Club Cricket Conference

Tuesday, 24th November 2020

Test cricket reinforced by Cape Town sticky tape

By Charles Randall

29 March 2018 

Recent events in Cape Town helped to settle a concern beyond ball tampering and Australian integrity. Does Test cricket matter in an age of T20 riches? Yes, it does.

If Test cricket had not meant something to the national psyche, the Australia Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull would not have spoken publicly about the captain Steve Smith and other senior players letting the whole country down.  He mentioned the "shocking disappointment" felt by those who held the 'baggy green' cap of Test cricket on a pedestal.  Putting the 'tight-fitting baseball-style yellow' cap on a pedestal  would not sound quite the same.

Perhaps the attritional nature of Test cricket increases the temptation to cheat whereas the one-day format moves along too quickly. There may be truth in that; one does not often hear of sledging or ball tampering in the World Cup, for example.

The young fielder Cameron Bancroft was spotted on television attempting to tamper with the match ball with some sandpaper strips - he claimed it was only sticky tape - hidden in his trousers in the third Test against South Africa in Cape Town. It emerged later that the former South Africa fast bowler Fanie de Villiers suspected the Australians were "using something" when the ball started reverse-swinging earlier than normal at Newlands.

De Villiers said on RSN Radio that the camera operators were told to keep a close eye on the Australians in the field. "They searched for an hour and a half until they saw something," he said, "and then they started following Bancroft and they actually caught him."

Smith claimed that he and the "leadership group" of players were aware of Bancroft's actions, adding that  the coach Darren Lehmann was not involved. By coincidence the Australian 12th man had jogged out to the field, apparently with a message from the pavilion a few minutes before Bancroft was seen removing something from his pocket and  surreptitiously hiding it down the front of his trousers. The 12th man appearance was coincidence, it must be emphasised, unless proven otherwise.

Naturally enough the world media had a field day, led by a queue of appalled Australian journalists, former players, administrators and the Prime Minister himself. It was not so much the tampering - the umpires could not see significant changes to the ball on that particular day. What upset the Australians most was the premeditated conspiracy to cheat. Some senior players, notably vice-captain David Warner, had already been noted as foul-mouthed and arrogant, so that the "sticky tape" sandpaper cheating put the tin lid on everything. The retrospective  possibility of ball-tampering must now stain Australia's Ashes success against England earlier this winter, when their seamers made the ball reverse-swing more effectively  than James Anderson and Stuart Broad had achieved.

The former England off-spinner Graeme Swann summed it up well when he said on BBC Radio 5 live:  "This Australian team are so friendless in cricket because of the way they have carried on. They have set themselves as this higher-than-high, pious team who set the benchmark for what is right and what is wrong in cricket, when everyone who has played against them knows it's an absolute joke."

And,  gosh, even the MCC waded in,  not usually noted for spicy public opinion. "The behaviour of some of the players in the current South Africa/Australia series, and other incidents in recent times in the game we all cherish, has fallen well below the standard required to inspire future generations of cricket-loving families," said John Stephenson, cricket assistant secretary and former Essex stalwart, in a public MCC statement.

He added: "The time has come for a major shift in attitude and culture of all those with responsibility for leadership within the game, to give young players the kind of role models who will uphold standards, preserve cricket and, vitally, the spirit of cricket for future generations."

As with Swann's comment, this summed up a major problem with Australia. Stephenson mentioned those with leadership responsibility, so that the MCC could easily have been pointing at Cricket Australia. And with good reason. The expression 'spirit of cricket' should have had a special resonance with James Sutherland, the chief executive of Cricket Australia.

Sutherland  was in charge  in 2003 during a  foul-mouthed era that alienated Australia's own public and Cricket Australia's stake holders. That was the year when he had  the answers. By 2018 he had forgotten them all.

In May 2003 Glenn McGrath clashed with the West Indies batsman Ramnaresh Sarwan in the middle during a Test in Antigua. when the Australian lost his temper in a disgusting incident entirely of his own making. The snarling, strutting Australians won no friends  in the World Cup in South Africa that year and earned little credit beyond winning the competition. Sutherland dismissed the McGrath incident as isolated and added: "I think the players are aware of their responsibility not only to the team but also as role models."

