CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - Australia’s cricket crisis was laid bare on Sunday when captain Steve Smith and deputy David Warner resigned in the wake of the ball-tampering scandal that has rocked the game before the team suffered a 322-run defeat by South Africa in the third test.
It meant the surreal sight of wicketkeeper Tim Paine leading Australia as stand-in captain, with Smith and Warner having to deal with an incredibly difficult day as jeers and whistles from South African fans reverberated around the Newlands ground.
Having been set 430 to win, Australia were bowled out for 107 runs inside 40 overs as they lost 10 wickets for 57 to add to their woes in a test that ranks among the most miserable in their 142 years of playing the longest format of the game.
The result, though desperately disappointing and leaving the Australians 2-1 behind in the four-match series, was arguably the least calamitous thing to happen on Sunday and is unlikely to grab the headlines outside of a jubilant South Africa.
The scandal-hit Australian team, who have been caught up in a storm since Smith confessed on Saturday that senior players in the side hatched a plan to tamper with the ball, were booed and whistled throughout the day in a hostile environment.
Pressure from all sides, including Australia’s government, had earlier led to what amounted to the axing of Smith, who perhaps naively on Saturday vowed to battle on as captain even as it became clear his position was untenable as head of the leadership group that sanctioned the attempt to cheat.
Smith was also handed a one-match ban and fined 100 percent of his match fee by the International Cricket Council (ICC), but now faces a Cricket Australia (CA) internal investigation that could result in anything up to a life ban if the breach of the organisation’s code of conduct is deemed serious enough.
Australia’s opening batsman Cameron Bancroft, who was caught on camera attempting to alter the condition of the ball, was handed three demerit points and a 75 percent fine of his match fee but escaped a ban and is free to play in the fourth and final test starting in Johannesburg on Friday if selected.
CA’s head of integrity Iain Roy and team performance manager Pat Howard are on the way to Cape Town to get the investigation underway and a conclusion is expected swiftly.
“It’s been a bizarre, strange and horrible 24-hours,” Paine told reporters after Australia’s heavy defeat, before adding that the players caught up in the scandal were beginning to understand the enormity of their actions.
“They are struggling, probably the reality and enormity of what has happened is starting to sink in.
“I don’t think all (the players) would have expected this to be as big as it has been, especially the fallout that we have seen from back home.”
South Africa captain Faf du Plessis, who has twice been sanctioned by the ICC for ball-tampering, most recently in Australia in 2016 when he was found guilty of using a mint in his mouth to make sticky saliva to shine the ball, said Smith would have to live with the consequences of his actions.
“He (Smith) is trying to take responsibility, so there is right in that. But people are also responsible for their own actions. I can understand it is a tough time for him to be in right now,” Du Plessis said.
“When I was in Australia it felt like the same intensity. I was being followed everywhere I went. Ball shining versus ball tampering is really two very different situations, one is much more serious than the other.
“The situation that I was in was really difficult for me because people were attacking me, my personality and my character, and I felt it wasn’t fair.”
The scandal that has engulfed the Australia team goes to the very heart of the sporting psyche in a country where teams are expected to play hard, but fair; to win, but do so within the spirit of the game.
It even forced condemnation from the government, as Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull had earlier heaped pressure on CA to remove the captaincy from Smith.
“I have to say that for the whole nation which holds those who wear the ‘baggy green’ up on a pedestal about as high as you can get in Australia, certainly higher than any politician that’s for sure, this is a shocking disappointment,” Turnbull said.
CA have read the mood of the country and will act quickly and decisively on a final outcome, according to CEO James Sutherland.
“Cricket Australia and Australian cricket fans expect certain standards of conduct from cricketers representing our country, and on this occasion these standards have not been met,” he said in a statement on Sunday.
“All Australians, like us, want answers and we will keep you updated on our findings, as a matter of priority.”
Just what those answers bring will be revealed in the coming days, but for the likes of Smith, Warner and potentially others, it could see them fighting for their international careers.
Reporting by Nick Said; Editing by Ken Ferris