SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia’s embarrassment over the ball-tampering scandal showed little sign of easing on Wednesday even as former captain Steve Smith, vice captain David Warner and batsman Cameron Bancroft headed home in disgrace from South Africa.
The trio, stripped of their positions, will discover the full extent of their punishment in the next “24 hours” with Cricket Australia chief James Sutherland promising “significant sanctions” at a news conference in Johannesburg.
Sutherland and his governing body, under pressure from sponsors and in the midst of negotiations over a new broadcast deal, know they have plenty of work to do over the coming months to restore the image of the sport in Australia.
The chief executive’s decision in his news conference to studiously avoid using the word “cheating” to describe the conspiracy to scuff up one side of the ball with gritty tape would appear to have been an early false step on his part.
Social media slammed him for his equivocation and Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, one of series of politicians up to and including the Prime Minister to have commented on the matter, showed no such reticence.
“Of course it was cheating,” she told reporters in Canberra. “Any act to gain an unfair advantage acting illegally in sport is cheating.”
Cricket is Australia’s one genuinely national sport and the disgust at the incident has played out in the media, social and traditional, for the last four days.
The two biggest previous assaults on the integrity of the game in the country were England’s ‘bodyline’ tour of the 1930s, when Australia were the victims, and the “underarm bowling” scandal of 1981.
That incident, where Australia captain Greg Chappell instructed brother Trevor to bowl the final delivery of a one-day international underarm to prevent New Zealand from hitting a six to tie, has hurt the pride of the nation ever since.
“The underarm incident has been well and truly dead and buried by this one,” Tim King said on the streets of Sydney on Wednesday.
“People who are paid that sort of money, by us, watching television, buying tickets, buying merchandise... it’s a disgrace what they’ve done. Certainly I hope that Warner and Steve Smith never get to play the game again.”
Husband and wife Darryl and Sally Llewellyn, both cricket fans, agreed.
“I think it’s a big embarrassment,” said Sally. “I mean, there’s no need for the Australians to cheat because they’re a bloody good team. So, yeah, it’s very disgraceful.”
Darryl concurred with many on social media, including former England batsman Kevin Pietersen, in casting doubt over whether coach Darren Lehmann had been unaware of the plot, as the Cricket Australia investigation concluded.
With reports in the British media that he was about to resign having proved baseless, Lehmann is free to serve out his contract until after the Ashes tour of England next year.
He is certain to have to do so with a new captain and at least part of it with a new top order after both his openers, Warner and Bancroft, and his best batsman, Smith, were sent home.
Joe Burns, Matthew Renshaw and Glenn Maxwell are on their way to South Africa to plug the gaps for the fourth test against the Proteas, which starts in Johannesburg on Friday with the tourists needing a win to tie the series 2-2.
Tim Paine, who made his debut alongside Smith against Pakistan in 2010 but had a significantly less successful career since, will lead the side after being announced as Australia’s 46th test captain by Sutherland on Tuesday.
It marks a remarkable turnaround for a player who was considered a surprise selection when he was included as wicketkeeper for last year’s Ashes series.
“Three and a half months ago he was thinking he might never play (domestic) Sheffield Shield cricket again, now he’s the captain of Australia,” former test bowler Stuart Clark told Fox Sports TV. “He’d some big shoes to fill given those that have gone before him. I know Tim, Tim’s a good guy, Tim knows cricket. He’s led Tasmania a little while.
“It’s a big ask given what’s gone on before but there’s no reason why he won’t be successful at it. It’s important to start the process of restoring the faith in the Australian cricket team.”
Additional reporting by Jill Gralow; Editing by John O'Brien