While it may seem indecently early to be talking about silver linings, Australian cricket’s darkest hour has presented the game’s custodians with a rare opportunity for rejuvenation. They cannot afford to bungle it.
Australian cricket is, at least, no longer in a state of denial. Our players are a bunch of cheats. That’s not an observation hidden in a corner of the internet, but a confession. It’s what Steve Smith and Cameron Bancroft told us about themselves.
The question is, how did it come to this and what is Australian cricket going to do about it?
How did Australia’s senior professionals think it was okay to hatch such a ham-fisted plan, let alone expect the most junior member of the side to carry it out?
And, worse, the cover-up. The juvenile, schoolboy cover-up. The walkie-talkie, the fake message, the shifty-eyed concealment, the undignified shoving of the offending object into the underpants.
The truth is, this was the product of a feeble minded culture. These people are meant to have post-adolescent frontal lobes.
As obvious as it sounds, did they not think of the consequences? The television cameras?
The poor fools, in their South African bubble, thought they had breached rule 41.3 of the Laws of Cricket. They were soon to learn that this was the least of their troubles.
Half a world away, in another time zone, they had unleashed a backlash of monumental proportions.
The signs of hubris had been there for all to see. This is an Australian team that has not only made an art form of sledging, but, even more tediously, an art form out of talking about sledging.
Management remained silent on all the trash talk about destroying careers, head-butting lines, hunting as a pack, war, mental disintegration, and on and on ad nauseam.
The coach, Darren Lehmann, called on Australian crowds to taunt an English player to the point where “I hope he cries and goes home”. Truly.
Does anyone now really believe that Bancroft’s oh-so-hilarious post-Gabba press conference was anything other than a stitch-up job on Jonny Bairstow? Who is the smart guy now?
This breakdown in respect for the game and opponents reached the point at which Steve Smith, an inoffensive, boyish enthusiast with a genius for batting, somehow presided over the greatest scandal in Australian cricket, gormlessly unaware of the significance of it all.
The Australians thought this was just about ball tampering. Yes, ball tampering is very much a “thing” in international cricket. Others have been censured for it, including current opponents. No big deal.
But this was different. The premeditated, caucused nature of the cheating in Cape Town took it into a different realm.
The Australian cricketing public is remarkably forgiving, but this has deeply embarrassed those who invest time, money and emotional energy into the national side.
As the reaction has shown, there are still plenty of them. But this is not an easy one to explain to the kids at Milo Cricket: “So, they had a meeting, and they decided to cheat.”
The verdict of the rest of the cricketing world is, of course, already in. It is revelling in Australia’s misfortune. As the editor Wisden said overnight, the Australians are the least popular team in world cricket.
Even before the ball tampering, outsiders were shaking their heads at Australia’s self-righteous posturing about crowd behaviour in South Africa, not least from the coach, whose own record in this area is far from flawless.
Yes, denigrating players’ families is reprehensible, but the world was not listening. They just saw thin-skinned bullies. Now they are just laughing. The high moral ground has collapsed, leaving Australia in a swamp of its own making.
The BBC’s Jonathan Agnew, a former Test cricketer and a fair-minded judge if ever there was one, observed that “many in the cricket world will feel a sense of satisfaction today about what they’ll see as chickens coming home to roost”.
Australian cricket needs to make a statement by making fewer statements and taking firm action. It cannot allow the International Cricket Council [ICC] to lead it by the collar.
Darren Lehmann should be replaced as coach, regardless of what he knew or didn’t know about this episode.
He is at the helm, has overseen this culture and has had his go.
Hairy chested acolytes on the enormous coaching and support staff should also be shown the door.
Their replacements should be told never to utter public platitudes about the spirit of cricket, but to try to instil a basic respect for the game and opponents in their charges.
Bans need not be permanent. All should have their chance for redemption after an appropriate penalty is served.
Australia should be prepared to field a lesser side and lose badly in Johannesburg. Only then can it start afresh.
Patrick Smithers is a former sports editor of The New Daily and a former chief cricket writer and sports editor of The Age.