Australia cricket scandal: A body blow to an incredulous nation

By Phil Mercer
BBC, Sydney

Media caption,
Australian players Cameron Bancroft and Steve Smith admit ball-tampering plan

What were they thinking? It's a simple question that has consumed many Australians since the nation's cricket team was engulfed in a cheating scandal in South Africa.

This weekend, captain Steve Smith said his team's "leadership group" had hatched a plan to deliberately tamper with the ball during a Test in Cape Town.

The revelation has embarrassed a nation where elite athletes are often adored and even feted as "legends".

The reaction here to those extraordinary events in South Africa has been furious. There is anger, disbelief and disappointment, even among some Australians with little interest in sport.

"Clearly this scandal will tarnish Australia's sense of fair play, and moreover it will linger for many years," said Prof David Shilbury, from Melbourne's Deakin University.

"The notion that the captain, the vice captain and perhaps others could conspire to cheat in such a deliberate manner is reprehensible and contrary to the Australian way of life. We play hard but fair, generally!"

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Australia has an enviable stable of globally renowned scientists, authors, entrepreneurs and artists. However, in the eyes of many, a special place is reserved for its sporting royalty.

An appreciation of athletic endeavour and, crucially, excellence often enters discussions of national identity. Revered are those at the top of Australian rules football, the rugby codes, football, netball and horse racing, not to mention the Olympics, Paralympics and Commonwealth Games.

But dominating this competitive landscape, at least in national terms, is cricket.

"It is ingrained in our society over summer, along with the beach. The tones of cricket commentary on radio and TV fill the airwaves during the summer period in a soothing manner. That soothing background noise has now become foreground drama," said Prof Shilbury.

"The team represents Australia, and given our interest in sport and winning, it is important to the nation for the team to do well. Generally, the Australian Test captain is regarded as the second highest leadership post in the land behind the prime minister."

Media caption,
Australian cheating beyond belief - PM Turnbull

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has chided Smith and those teammates who allegedly colluded with him, saying the scandal "beggars belief".

But so lofty and privileged is the position of Australian Test captain that they can become detached from reality, according to Steve Georgakis, a senior lecturer of sports studies at the University of Sydney.

"I assume that people like Steve Smith and some of the other former captains develop a god-like complex that they can get away with anything," he told the BBC.

"We are usually the nation that fights against corruption in sport, but here we have the captain of the Australian cricket team involved in cheating. We see ourselves as this great sporting nation and this has really tarnished that image.

"It is a big shock when our heroes do something wrong."

Image source, Getty Images/AFP
Image caption,
Smith and vice-captain David Warner stood down for the final day of the Third Test

Australia lost the third Test at Newlands by 322 runs, but the result hardly matters as Cricket Australia (CA), the governing body, begins an internal investigation into the crisis.

It will be a pivotal investigation. What senior CA officials uncover in South Africa and whatever the response is that follows will help to shape the way this sports-obsessed country heals. There is an expectation here that cheating must be purged if cricket is to be forgiven.

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But great damage has been done.

"It is going to take a long time for Australia to repair its reputation internationally," said Prof Catharine Lumby from Macquarie University.

"Australians have a great investment in the fair go and the idea that we do the right thing and we don't engage in underhand behaviour. It is a bit of a mythology, really, but it goes to the core of the way many people understand our national identity."

Media caption,
I don't remember ever being as disappointed - veteran Australian commentator Jim Maxwell

Clearly, there will be Australians who care little about cricket and a controversy about a scuffed ball across the Indian Ocean. But Matthew Beard, a philosopher and fellow at the Ethics Centre in Sydney, believes this is a scandal that goes to the heart of virtue and temperament.

"All the way back to the ancient Greeks, the entire purpose of sport was to test character and practice overcoming challenges and struggles in a fictional, contrived environment," he told the BBC. "[That was] so that when we were faced with challenges in the real world we would be able to overcome them there as well.

"There is a sense of seeing our heroes fall and seeing that they weren't the people of character we thought they could be."

Australia has a golden sporting legacy that includes the annual Boxing Day Test, the 2000 Sydney and 1956 Melbourne Olympics, the Formula 1 Grand Prix and feverish Australian Football League (AFL) and National Rugby League (NRL) Grand Finals.

Will it restore some sporting faith, or perhaps be a welcome distraction? For many, the ball-tampering affair has heaped shame on a proud nation.

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