Later in the same year Sutherland's assertion was shown to be well wide of the mark. During a close-season function in Sydney some Cricket Australia officials took aside the captain Steve Waugh and some senior players including  the 2018 coach Lehmann and Ricky Ponting, the man most likely to succeed him in the event of his resignation.  A history book called Inside Story: Unlocking Australian Cricket's Archives , a beautiful tome written by David Frith and Gideon Haigh, recounted that the players were confronted  in a side room with footage of recent incidents, along with worried comments from sponsors plus letters and emails from outraged cricket followers.

"Most effectively,"  the book says, "they saw an interview with Emma Hopley, the Cricket Australia receptionist for the past year, who told of how she had been reduced to tears by fulminating members of the public." 

Sutherland said then that dealing with attitudes had been the main problem.  "What became obvious in conversations with the players was that they were in denial, and they were in denial because they were insulated from the consequences of the fall-out from that sort of behaviour," he said.

After that meeting  Waugh decided to draft a  "spirit of cricket" manifesto that set guidelines for the players' on and off-field behaviour. "I wanted us to be remembered for the right reasons," he said prophetically. That would be what  Steve Smith would like to say as  a batsman with a Test average of 61.37.  So under Sutherland's watch as chief executive, Waugh's vision of a sporting future simply ebbed away.

In 2003 Sunil Gavaskar, the former India batsman, delivered the Cowdrey Lecture at Lord's and said at the time that he was deeply concerned about the knock-on effect of abusive behaviour. Australia was not mentioned by name, but his meaning was clear when he said: "Out of a possible 150 Test cricketers from 10 Test-playing countries there are perhaps not even 15 who indulge in this verbal abuse and intimidation, but unfortunately most of these belong to a champion side, and it makes others believe that it's the only way to play winning cricket."

Malcolm Gray,  president of the International Cricket Council in 2003, reckoned that Australia were the "most hated" side in the world. And he was speaking as an Australian. He could stand up and express the same view now, and the world would probably agree.

The flashpoint in the West Indies is worth recalling.  McGrath tried to bait the non-striker Sarwan with a lewd comment about whether he liked sucking his captain's cock, and  the young Guyanese riposted with wit, saying McGrath's wife should know. Unknown to the batsman, McGrath's wife Jane had been suffering from cancer, and McGrath exploded with rage, clearly forgetting he was the one who started the exchange.

McGrath loomed over Sarwan, threatening to “rip his throat out”. Pictures were flashed around the world, appearing in countless newspapers and magazines. The reputation of Australia's players sank to a new low, reinforcing the impression that they could dish out abuse but not take it.

The Spirit of Cricket programme, for playing hard but fair, was launched by the Australians in October 2003 and it soon had an impact, according to Frith and Haigh. "Instances of truculence and petulance became more noteworthy for being rarer," the book commented. The MCC had already enshrined the spirit of cricket in the Laws, as amended in 2000, so that the Australians were finally taking the hint three years later.

Ponting probably would be remembered as a thoughtful, sporting captain, but his retirement meant greater influence for Lehmann, Smith and his vice-captain Warner.  Australian leadership attitude regressed to the 1970s, when personal abuse probably first crossed the red line under Ian Chappell, a captain in his foul-mouthing pomp.

Almost buried in the furore over the sticky tape scandal was the news that a Zimbabwean cricket administrator had been suspended from cricket for 20 years after accepting a charge of breaching the ICC Anti-Corruption Code during the World Cup qualifying tournament in Harare.

Rajan Nayer, the treasurer and marketing director of the Harare Metropolitan Cricket Association,  was charged with three offences for approaching the Zimbabwe captain Graeme Cremer, breaching three ICC codes. These were   Article 2.1.1 - being party to an effort to fix or contrive or otherwise influence improperly the result, progress, conduct or other aspects of an International match or matches.  Article 2.1.3 - offering Mr. Cremer 30,000 US dollars to fix or contrive or otherwise influence improperly the result, progress, conduct or other aspects of an International match or matches.   Article 2.1.4 - directly soliciting, inducing, enticing or encouraging Mr Cremer to breach Article 2.1.1.

Cremer reported Mr Nayer to the authorities. He said: "I was appalled to be approached by someone so closely connected to the game and there was no doubt in my mind that I had to report it as soon as I could. We receive education around this which you never expect to have to use, but it certainly helped when it came to knowing what to do."

At least the sticky tape Australians, having betrayed trust, would say they would never stoop as low as fixing. But those who remember the Hansie Cronje corruption scandal can never be sure...