As Steven Smith broke down in Sydney on Thursday (March 29), plenty of us shed a tear or two. Smith’s were tears of agony and anguish, of shame and hurt and embarrassment; ours were empathetic, sympathetic, with and for a fallen hero whose punishment far outweighed the ‘crime’.
There is no joy in watching a grown man go to pieces on a public platform, no matter what he has been found guilty of. Smith’s extraordinary emotional meltdown on his arrival from South Africa, and with his father standing solidly by his side, isn’t what you want to see; when it does happen, though, it transports you through a whole gamut of emotions.
Hopefully, that gamut doesn’t encompass perverse delight or a certain sense of smug satisfaction at the felling of a giant. Several of us experience a certain capricious fun at pulling down people we ourselves have helped put on a pedestal that it makes me wonder if we lift them high enough only to see how badly they break when they fall. Anyone who felt even an iota of joy at the heart-squeezing Smith press conference ought to have himself tested for insensitivity, if such a probe exists.
Within hours of each other, Cameron Bancroft, Smith and Darren Lehmann held tearful press conferences at different parts of the southern hemisphere. The first two were about remorse and regret, about asking for forgiveness if not understanding; Lehmann’s was a fallout of the addresses in Perth and Sydney respectively of Bancroft and Smith as he stepped down as Australian coach, nearly a year and a half before his contract was to expire.
Much had been made of the fact that Cricket Australia had given a clean chit to Lehmann in the ball-tampering fiasco, their chief executive emphatically stating that the investigative team could find no evidence of the coach’s complicity in the matter. Now, people are nudge-nudging, wink-winking, whispering ‘I told yous’ and strutting around with a sense of superiority that comes to those that blossom in others’ suffering. In this era where it is no longer enough for us to be successful to be happy – we need for others to stumble and fall, too – there is also a definite slant towards enjoying the slaying of the titans that the events of the last 10 days have so unequivocally reiterated.
Less than a week back, on this very platform, we had called for Smith to be sacked as the captain. We had asked that he be punished suitably for allowing this clearly shameful incident to transpire on his watch. The buck stops with the captain, we had insisted, as it should in cricket where the captain’s role extends beyond merely going out for the toss and calling ‘heads’ or otherwise.
After some dilly-dallying, Cricket Australia went from ‘wait-and-watch’ to an all-out, all guns blazing gung-ho approach that was in direct correlation to the public outcry from outside, yes, but mainly from within. From within Australia, with influential public figures such as Malcolm Turnbull, the Prime Minister, joining Average Joe in slamming Smith, Bancroft and David Warner for having piled untold shame on an insular but proud nation.
Tried in the court of public opinion and taken apart by snapping wolves that weren’t even hungry, the embattled trio faces a long and potentially unforgiving road to acceptance and redemption. The stigma of ‘cheats’ will stick to them forever, no matter if they appeal their sentences through their lawyers/managers/agents/player union reps and no matter if their appeals are even marginally successful. It is a shame that their careers, their legacy – and in the case of Smith and Warner, there already is a legacy in place – will be defined by sandpaper and Oscar the cameraman, not by the mountains of runs they both made or the regal disdain with which they lorded over bowlers.
To those who say ‘But they did cheat’, there is no counter because yes, they did. One man plotted, another man executed and a third looked the other way perhaps sums it up in a nutshell. They made a mistake, a stupid mistake, a serious mistake, a giant mistake, a humongous mistake. And they are paying the price dictated by their home board’s code of conduct. Whether Cricket Australia could have been lenient or stricter is splitting hairs. Whether they were swayed by the shrill cries of anger and moral turpitude and therefore felt pressured into acting more strongly than they might have otherwise is up for debate. But act they did, handing out strong punishments that are definitely over-the-top if you take this case in isolation but that are more likely designed as deterrents in the bid to clean up the Augean stables overflowing through years of looking the other way.
The hounding of Smith in particular, and the others to a lesser extent, is certainly not on. The constant scrutiny was perhaps unavoidable in light of the ill-advised confession from which no good was ever going to come. But the constant glare of contempt and condescension has been hard to understand, much less digest. As stupid as the crime was, it is imperative to accept it for what it is – a violation of the International Cricket Council’s code of conduct that, under the rules as they exist, deserves no more than a one-match ban and a fine of 100% of the match fee. CA’s code is less forgiving and therefore opened the door to harsher sanctions, but no court or justice system encourages damning moral sanctions by less than the moral – which almost every single one of us is – or even the morally spotless.
In the aftermath of the tears from Smith, Bancroft and Lehmann, Warner has involuntarily cemented his standing as the most hated Australian in the world. That he hasn’t yet addressed the media, has only communicated through social media and made a terse few comments upon arriving at midnight in Sydney with his daughters in tow have been held against him to indicate his lack of remorse. He has been positioned, probably conveniently, as the principal villain, as the bullying orchestrator against whose violent exhortations neither the rookie Bancroft nor the seasoned skipper Smith could offer even token resistance. That the man who was being hailed as the full-time Twenty20 International captain-in-waiting just a few days back will never lead Australia again would suggest that the authorities too are happy to let the world know what they think of Warner.
No one has come out with any credit from all this. Not the three players, not Cricket Australia, not Lehmann, not most of us in the media, not the ICC. And most certainly, not Nigel Llong and Richard Illingworth, the on-field umpires who found nothing wrong with a tampered ball that clearly misbehaved after the Bancroft treatment in the post lunch session. Demerit points and suspensions and financial penalties are all fine, but isn’t it time they are applied to not just the players but also members of the Playing Control Team? After all, we are living in an era where not only must we do something, but we must also be seen to be doing it.