CAPE TOWN: In January 2004, Clive Lloyd, the International Cricket Council (ICC) match referee, fined Rahul Dravid 50 percent of his match fee for using a cough lozenge to alter the condition of the ball — inadvertently, said the Indian legend — during a one-day match against Zimbabwe in Brisbane. In the aftermath of that incident, Ricky Ponting, Australia’s captain, said: “I don’t know what (applying a lozenge to a ball) does . . . they might not have known what it does either, they might have been just trying that.
“It’s certainly something we’re very aware of. There have been a lot of these issues come up over the last couple of years. Different players from different countries have been suspended and fined and things . . . I don’t think you’ll see us doing anything like that.”
Four years later, in Sydney, after several dubious umpiring decisions had contributed to an Australian victory in the Test subsequently remembered for the Monkeygate racism scandal, an Indian journalist asked Ponting about a low catch he had claimed, which had not been given. “If you are questioning my integrity, then probably you shouldn’t be sitting here,” said an incensed Ponting.
A similar holier-than-thou attitude was in full view on Saturday when Australia coach Darren Lehmann spoke of the abuse his players had copped from the Newlands crowd. “There have been various incidents throughout the Test series but this one has taken the cake,” he said. “I think it’s been disgraceful. You’re talking about abuse of various players and their families and personal abuse. It’s not on at a cricket ground anywhere around the world, not just here, it shouldn’t happen.”
During his playing days, Lehmann used highly offensive, racist words about his Sri Lankan opponents. As coach during the 2013 Ashes, and talking about Stuart Broad, he exhorted Australian crowds to “give it to him right from the word go for the whole summer and I hope he cries and he goes home.” Broad’s crime? Not walking after nicking a ball. Lehmann’s captain at the time, Michael Clarke, had done exactly the same during the controversial 2008 Sydney Test, though the umpires did send him on his way.
It is understandable, then, that every Australian remark about “playing hard, but fair” or “not crossing the line” has been greeted with sniggers and derision by their opponents and fans alike. This is a team that has made a beeline for the moral high ground while systematically stretching the limits of the laws.
But blatant cheating has never been the Australian way. They were at the forefront of pushing “chuckers” out of the game in the 1960s, and no Australian had ever been cited for ball-tampering before. In the 1990s, as the rest of the world rushed to emulate the reverse-swing exploits of Pakistan’s Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram, Australia relied primarily on quality new-ball bowling and leg-spin to see off every opponent.
In fact, a quick glance at the statistics from the past two years illustrates just how much Australia have struggled to get the old ball to deviate through the air. That might have triggered the utterly bone-headed plan that Steve Smith and his leadership group went ahead with in Cape Town on Sunday.
In the past, players have used everything — from strips of Vaseline and bottle tops, to Murray Mints and trouser zippers — to rough up one side of the ball. Few, though, did it as blatantly, and in full view of dozens of high-definition cameras.
Smith’s “we’ve not done it before, won’t do it again” defense was straight from the toddler-cookie-jar school, and it is no surprise that the ICC have handed down the strictest punishment possible according to the laws. “The game needs to have a hard look at itself,” said Dave Richardson, the ICC’s chief executive. “In recent weeks, we have seen incidents of ugly sledging, send-offs, dissent against umpires’ decisions, a walk-off, ball tampering and some ordinary off-field behavior.”
Cricket Australia, under pressure from the prime minister and disgusted fans, has to do more. Last year’s antics in Bangalore — Smith looking to the dressing room for review advice after being dismissed — was characterised as a “brain fade” and brushed under the carpet. This was an audition for a “Dumb and Dumber” sequel, and it has dragged the hallowed baggy-green cap through the gutter. Unless steps are taken against every one of the so-called leaders, the muck will stick.