Is the ball tampering hysteria justified?

Ball tampering conspirator Steve Smith
Disgraced Australian Captain Steve Smith. Photo: David Molloy, Wikimedia Commons

Over the weekend in Cape Town the Australian cricket team was caught ball tampering. This has naturally caused outrage among cricket fans, with Australian supporters lining up to give their two cents about how disgraceful these actions are. Even the Prime Minister found the time to stick his boot in, possibly with a touch of schadenfreude as the scandal distracted from his 29th consecutive losing newspoll.

Many are calling for significant bans to be handed down to captain Steve Smith, who approved the plan, vice-captain David Warner, who pushed for the idea, and rookie Cameron Bancroft, who overheard his leaders discussing ball tampering as an option and offered to actually do the deed.

But what actually happened? After the lunchtime discussion Bancroft carried out a piece of tape with some dirt on it. He then used this to rub one side of the ball, to try to create reverse swing. The tape, unfortunately for him, was bright yellow and so easily seen by cameras. Once coach Darren Lehmann saw the footage he sent out a message to hide the tape.

Did Australia actually gain an advantage? No. Did they try to cheat? Yes. But it isn’t as if cheating was in their game plan. If the best roughening device they could find was bright yellow tape with dirt on it, the team clearly were not preparing to ball tamper before the game. They also have probably not done it before, or you would expect them to be better at it.

The ICC punishes ball tampering with a five run penalty. If a player is caught, they face a maximum punishment of a one game suspension. This isn’t match fixing or taking steroids – the rough equivalent in the rugby codes is a late tackle, which is punished with a penalty and (in particularly egregious cases) a possible suspension.

The Australians are also hardly the first international team to get caught. South Africa captain Faf Du Plessis has been convicted of ball tampering twice, and even cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar was suspended for the practice.

So if the actual crime was such a minor one, why the uproar? Largely because the Australian cricket team have built their reputation on playing “hard but fair”. Cricket Australia has regularly told us that our players push to the line, but do not go over it. They have now.

We now know that our national team are no better than anyone else, which does hurt. But does anyone seriously believe Steve Smith deserves a lifetime suspension for the crime of being like everyone else? Michael Hooper is the most yellow carded player in international rugby, and he’s the captain of the Wallabies!

Smith, Warner, Bancroft and anyone else found to be involved will face heavy sanctions from Cricket Australia. After they have served their time, however, they will be back. And they should be – after this furore, I doubt any of them will be involved in ball tampering again!