Steven Smith has already been dished out the punishment he deserves; why not move on? © Getty Images
Steven Smith has already been dished out the punishment he deserves; why not move on? © Getty Images

Steven Smith is a cheat, as are David Warner  and Cameron Bancroft and Darren Lehmann. At least that is what the general notion is. A part of the cricket fraternity also agrees on that ICC has been too lenient on Smith: a one-Test ban is apparently not enough. Bancroft has found his sympathisers while Warner has not; nobody on the planet seems to want Lehmann to be retained; CA earned the wrath of statisticians by naming two captains for a Test; and Tim Paine had an extremely confusing day at work.

That sounded dramatic — enough for a match to stand out on a day when England were fighting for a draw, the second-highest total in Women’s T20Is got chased down, Afghanistan won their first ever World Cup Qualifier, and Karachi witnessed a PSL final.

But the matter did not end there. Daniel Brettig pointed out on ESPNCricinfo that the maximum penalty for violating Rule 42 of Laws of Cricket (Unfair Play) is a life ban. In other words, Smith (and Warner) has committed a crime so heinous that they may not don the Baggy Green again.

Let us first realise the extent of what the guilty party has done. As a fielding side, they have used illegal means to tamper with the cricket ball, the most precious of all objects in a cricket match. That is cheating — there is no other word for it. Bancroft was spotted by cameras; Lehmann seemed to orchestrate the entire flow of events; and Smith owned up.

But how big a ‘crime’ was this? The Australians merely tried to hoodwink the match officials to use unfair means and got caught in the process. When it comes to crimes, does that feature anywhere close to the top?

Consider the following scenarios:
1. The batsman edges; the bowler appeals; the umpire says no; the fielding side has run out of reviews; and television cameras reveal that the batsman was out.
2. A fielder tampers with the ball; the umpire doesn’t notice; in fact, nobody, the batting side included — notices, till television cameras tell the story.

In both cases
(a) One cricketer has performed an act to benefit him and/or his team.
(b) The umpire has not noticed this.
(c) The television cameras have conveyed the news to the world.

Case 1 deprives the fielding side of a wicket. Case 2 tilts the match their way but does not necessarily lead to a wicket (though it increases the probability). It is difficult to say which is the “greater” cheating of the two.

However, in case 1, the media erupts, the fielding captain talks about poor umpiring in the post-match presentation ceremony, everyone talks about that mysterious “spirit of cricket” thing, memes are made, and life goes on.

In case 2, too, all that happens, and well… hell breaks loose. The only justification to this is one not-too-minor aspect: a law is broken. Whether it is fair to classify one as legal and the other as illegal is something beyond the scope of the article. However unfair it may sound, we have no option but to accept the law the way it is and move ahead.

ICC Code of Conduct 2.2.9 deals with ball-tampering. Sixteen months ago, Faf du Plessis was handed out 3 demerit points for violation of the same. This is what the ICC website has recorded about the incident: “Television footage appeared to show Mr du Plessis applying an artificial substance, namely the residue from a mint or saliva containing residue from the mint, to the ball and then shining it during the fourth day’s play.”

About a year after du Plessis, Dasun Shanaka was punished to the same extent. ICC’s explanation is a bit vague (Article 2.2.9 which relates to ‘changing the condition of the ball’), but we do know that television cameras had spotted him picking the seam of the ball.

Mind you, du Plessis was leading South Africa while Shanaka was not. Sri Lanka were led by Dinesh Chandimal (yes, I had to Google) when Shanaka erred. But Chandimal was not penalised.

Smith has been. ICC has banned him for a Test. That is what they do to someone who has committed a Level 2 offence. In other words, despite the outrage across the world, ICC has punished Smith to the extent they were supposed to.

Harbhajan Singh was not happy about the verdict. He had been at the receiving end of at least two ICC penalties, as he has pointed out:

 

Yes, Harbhajan has a right to feel offended. Unfortunately for Harbhajan, the ICC Code of Conduct has changed over time. The laws have changed.

In 2018, George Duckworth or Dominic Cork might have marked for excessive appealing; eyebrows might have been raised over Sunil Gavaskar’s 174-ball 36 not out at Lord’s in 1975; Colin Croft would have been penalised for barging into Fred Goodall; Don Bradman would have been accused of violating that mysterious spirit for not walking to a chest-high second-slip catch; and I won’t even get started on Bodyline.

The ICC guidelines are much harsher at this point. Veda Krishnamurthy, for example, got a demerit point in December 2016 after she was late in leaving the crease upon given out; three months there was another, when she made a T-gesture to indicate a television umpire after an appeal was turned down.

