ball-tampering

Bowler Cameron Bancroft and captain Stevie Smith at their news conference in Cape Town.

It took but a moment. During the lunch break, several senior players hatched a plan. The fall guy was their new fast bowler, Cameron Bancroft. They persuaded him to smuggle a piece of sticky tape onto the pitch and apply it to one side of the ball so that it would pick up dirt and make it swing more in the air. The problem was that the sticky tape was bright yellow and his actions were witnessed on screens all round the world via a host of television cameras. According to the rules of cricket, a player is not allowed to tamper with the ball to gain an unfair advantage. This includes abrading one side with a fingernail or dirt in the pocket or rubbing it on the ground, through strangely spitting on the ball to dampen one side and buffing up the the other side of the ball on the trousers is allowed. It all seems a bit arbitrary. But in cricket as in life, players must play by the rules.

Cricket Australia reacted swiftly. With one test match left to play in South Africa, they recalled Smith, the captain, Warner, the vice captain, and the bowler, Cameron Bancroft.  It was only after they returned that they realised the enormity of their crime. Smith broke down in tears in front of the world’s media; he had let himself, his father and everybody else down. Australia lost the last match by 322 runs.

Bill Shankly, the manager of Liverpool FC during their glory days, once said, ‘Football is not life and death; it’s more important than that’. He was right. The identity of thousands of fans are invested in their team and its players, but for Australia, cricket carries the identity of the whole nation. Cricket is the national game. More respect is afforded to the players than to the Prime Minister and members of his government. We all know that politicians can cheat and lie; it is part of the job, but cricket is an honourable pursuit. Even the poms can criticise the Australian government, but heaven help them if they slag off the Australian cricket team. Australians are very proud of their team; not just because they are such dedicated and skilful players, but because the Australian team, unlike other nations, are thought to play the game fairly according to the rules.

So, by cheating, the players have not only shamed themselves, they have shamed a whole nation. Australia is no longer that pure, uncorrupted, sunlit island in the southern hemisphere; they are cheats, like everybody else. No wonder there has been such a storm of anger in the Australian media.

Sport is a metaphor for society. And society has to be run according to rules. If those are flouted, then the society collapses into meaningless anarchy. Although cricket is ‘only a game’, it means so much to so many people that the players have to play fair. If they don’t, what is the point of playing? Not only Australian Cricket, but the whole game worldwide becomes meaningless. Millions of fans who believe in the integrity of cricket no longer have any anchorage of identity. Yes, indeed, cricket is more important than life or death, it is about meaning and identity.

The psychoanalyst, Melanie Klein, wrote that at about the age of 2 or 3, children reach what she called ‘the depressive position’, when they first realise they are not the centre of their own universe; there are others to consider and they can’t do just what they want. This might also be called ‘the stage of disillusion’. She added that we may continue to encounter the depressive position many times throughout life, especially when we are encouraged by our achievements and the admiration of others to feel that sense of hubris or false pride. But pride always comes before a fall.

Australia’s cricketers are folk heroes with almost god like status. Worshipped by a whole nation, they may come to believe they can do no wrong, as long as they keep on winning. No doubt Smith and Warner felt that with a crucial test series against South Africa in the balance, winning was so important that the risk of cheating was worth taking. Maybe their hubris was such that they thought they were beyond reproach. How wrong they were. The higher our heroes climb, the harder they fall. Smith and Warner have gone from hero to zero in less than a day and only Bancroft may be excused because he was younger and in thrall of his seniors.

Is this just a sign of the time? Are we living in a time of such scepticism, when a reality television host and self confessed sexual opportunist can become President of the United States, while here in the UK, we read every day about the incompetence of our leaders, the corruptness of the police and judiciary, the mistakes of the health service, the irrelevance of the royal family, and only a minority of people believe in God.

There is more outrage over the latest incident of ball tampering than there was in 1994 when that icon of the game, the English captain, Michael Atherton, was observed to be rubbing dirt from his pocket on one side of the ball. He was fined £2000 but was allowed to continue as captain. I am not sure Smith will be as fortunate. Perhaps we need our heroes too much these days. If they cheat, then it means that we no longer trust the integrity of the players and will have to rely increasingly on technology. Freed from the obligations of honour, players will be forced to find ever more inventive ways to break the rules. And that my friends, will not be cricket.

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