SYDNEY, March 26 (Reuters) - A ban for captain Steve Smith in no way eased the fury directed at the leadership of the Australia cricket team as the sports-mad nation returned to work on Monday still digesting the ball-tampering scandal which broke in Cape Town over the weekend.
The story led the front pages of all of the country’s major newspapers, the headlines mostly working around the single word “Shame”, and on radio talk shows and social media the offenders were lambasted with a vehemence unusual for even those forums.
“As this disreputable tour descended from the gutter into the sewer, the mythical line the Australians use as the yardstick for their behaviour has not only become blurred but disappeared altogether,” Andrew Wu wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald.
“The disconnect from what Steve Smith’s men deem as acceptable behaviour compared to what the majority of the public back home has become as wide as the Indian Ocean which separates them.”
There is no hyperbole involved when Australians describe the cricket captaincy as the country’s second most important job behind that of prime minister and the concept of playing “hard, but fair” has always been integral to the national identity.
For Smith, therefore, to have deliberately conspired to cheat by getting a junior member of his team to tamper with the ball during the third test against South Africa cuts to the very quick of the Australian psyche.
Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull intervened on Sunday to demand quick action from Cricket Australia and they, after initially demurring, responded by standing down Smith and vice captain David Warner from their roles.
Smith was later handed a one-match ban for his part in the scandal by the International Cricket Council, while the junior player involved, opener Cameron Bancroft, was fined 75 percent of his match fee.
Both will remain in South Africa while Cricket Australia conducts its own investigation, the governing body confirmed on Monday, and more punishments can be expected after that.
In the space of two days, top batsman Smith has gone from Australia’s cricketing golden boy to national pariah and it looks likely that he has played his last test as captain.
Some of the most vehement reactions to the incident have come from his predecessors in the coveted baggy green cap, which each player is awarded on his test debut.
“Steve Smith’s time as Australia’s captain is surely up,” former fast bowler and possible future Australia coach Jason Gillespie wrote for Guardian Australia.
“It is impossible to envisage a scenario where he stays in the job. This is a train wreck.
“This was pre-planned cheating. It may have been implemented by a junior player in Cameron Bancroft but it came with the backing and knowledge of ‘the leadership group’, a core of senior guys in the Australian set-up.”
The identity of the leadership group that Smith admitted was responsible for Bancroft attempting to scuff up one side of the ball with a piece of tape was the subject of some conjecture, with Warner the only name definitely in the frame.
Several of the Australian correspondents in Cape Town report that some of the other supposed members of the group, pace bowlers Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood, have moved swiftly to distance themselves from the incident.
Warner’s chequered past and predilection for aggressive “sledging” had always made it highly unlikely that he would be promoted to the top job but his slim hopes of a promotion have surely been extinguished by his part in the scandal.
Darren Lehmann will also have questions to answer after clearly trying to cover up the incident once he realised the TV pictures had exposed Bancroft’s cheating, even if Smith insisted the coach had not been part of the conspiracy.
Cricket Australia, coming off a highly damaging labour dispute last year, have also come under fire for the temerity of their initial response.
“Frankly, we believe that Steve Smith and Cameron Bancroft should have been on the first plane home yesterday,” Australian Sports Commission chairman John Wylie told ABC Radio on Monday.
“If an athlete had been representing Australia in an Olympic Games and they had brought the country and the team into disrepute, that’s what would have happened to them.”
In the immediate future, wicketkeeper Tim Paine will almost certainly captain the side for this week’s final test in Johannesburg as he did on the final day of the defeat at Newlands which left Australia 2-1 down in the series.
The tourists could still draw the four-match series with a victory at the Wanderers but given the damage the ball-tampering has done to the name of Australian sport, it looks like very few back home will care.
Editing by John O'Brien