“Say it ain’t so, Steve.” That’s an adaptation of one of sport’s most famous quotes, supposedly uttered by a young fan on the steps of a Chicago courthouse after his baseball hero Joe Jackson admitted to helping throw the 1919 world series against Cincinnati.
Like a lot of good lines, it’s actually apocryphal, but it’s become nonetheless a byword for the shattering of dreams about heroes and sportsmanship.
This isn’t just a dark day for Australian cricket or sport. It’s a dark day for Australian values. And, for Australian cricket right now, it’s appropriate.
Because in a way we’ve all been betrayed over in Cape Town.
No, Australian captain Steve Smith and his band of not-so-merry men haven’t laid down and let their opponents win.
But they have, at the very least, trampled all over our self-image.
We like to see ourselves as hard but fair on the sporting field. But if the hard tag wasn’t already questionable, given some of our posturing and bullying in South Africa of late, the fair part, in light of the ball-tampering scandal, has now also proved to be rubbish.
It’s quite simple. We’re cheats.
Not that our guys seem to get it.
Even Cricket Australia chief executive James Sutherland, speaking on Sunday, seemed not to grasp the complete gravity of the situation.
It didn’t take emergency dashes to Cape Town or “working through processes” to establish what the culprits had already admitted. It needed an unequivocal condemnation of what transpired. And that wasn’t offered.
Certainly not in South Africa where under pressure, Smith, on his way to becoming our best Test batsman since Sir Donald Bradman and perhaps a great captain, has cracked and taken the low road, engineering and authorising a stupid ploy to deliberately tamper with the ball in a desperate bid to generate more reverse swing.
But it’s not just Smith. Incredibly, the entire Test team’s leadership group were immoral enough to back the plan, and stupid enough to think a score of cameras trained on their every move weren’t going to pick it up.
Worse, they didn’t even carry it out themselves.
That unsavoury duty was left to Cameron Bancroft, the greenest and arguably most expendable member of the Test team. Which doesn’t excuse him, either, but reflects even more poorly on his senior peers.
Even the obvious comparisons with another dark hour in Australian cricket, the infamous Trevor Chappell underarm incident in 1981, don’t do this justice.
Because however unsportsmanlike skipper Greg Chappell’s actions were that day, they were at least legal at the time, and devised and ordered only by himself.
This is worse. It involves several so-called leaders of Australian cricket. It will forever brand us as cheats. And the stain is going to hang around even longer than the near 40 years we’ve been talking about the underarm delivery.
The reaction already has been savage, and almost universally condemnatory. And quite rightly.
“What about Shane Warne and Mark Waugh?” a few have asked, both fined for dealing with Indian bookmakers in the late 1990s. Yep, that was bad.
But back then there were no rules in place regarding bookmakers. Nor did the pair have much idea of the scale of what they were getting into.
What about other country’s players and their suspensions or sanctions for ball-tampering?
That’s their business. This is ours. And as a sporting nation that is supposed to value ethics as much as success, we have a duty to effectively say: “Not on our watch.”
Because as a deliberate, premeditated and calculated act of illegality on the sporting front, this one takes some topping, both for stupidity and immorality.
It was a plan hatched not just on the spur of the moment, by one captain under pressure, like Chappell’s ordering of his young brother to bowl underarm. This was a decision arrived at by committee, during a break in play, when cooler heads should have and could have prevailed.
Even that day at the MCG in 1981, Chappell’s vice-captain Rod Marsh had the presence of mind to yell out to his skipper (in vain) not to proceed.
Did not one of the leaders of the Australian team think this was an incredibly stupid and wrong idea?
Coach Darren Lehmann can’t escape the flames, whether or not he knew what was going on. If he did, he’s in the same boat as the players. If he didn’t, what does it say about his relationship with his captain and authority over the team he commands?
And Smith and Bancroft’s air of mortification at the post-play press conference doesn’t wash, either.
“The leadership knew about it, we spoke about it at lunch,” Smith said.
“I’m not proud of what’s happened, it’s not within the spirit of the game.
“My integrity, the team’s integrity, the leadership group’s integrity has come into question, and rightfully so.”
But Smith, who still wants to be captain, and the rest of the conspirators, knew all of that when they sat down and discussed it at the lunch break, and yet did it anyway.
Does anyone think for a second there was a sudden realisation, or that his conscience would have got the better of him and led to a confession had they not been “busted” by an army of TV cameras?
There’s no getting away from it. It was cheating. It wasn’t just a moment of madness.
And the consequences must be appropriate.
Baseball’s disgraced Chicago White Sox would become known after the bribery scandal as the “Black Sox”.
What do we call our Test team now, the “Saggy Green”? Not harsh enough, really. But the one certainty is we’ll have long enough to come up with a better alternative.
Because not just as a Test team, but as a sporting nation, we’re never going to live this one down.