make sense.
It made sense because the main thing sticky tape sticks to is itself, so it would have been a hell of a feat for Bancroft to keep it in his pocket all flat and rigid like that.
It didn’t make sense because why did Bancroft say that it wasn’t sandpaper? It was such a pointless distinction it literally didn’t even occur to us that it might not be true.
Bancroft and Steve Smith were in that press conference admitting what they’d done. Yet at the same time as coming clean, they also decided that they would tell an outright lie about that one specific detail. How did they hit upon that particular course of action?
Smith: We’ve been caught in what was clearly a premeditated attempt to alter the condition of the ball using sandpaper. What the hell are we going to do? What shall we say?
Bancroft: Let’s mostly confess but then say that we didn’t use sandpaper. Let’s say it was tape that we sort of made into sandpaper once we were out there on the field of play.
Smith: Yes, that’s an excellent idea. That should entirely negate everything we’ve done and ensure we sidestep any and all criticism.
Seriously, why would you lie about it? The question demands some scrutiny.
In that initial press conference…
1. Smith and Bancroft admitted ball-tampering. The nature of the material used to carry out the ball-tampering did not negate this, so this cannot be the reason why they decided to lie.
2. Smith and Bancroft admitted planning to tamper with the ball. They said they’d come up with the idea in the break. They weren’t claiming this was a spur of the moment thing, so this cannot be the reason why they decided to lie.
3. Smith and Bancroft admitted using something very much akin to sandpaper to tamper with the ball. The primary aim of rubbing the hypothetical sticky tape in dirt was to create a thing with a coarse side which could then be used to rough the surface of the ball – so basically sandpaper. The nature of the thing cannot be the reason why they decided to lie.
4. Smith and Bancroft did not admit to sourcing actual sandpaper. This is the only difference between what happened and what they said happened. It would seem that for Smith and Bancroft the threshold for wrongdoing lies at the very specific point between ‘making sandpaper’ and ‘purchasing or otherwise acquiring sandpaper’.
This no doubt sounds very much ridiculous to you, but it’s the nature of ‘ball maintenance’ that everyone has a slightly different but very precise idea about what is okay and what is not okay.
For example, a lot of people feel that sucking a sweet and then taking the resultant sugary spit from your tongue to shine the ball is okay, but that taking sugary spit directly from a sweet on your tongue and using that to shine the ball is not okay. For these people there is a critical ratio of sugar-to-saliva beyond which you become a massive great cheat.
You will probably have your own opinion about where exactly the threshold lies. That opinion will no doubt be mental.
Darren Lehmann has another opinion again. We don’t know what that opinion is, but it is so radically different from Smith and Bancroft’s that the poor man has had to resign from his job as Australia coach due to the extraordinary weight of disappointment he is currently feeling.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
You can fight hard for a couple of innings, but when all seems lost it can become really hard to summon the enthusiasm and make any real effort. You can’t judge people too harshly on what happens in these circumstances.
You might consider that a comment on England’s later efforts in this match, but it’s actually our way of saying that after several nights of trying to watch live coverage, we didn’t bother denying ourself any sleep for day five.
After all, there were already enough things eating into our eyes-closed downtime: a baby, a cough, someone else’s cough and, most significantly for the purposes of today’s article, the cat.
Monty’s idea of a friendly greeting is a headbutt. It is a friendly act, even if he does for some reason think that 4am is the optimal time to express his feelings. He does it to deposit facial pheromones on us and so reaffirm that we’re part of the Monty Gang.
And so to Jonny Bairstow.
According to Cameron Bancroft, “he says hello to people very differently from most others.”
Apparently he does it with a headbutt. “There was nothing malicious about his actions,” added Bancroft. “He didn’t knock me over. I’ve actually got the heaviest head in the West Australian squad, it’s been measured. There’s an actual measurement for it.”
It seems clear that Bairstow was essentially ‘claiming’ Bancroft using his special smell. It’s worth noting that he caught the opener in the first innings, but couldn’t dismiss him in the second. Something had changed.
Pheromones don’t last forever. They need refreshing. If Bancroft gets a 4am knock on his hotel door, he knows what to expect.