March 29, 2018. Steven Smith landed in Sydney from Johannesburg. Within minutes he was engulfed by an ocean of journalist. Smith was soon reduced to tears while making his confession and issuing a public apology. He has already been handed a year-long ban and stripped of Australian captaincy and pride. Now he had to brave the media bouncers, this time at home. Smith had made a mistake, an error of judgement as Australian captain that sent a proud nation to distraught. This, probably, is the darkest day of his life, personally.

Smith wasn’t the first to sanction ball-tampering. This had existed since inception of the game and no, he won’t be the last, despite CA’s drastic action. There was a threat looming over Australian’s abrasive approach to the game. Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft took the axe on behalf of their predecessors.

Cricket is a great leveller, isn’t it? On this day, three years back, Smith celebrated the greatest moment of his life when he scored the winning runs of the 2015 World Cup. He had slammed a splendid hundred against India in the semi-final in this very city, his city, Sydney, where he is a broken man.

Earlier, a tearful Australian coach Darren Lehmann, a man always proud of Australia’s cricket culture, mentioned taking a leaf out of New Zealand’s approach in the wake of the ball-tampering scandal in South Africa.

“The thing for me would be if we take a leaf out of someone like, say, New Zealand’s book, the way they play and respect the opposition. We’ve got to make sure we’re respecting the game and its traditions,” Lehmann told reporters in Johannesburg.

It is a major turnaround for the Australians and Lehmann in particular, whose previous priorities bordered around win-at-all-cost.

For years Australia’s cricketers have mocked New Zealand’s no-sledging policy. Ironically, that is precisely what they wish to adopt now.

It was quite the opposite three years back.

New Zealand had decided to scrap sledging in 2013 after their own confidence crisis, when they were skittled for 45 against South Africa at Newlands.

While that embarrassment was far less serious than the cheating attempted by Lehmann’s Australia at the same ground five years later, the capitulation prompted a backlash among long-suffering New Zealand cricket fans.

Newly-appointed captain Brendon McCullum had promised change and was as good as his word, acknowledging his players were seen as “overpaid, under-delivering prima donnas”.

With his tattoos and swagger, McCullum appeared to be the New Zealand player most likely to adopt a hard-nosed Australian approach of baiting and belittling opponents. Instead, he surprised many by setting out to revive the Black Caps’ sense of sportsmanship and nurture his players’ love of the game.

Ball-tampering verdict: Who said what on Steven Smith, David Warner's 12-month ban
Ball-tampering verdict: Who said what on Steven Smith, David Warner's 12-month ban

“One of the things that we decided we had to change was the public perception of us as people, not just on the cricket field but off it as well,” he later said. “The changes… endeared us to our public and let’s hope that continues for a long time.”

It was a move that left the Lehmann-coached Australians distinctly unimpressed, best illustrated by their behaviour during the 2015 World Cup final.

‘Brat’ Haddin

New Zealand had beaten Australia in the group stages but did not rub their opponents’ faces in it, leaving wicketkeeper Brad Haddin nonplussed: “They were that nice to us in New Zealand and we were that uncomfortable. I said: ‘I’m not playing cricket like this. If we get another crack at these guys in the final I’m letting everything [out]’.”

Haddin adopted the role of lead attack dog in the final. Australia gave New Zealand’s batsmen a barrage of ugly send-offs, including a sneering farewell for Daniel Vettori in his final international appearance.

“You know what? They deserved it,” he said.

It was not just Haddin who took exception to the New Zealanders’ approach. Smith and Warner also made it known they had no time for such niceties.

McCullum received a curt mind-your-own-business when he pointed out some of Smith’s behaviour appeared petulant while he revelled in his win-at-all-costs attitude.

“You’re not playing for the spirit of cricket award, are you?” Smith had said in response to criticism from McCullum. “You’re playing for a series and for us that’s what our goal is — to win the series. Our goal is to be number one in all formats and we’re always going to fight for that.”

Smith and Warner have now been banned for 12 months over the plan to illegally doctor the ball with sandpaper and gain an unfair advantage in South Africa. Whether Australia can change its toxic team culture in their absence — and whether Lehmann is the right person to oversee that change — remains to be seen.

(Inputs from AFP)