Distraught. Disgraced. Devastated. Call it what they will, the leadership of the Australia team have dropped themselves into a ball-tampering debacle with the most junior player in the side, Cameron Bancroft, the man left standing in the dock. During a stunning press conference after day three of the third Test against South Africa here in Cape Town, Steve Smith freely stated that he had brought the game into disrepute with his direction in the matter but was adamant that he should keep the captaincy.
In a dramatic middle session Bancroft was seen pulling a yellow object from his pocket and rubbing it on the ball in an effort to scuff it to help achieve reverse swing. Upon realising that the move was spotted by the TV cameras, he was then seen hiding the object in his underwear.
Questioned by the umpires, Nigel Llong and Richard Illingworth, he maintained it was only a cleaning cloth being applied to the ball. The 25-year-old, in his eighth Test, later described that blatant lie as a product of panic at realising he had been caught.
“I have been charged with attempting to change the condition of the ball,” the opener said before admitting his guilt and detailing what he had been up to. “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. It didn’t work.” Too right it didn’t.
For Smith’s part, he said the “leadership group” of the team hatched the foolish plan at the lunch interval. He refused to name names but when Glenn Maxwell was fined internally by a similar collective in 2016 it included Smith’s deputy, David Warner, and the fast bowlers Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood. Smith made clear that the head coach, Darren Lehmann, was not involved.
“Bangers was around at the time and we spoke about it and thought it was a possible way to get an advantage,” he said. “I’m not proud of what’s happened [and] it’s not within the spirit of the game. My integrity, the team’s integrity, the leadership group’s integrity has come into question and rightfully so. It’s certainly not on and it won’t happen again, I can promise you that, under my leadership.”
His captaincy now becomes a topic of interest but Smith rejected outright any consideration of resignation. “I still think I’m the right person for the job,” he said. “I take responsibility as the captain, I need to take control of the ship, but this is certainly something I’m not proud of and something that I can hopefully learn from and come back strong from. I am embarrassed to be sitting here talking about this.”
Smith also rebuffed the charge that ball tampering in the team was systematic, instead citing the high-stakes nature of this Test as the motivation: the series is 1-1, with South Africa well on top in the third game of the four-Test rubber. Aiden Markram’s 84 helped South Africa increase their lead to 294 at the close of play, as the hosts ended on 238 for five. Earlier, Kagiso Rabada wrapped up Australia’s first innings for 255 by dismissing Josh Hazlewood to finish with four wickets.
“I can promise you this is the first time it’s happened,” he said. “We saw this game as such an important game. Not that other games aren’t important as well but as an opportunity. We’ve seen the ball reversing quite a lot throughout this series and our ball just didn’t look like it was going to.”
Bancroft insisted this was also the first time something like this had been suggested to him in the national team, recalling the anxiety he felt as he was getting involved. “I was in the vicinity of the area when the leadership group were discussing it,” he said. “I’ll be honest with you, I was nervous about it because with hundreds of cameras around that’s always the risk, isn’t it? I sit before you today and I’m not proud of what’s happened.”
When asked whether his contrition for the episode was for getting caught rather than the act, Smith maintained that either way it would have felt wrong, “deep down”: “If we weren’t caught I’d still feel incredibly bad about it. I’m incredibly sorry for trying to bring the game into disrepute the way we did.”
Bancroft will pay the price in the short term. It is now a formality that he will be banned for the final match once the match referee, Andy Pycroft, lays the level-two charge that the offence carries. He understands the repercussions will be broader than that. “I was in the wrong place at the wrong time and I want to be here because I’m accountable for my actions,” he said. “I’m not proud of what’s happened and I have to live with the consequences and the damage to my own reputation.”
Smith said he felt for Bancroft, as he should. Cricket Australia’s leadership had not responded as the country was asleep as the scandal broke. But it will do soon enough and there is no guarantee Smith will still be in charge once they have had their say. What a mess.
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