Michael Atherton    Getty Images
Michael Atherton Getty Images

Michael Atherton said the “premeditated” nature of Australia‘s ball-tampering during the ongoing third Test against South Africa made it different from the “dirt in pocket affair” that blighted his career. Australia captain Steven Smith dramatically admitted his side were guilty of ball-tampering after the third day’s play in Cape Town on Saturday. He added the “senior leadership group” had spoken about breaking one of the Laws of Cricket during the lunch interval before team-mate Cameron Bancroft did so, and then tried to hide his offence from the on-field umpires, in the next session of play.

Back in 1994, then England captain Atherton was seen taking dirt from his pocket and rubbing it on the ball during a Test against South Africa at Lord’s. He was later fined 2,000 for failing to disclose the dirt to the match referee but remained as England captain despite calls for his resignation. But Atherton said the deliberate nature of Australia’s actions, allied to the fact it involved a junior team member in the 25-year-old Bancroft, appearing in just his eighth Test, made it a different case to his own.

“I think what makes this more of a problem for Steve Smith is that this is a rather premeditated effort and then getting the young kid, Cameron Bancroft, to do it,” Sky Sports television cricket commentator Atherton said in an interview.”Plenty of of people have been done for it in the past but this one has a slightly different smell.” The South Africa-Australia series, currently all square at 1-1, had already been plagued by controversy, with players involved in ugly verbal spats and Proteas fast bowler Kagiso Rabada given a two-match ban after the second Test for barging into Smith only to be cleared on appeal.

Even before the ball-tampering row, Australia coach Darren Lehmann complained about “disgraceful” abuse of his players by spectators at Cape Town’s Newlands ground. “The context of the series as well, it’s been a difficult series in terms of the behaviour from both sides and just has given the impression that things are a little out of control,” said Atherton.”I think that’s where Cricket Australia will be asking questions of Steve Smith, you are the captain, are you in control of the ship? He added: “They were caught bang to rights and they’ve admitted it.

“But Faf du Plessis, Smith’s opposite number has been done twice (for ball-tampering) ‘Mintgate’ in Australia (in 2016) and shining the ball on the zip (against Pakistan in 2013).” Atherton, however, questioned whether ball-tampering deserved its reputation as a major cricketing sin.

“It has gone on since the year dot…The level of moral indignation is always slightly out of kilter with the offence. If the condition of the ball is changed, you get a five-run penalty and change the ball. That hardly sends the message that this is a heinous crime The (International Cricket Council) code of conduct has four levels and this is level two. If the game thinks ball-tampering is a very serious offence, give it a level four.”

Smith said he had no intention of resigning as captain, something Atherton, who blamed a “brain fade” when asked how ball-tampering happened, had contemplated.”I remember straight away taking Graham Gooch (Atherton’s predecessor as England captain) into the loo in the back of the dressing room and saying ‘should I step down?’ and he said ‘No, do not do that’. So I was quite surprised to hear Smith straight away say (he would not resign), because I certainly had doubts and I’m sure he’ll be having doubts as well.”