Compare this to Bill Storer. Back in 1897-98 at Sydney, Storer told umpire Charles Bannerman “you are a cheat, and you know it.” Storer was “severely reprimanded” by MCC four months later, but that was about it. Yes, Veda has a reason to feel aggrieved.

Back in 1921, when England captain Johnny Douglas approached Arthur Mailey: “Arthur, you’ve been using resin; I’ll report you to the umpire.” The response had been prompt: “You’ve been lifting the seam, Johnny.”

ICC was in its nascent stages in 1921, but in 1994 they certainly weren’t. That year Michael Atherton was fined £2,000 after he was found guilty of ball-tampering. Russell Jackson of Slattery Media recently produced several old newspaper cuttings providing evidences of how lightly the Australian media had treated Atherton’s ball-tampering incident, and rightly so. Yes, Atherton was cheating: but how is one form of cheating more critical to the sport than another?

 

By skipping directly to Atherton I have overlooked John Lever (who applied Vaseline) and Chris Pringle (who used a bottle top). ICC had taken no action on them.

In 2000 Waqar Younis was banned for a match for lifting the seam. In 2001, Sachin Tendulkar was banned for a match but the appeal was overturned. In 2002 Azhar Mahmood fined 30% for damaging a side of the ball with his fingernails. In 2004, Rahul Dravid was fined half his match fee for using cough lozenge. Shahid Afridi’s brutal chomping (has there been anything normal with Afridi?) got him banned for 2 T20Is. Vernon Philander was fined 75% of his match fee for using his thumbnail on the ball. We have discussed du Plessis above.

Perhaps the biggest allegation came from Darrell Hair at The Oval in 2006. Hair awarded England 5 penalty runs against Pakistan, which led to the latter conceding the Test.

None of these, however, have resulted in life bans — or anything remotely close to it. Rashid Latif was banned for 5 matches for claiming a ‘bump’ catch, but that is the most; cheating has rarely been dealt with more severely than that.

Do note how the extent of punishment has changed over years. If anyone has a right to feel aggrieved it is probably Smith: never has the threat of a life ban loomed so ominously over the career of a cricketer for an incident of on-field cheating.

But CA thinks otherwise. They have also decided to go down hard on Warner. Appointing Paine, and not him, captain midway through a series was indication enough. Whether a vice-captain (the definition of which remains vague to begin with) should be considered responsible for such acts is questionable, but let us focus on Smith at this moment.

Cricket Australia has been instrumental in eliminating ‘menaces’ from cricket. Almost six decades ago, they had come down hard on Ian Meckiff, Gordon Rorke, Keith Slater, and Jim Burke for throwing (Rorke was also accused of ‘dragging’). There was little doubt over two things at that point:
1. Australia were hell-bent on eradicating improper bowling actions.
2. If, in the process, they had to end careers of their own cricketers, they would not hesitate to do the same.

They are probably trying to do a repeat. However, there is a difference between the two incidents. When there is a problem with your action, the problem will be repeated every time you bowl. Unless the action is rectified, there should be a ban — not on the player per se but on the action.

Ball-tampering is not the same. Of course Smith should be (he already has been) punished by ICC. CA should add to that penalty, more so because Smith was leading Australia when the incident took place and had admitted to being a part of it (what if he hadn’t?).

But a life ban for cheating in a match? Would you impose a life ban on a batsman who didn’t walk? CA may point out that they had ended Greg Dyer’s career because of one falsely claimed catch. But then, Dyer did that in his fourth Test and played 2 more Tests after that: it was more of him being slowly sidelined, but without an official stamp.

CA’s approach of treating on-field illegality is commendable, but a significant (life!) ban on Smith will be taking it too much. Strip him of captaincy, by all means (both Atherton and du Plessis carried on). Set an example. Ensure no youngster resorts to cheating in any form while playing cricket (I am actually suppressing a guffaw here).

But a life ban certainly sounds daft. The reaction to the entire chain of events has already been way over the top — especially after ICC has penalised him in exactly the same way they should have.

For whatever reason there is a general outcry over Smith getting away despite cheating “deliberately” (one wonders what other ways of cheating exist). That has to stop. Smith has committed a crime and will pay a fine and serve a sentence, and it should end there.

In hindsight, Smith’s only fault seems to be his confession. Penalise him for being honest, if you feel like. The rest has already been meted out.

If banning Smith — over and above his ban — saves the spirit of cricket and the integrity of Cricket Australia, then let it be. After all, they are the organisation Smith works for. However, if the future of this mysterious spirit (seriously, what is it?) rests on a sheet of sandpaper, it does not seem to have a very bright future.