“It’s just not cricket, old boy!”
Englishmen have always used that mild reproof to describe behaviour that falls below accepted standards, the phrase itself a reminder of kinder, gentler times. A reminder, too, that cricket was a gentle game designed to be played by gentlemen, with a gentlemanly code of conduct to be observed on the field, and off it too, for that matter.
Well, forget all that nonsense. The gentle game is no longer played by gentlemen. The code is now widely ignored, the playing fields populated by snarling ingrates hurling insults at their opponents.
Especially – and it saddens even an ill-bred Englishman to say this – when the present Australian team take the field.
The headlines on the sports pages this morning tell a strange story concerning an incident in the current Test match between South Africa and Australia in Cape Town. An Australian fielder, Cameron Bancroft, could plainly be seen on television screens using some object in his pocket to roughen up one side of the ball. This is done to make the ball more likely to swing through the air and so bamboozle the batsman. The object in Bancroft’s pocket turned out to be a short length of tape, to which dirt from the pitch could be attached, and then rubbed on the ball.
Now, Bancroft is not the first to be caught tampering with the ball. There have been a number of notorious incidents. One of them, a few years back, involved an England captain, Michael Atherton, who was caught rubbing the ball with dirt from his pocket. Others have been caught picking at the stitching to create the same swing effect.
Changing the condition of the ball is, off course, against the rules. The two on-field umpires have every right to intervene, by changing the ball, and even applying a five-run penalty against the offending teams. If all of this sounds amusingly petty, so it is – not least to those who regard cricket as a bizarre and old-fashioned business anyway. But the Bancroft affair is on a different level than previous incidents. Here is why.
Bancroft, a relative newcomer to international cricket, was not a lone offender. He did not dream up this little wheeze by himself, on a whim. He was instructed to tamper with the ball by his captain and vice captain, and a coterie of the team’s senior players. It was part of a plot hatched at a meeting they held during the lunch break. It was designed to rescue Australia from a somewhat perilous position in the match. “Winning is important to us,” said Smith by way of justification. In other words, the Australians made cheating an essential component of the team’s tactical counter-attack.
There is even a suggestion that the coach, if he did not participate in the plot itself, tried to cover it up by sending a message out that Bancroft had been twigged and should hide the evidence. Apparently after receiving this warning, Bancroft was seen to be shoving the tape into his underpants.
After the close of play, Bancroft, accompanied by his captain, Steven Smith – incidentally, the world’s most prolific contemporary batsman – held a press conference and confessed everything. Smith admitted that he had acted badly, but, curiously, thought that it should not affect his status as captain. He was, he said, still the best man for the job.
The growing scandal was badly received back home in Oz. The Australian cricket authorities immediately sacked Smith as captain, along with David Warner, his vice captain, although both will be allowed to complete the match in progress, playing under a temporary captain. Even the Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, called in to express his disgust.
What happens next will depend on the usual investigations, which are already underway, and the subsequent debates about appropriate levels of punishment.
If I were to be asked for my opinion, I would relieve both Smith and Warner of their offices for all time, and ban them from playing cricket for a year. A tap on the wrist would be futile. A kick in the balls would be more effective (and might symbolically press home the message about ball-tampering). If the coach was involved in an attempted cover-up, he should go too, and for good.
After all, Russian athletes can be barred from the Olympics for taking illicit drugs, so why should cricket cheats expect any quarter?
None of what I have prescribed is likely to happen. Standards of behaviour in cricket seem to decline in direct proportion to the prices paid for the television rights. If cricket is entertainment, what is so bad about a few louts like Warner playing the ‘heavies’, as in a Bruce Willis movie.
This particular Australian team, in this particularly unsavoury series in South Africa, has in various other respects brought cricket to a new low of unsporting behaviour. Warner it was who, in the previous match, attacked an opposing player on the way to the dressing-room, allegedly after remarks were made about his partner. Warner, your traditional Aussie ‘ocker’, is no stranger to controversy; he is its friend. He once threw a punch at England’s captain in a bar. He is also, by general consent, Australia’s sledger-in-chief. (Sledging, for those uninitiated in the peculiar rituals of Kipling’s flannelled fools, is the art of uttering rude and provocative remarks to a batsman to put him off his game.) Australia invented the practise and has dominated it ever since – although it must be admitted that most other countries, including England, seem intent on catching up.
Does any of this nonsense matter?
Not in the greater scheme of things, I suppose, but it is all too sadly redolent of a once elegant and civilized pastime being taken down to the gutter by louts who know they can get away with it.