Captain Smith and vice-captain Warner have undermined the team's brand, destroyed their own credibility, and potentially jeopardised a young career
Steve Smith and David Warner must not be allowed to captain Australia again to preserve the Baggy Green identity
Until Saturday evening it would have been fair to assume that things could not get worse in the Test series between South Africa and Australia, already beset with player spats, poor fan behaviour, a suspension and the revoking of the said suspension.
But it threw up a scandal when captain Steve Smith said he and some of his teammates orchestrated an attempt to cheat by tampering the ball on Day 3 of the ongoing Test at Newlands.
Cameron Bancroft was the one caught on television cameras appearing to rub a yellow object on the ball while fielding in the post-lunch session. But Smith conceded that "the leadership group knew about it".
Fortunately, Cricket Australia (CA) has quickly stepped in to take control of the situation.
First, it sent two officials to investigate the matter, and second, it stood down Smith and his deputy David Warner for the remainder of the Newlands Test.
The naming of Tim Paine as temporary captain was odd considering his lack of experience at Test level, but maybe all the other seniors – including the yet unnamed members of the “leadership group” that Smith mentioned – are under investigation. Regardless, CA has taken the initiative to fix the problem and that is good news.
The next thing the investigators are expected to do is to establish key facts: were Smith and Warner indeed complicit in the plot, or were they just aware of the incident? Who else was involved in the conniving? Who were the other members of this leadership group? Are coach Darren Lehmann and any of his assistants culpable?
Once the fact-finding is complete and recommendations are made, it is hard to imagine punitive action will not be taken by CA and the International Cricket Council against some players, and possibly even the management.
But whatever those measures may be, one thing needs to be done: neither Smith – who has already been fined 100 per cent of his match fee and handed a one-Test ban – nor Warner should ever be trusted with captaincy duties ever again.
The reasons for this are straightforward.
Apart from bringing the game into disrepute, they have brought shame to a cricket-mad nation that prides itself in producing players who are as fair and just as they are tough and competitive. It is what has given the ‘Baggy Green’ brand its distinct identity.
Also, Smith said the decision to tamper the ball was borne "out of desperation", given how close they are to a second straight defeat in the series. But five decades after Ian Chappell – arguably the game's first scrapper – introduced a rugged winning mentality to the Australian side at a time when cricket was still considered a gentleman's game, Smith took that concept a bit too far.
He must pay for it, just like Shane Warne and Mark Waugh did for offering information regarding pitch and weather conditions to a bookmaker before a Test match in exchange for money in 1994. Not only were they punished, neither went on to become a full-time Australia captain.
What is cynical about the Newlands incident is that Smith and company allowed Bancroft, the youngest and least established member of the side, to do the tampering. Yes, Bancroft probably offered to take one for the team. But by letting him do it in the first place, Smith will have destroyed any credibility he had with his teammates, and those who look up to him.
Indeed, Smith has done irreparable damage to his own image.
The 28 year old had won the respect of the cricketing world when a seemingly average leg-spinning all-rounder with a spiky hairdo evolved into the preeminent Test batsman of his generation (few barring mentor and former captain Michael Clarke expected him to do so). He also proved to have the mental make-up of a leader.
Smith and Warner had also led the fight for fair pay among players at Australia's first-class level. Hence, despite Warner's own tendency to pick a fight, there were reasons to get behind them.
But nearly two years after India captain Virat Kohli’s accusation that the Australians had a tendency to cheat (remember the Bangalore Test in 2016?), there is no escaping the fact that their legacies will have been tarnished.
Former England captain Michael Vaughan summed it up best when he tweeted out saying, "Steve Smith,his Team & ALL the management will have to accept that whatever happens in their careers they will all be known for trying to CHEAT the game ... #SAvAUS".
Not entirely harsh, and altogether fair.
And so, this calls for two long-term fixes on CA's part.
First, there is a need to change the team culture, which while encouraging competitiveness, has espoused a win-at-all-costs mentality that – in this case – has driven responsible individuals to cheat in a Test where the stakes were not as high as they would have been at the World Cup or the Ashes series against arch-rivals England.
Also, there is an urgent need to stamp out player aggression, which has led to spats with opposition teams getting personal and offensive. Cricket does not need this.
Smith’s dismissal should serve as a step towards redeeming the Baggy Green brand for what it stands for, but it should not be the only one.