Australia’s cricket reputation is in tatters and its Test team in crisis after captain Steve Smith admitted his players cheated on the third day of the third Test against South Africa in Cape Town.
Australian opener Cameron Bancroft was caught using adhesive tape dusted with dirt to illegally tamper with the ball while fielding.
He has been charged by match referee Andy Pycroft and faces a one-Test suspension.
In an emotional post-play press conference, Smith insisted he would not be resigning from the captaincy despite admitting he and other unnamed members of the team initiated the ball-tampering plan during the lunch break on Saturday.
“The leadership group knew about it. We spoke about it at lunch,” Smith said in a jaw-dropping admissions of guilt
“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.
“I’m not naming names but the leadership group talked about it and ‘Bangers’ (Bancroft) was around at the time. We spoke about it and thought it was a possible way to get an advantage.”
In what amounts to the understatement of the century Smith added, “Obviously it didn’t work.”
The captain also tried to minimise the impact of the deceit, saying “the umpires didn’t see it change how the ball was behaving, or how it looked or anything like that.
“(It was) a poor choice and we’re deeply regretful for our actions.”
The scandal erupted in stages and began when Bancroft was caught by TV cameras pulling the tape from his pocket and using it to work on the ball.
Later, in a moment of absolute farce, he was seen trying to hide the item down the front of his pants when asked by the Test umpires what he had in his pocket.
Acting as if butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth, Bancroft produced what appeared to be a black cloth subsequently identified as the case for his sunglasses.
But he confessed later that it was the piece of yellow tape that vanished beneath his waistband — all of it followed in minute detail by the cameras.
“Once being sighted on the screen I panicked quite a lot and that resulted in me shoving it down my trousers,” he said by way of explanation.
“We have this yellow tape in our kit and it is connected to some padding but the sticky stuff is very sticky and I felt like it could be used to collect some stuff from the side of the pitch.”
The extraordinary events, which are prompting questions over Smith’s continued captaincy, overshadowed a day that saw South Africa strengthen its hold on the series.
At stumps, having seen off another Australian fightback, the Proteas had reached 5-238 and stretched their lead to 294 runs with two days to play, .
Earlier, before the sensational events that will surely resonate for days, there were plenty of evictions for rowdy behaviour, with Australia’s security officer at one stage stationing himself on the fence when David Warner fielded in the deep.
There were also a couple of intense moments out in the middle, with Pat Cummins giving de Villiers a serve after the incredible innovator got off the mark by belting a six over the head of point.
But it is the small yellow piece of tape Bancroft stuffed down his pants that will hog all the headlines – that and what the incident says about the ethics and nous of Australian cricket’s standard-bearers.
It is one thing to consider cheating, but an order of magnitude worse to implement the plan without considering the ever-present TV cameras which capture every on-field moment.
— Carl Heymann (@carl_h) March 24, 2018
Former South Africa captain Graeme Smith said the footage did not look good.
“In my opinion I think he’s tampered with the ball and used an object to do that,” Smith said on the international broadcast.
“It does look like it’s a bit of sandpaper. The footage doesn’t look good. I’m quite amazed the umpires haven’t done anything with the ball. The footage is quite damning.
“If it is proved that what has gone on in the footage is correct then some tough questions have to be asked of Steve Smith and Darren Lehmann.
“I think there is a lot of questions that need to be answered and Australia need to answer them.
“For me it’s quite obvious that he’s doing something with the ball and the umpires need to do something about it.”
Can we talk about this? pic.twitter.com/cmpRrOArgD
— Dale Steyn (@DaleSteyn62) March 24, 2018
Australia toiled diligently at Newlands and would have fancied their chances of keeping the target to something somewhat reasonable when the scoreboard read 5-201.
But de Villiers and Quinton de Kock warded off the prospect of another collapse, finishing unbeaten on 51 and 29 respectively when bad light ended play.
A pair of dropped catches helped Aiden Markram score 84, hammering home South Africa’s advantage after they seized a first-innings lead of 56 runs.
Usman Khawaja grassed a one-handed diving catch at gully during the first over, at which point both Markram and the Proteas had yet to score.
It was a sharp chance but Mitchell Starc’s look of anguish said plenty about its importance.
Smith then put down an even more difficult one-hander, which came when Markram was on 59.
Starc entered the third Test under an injury cloud because of a sore calf, with the tourists likely to sweat on his fitness ahead of the game in Johannesburg.
The left-armer, who has already delivered 36 overs in the match, looked to be in much discomfort at times on Saturday.
Cummins was Australia’s most potent weapon, removing Dean Elgar and Hashim Amla to back up his first-innings burst of 4-7.
Warner, acting as skipper when Smith was off the ground in Saturday’s final session, successfully reviewed an lbw shout from Nathan Lyon to help the offspinner grab his 299th Test wicket.