They thought that they could get away with anything.
They thought that they were bigger than the game.
But no one is bigger than the game – no team, no individual, no governing body.
As Brian Close used to say, the game must come first.
End of story.
Only a team that has been allowed to get away with as much as Australia could possibly have countenanced the cheating they enacted in Cape Town.
By effectively condoning years of bad behaviour – witless sledging, cowardly send-offs to batsmen, vulgar histrionics on-and-off the field – the sport has created a climate whereby a side can feel so invulnerable that they can perceive such premeditated ball-tampering as a legitimate tactic, “a way to get an advantage”, as the disgraced captain Steve Smith so pathetically put it.
“Give an inch, take a mile” as the saying goes, and because cricket has not been tough enough on some of the individuals who play it, with miserably inadequate sanctions for bad behaviour, and because self-policing has proved predictably ineffective, so the sense has grown in the Australian dressing room that they can pretty much do as they please, viewing any flimsy punishment as disposable damage.
Watching Smith admit to the ball-tampering plan at a press conference alongside team-mate Cameron Bancroft, who enacted that plan by deliberately taking yellow tape to the ball before shoving the tape back down his trousers like someone trying to hide Class A drugs during a dawn raid, one sensed that Smith genuinely thought that he and his team could simply take it on the chin and conveniently move on.
To some extent, he might have been encouraged in that thinking by the laws of the game; ball-tampering, for reasons inexplicable hereabouts, is only a level two offence in an International Cricket Council code of conduct that has four levels of increasing severity, so if not exactly condoned, is hardly held up as the most heinous crime.
Ball-tampering itself is as old as the hills, with players often deliberately throwing the ball on to the ground in an effort to scuff it up, but the cool and calculated nature of this episode, discussed by “the leadership group” of the Australian team during a lunch interval, highlights the hubris of a culture that perceives itself as somehow indestructible.
Not any more.
The level of indignation – particularly in Australia – is unlikely to mean, as Smith stated in the press conference, that “we will move on from this and hopefully learn something from it”, as though he was explaining away nothing more egregious than a batting collapse.
His reputation is in tatters, his position untenable. As for “the leadership group” – they must be named and shamed and dealt with accordingly.
The fact that Smith and his “Untouchables”, the modern equivalent of Bradman’s “Invincibles”, were even willing to take such a risk by blatantly cheating in front of myriad television cameras shows how divorced from reality Australia have become.
They have misjudged the mood not only of the cricketing world, but also of their own country, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull wading into the crisis by saying that it is “beyond belief” that the Australian team could be involved in cheating – an admirable sentiment, of course, but one that is actually erroneous in that Australia’s cheating was entirely believable.
The extent to which Australia are divorced from reality, indeed, was highlighted by coach Darren Lehmann’s complaint that Australia were subjected to “disgraceful” verbal abuse by the crowd at Newlands, with Cricket Australia having sent a letter of complaint to its South African counterpart.
It was not so long ago that Lehmann encouraged Australian supporters to make Stuart Broad’s life a misery after Broad himself cheated, in some people’s eyes, by failing to walk during the Trent Bridge Ashes Test of 2013 after edging to slip.
As such, Australia have behaved like playground bullies who squeal as soon as somebody dishes it back, yet another reason why a group of wonderfully talented players are actively disliked in some quarters.
Smith, David Warner, Nathan Lyon – these players and others will be remembered for their negative impact on the game as well as for their magnificent achievements, a sadly tarnished legacy. Although there is no humour in cheating, particularly of the premeditated variety, one man who could be forgiven for having a quiet chuckle to himself is England’s Jonny Bairstow.
Stitched-up by Bancroft and Smith over ‘headbutt-gate’ during the Ashes, the Yorkshireman could be excused for being in stitches now to see the two ‘Chuckle Brothers’ get their comeuppance.
By their actions in Cape Town, Smith, Bancroft and “the leadership group” have proved that the culture of the Australian cricket team is rotten to the core.
From ‘headbutt-gate’ to ‘ball-tampering-gate’, what goes around comes around.