Bancroft’s actions — which have parallels in baseball, where pitchers have been known to use saliva or a nail file to manipulate the ball — were caught by cameras during the third day of a five-day match in South Africa.
Cricket Australia, the sport’s governing body in the country, removed Smith as captain for the remainder of the match, an unprecedented decision. He was also stripped of his match fee by the International Cricket Council, the global organization that oversees the sport, and was banned for one Test match.
As senior officials from Cricket Australia flew to South Africa to investigate, it was unclear whether Smith would ever captain the country again.
“This is a shocking disappointment. It’s wrong,” said Malcolm Turnbull, Australia’s prime minister, who noted that cricket stars were held in higher regard than politicians. “Our cricketers are role models and cricket is synonymous with fair play,” Mr. Turnbull said. “How can our team be engaged in cheating like this? It beggars belief.”
Adam Gilchrist, a former Australia international, said his country’s cricket team had become the “laughingstock” of the sporting world.
An acknowledgment of cheating would be notable in any sport. But it is particularly shocking in cricket, which has always professed a certain moral sanctimony.
The preamble to the official laws of the game states, “Cricket is a game that owes much of its unique appeal to the fact that it should be played not only within its Laws but also within the Spirit of the Game.”
The notion of “the spirit of cricket” is regularly invoked at all levels of the game and the International Cricket Council has an award named after that notion to celebrate acts of sportsmanship.
It is a comforting image for the sport, but it is also a myth. The game has seen gambling and match-fixing scandals from its earliest years, in the 18th century. Corruption, among both players and officials, continues to haunt the game; there are also concerns about bad behavior on the field from players and the threat of doping.
The logic of ball tampering — what Bancroft is accused of doing — is to try to alter the surface of the ball so it is more likely to act unpredictably when bowled, making it harder for the batsmen to hit.
Allegations of illegally tampering with the ball are nothing new. They date to at least 1921, when the England captain J.W.H.T. Douglas threatened to report his Australian opponent Arthur Mailey for using resin to grip the ball more firmly; Mailey is said to have countered by saying that Douglas had picked at the ball with his thumbnail.
In the last 25 years, international cricketers have been punished for tampering with the ball in many ways — including keeping dirt in their pockets, rubbing a cough lozenge on the surface, scuffing the ball on the zips of their trousers and even biting the ball, which the Pakistan captain Shahid Afridi was found guilty of in 2010.
Even mints and sweets can be used for nefarious ends. When England won the Ashes, a competition between England and Australia, in 2005, the English player Marcus Trescothick later admitted that he had applied saliva to one side of the ball after sucking mints. That tactic is thought to affect the flight of the ball by making one side slightly shinier.
And when Australia last hosted South Africa in a series in 2016, the South Africa captain Faf du Plessis was caught sucking mints and then using his saliva to polish the ball on one side, again to try to alter the flight and bounce. He was later fined his match fee.
The incidents highlight how hard it is to eliminate ball-tampering, which is notoriously difficult to prove — adding saliva is legal, but doing so while sucking mints is not.
Some have suggested that the laws should be revised, perhaps by legalizing some aspects of treating the ball, like using saliva after sucking candy or mints, that are especially hard to police.
Yet the actions of Bancroft — and, especially, Smith in instructing him — are seen as falling well beyond the normal ambiguity of the law. The Australians’ actions amounted to nothing less than flagrant cheating.
Even worse, perhaps, is the sense of what it revealed about the team, adding to simmering concerns about how far the Australian side are prepared to go in pursuit of an edge. During the recent Ashes victory against England, Australia came under criticism for what is known as sledging — the cricket equivalent of trash-talking — and short pitches, which involve bowling the ball hard into the ground to make it bounce in the direction of the opponent’s head.
James Sutherland, Cricket Australia’s chief executive, said, “All Australians, like us, want answers.”
David Richardson, the chief executive of the International Cricket Council, said that senior Australian players had acted “clearly contrary to the spirit of the game” and that the cheating risked “causing significant damage to the integrity of the match, the players and the sport itself.”
For those involved, the financial consequences, as well the moral outrage, may be felt for years to come. On Monday, Smith announced that he was resigning as captain of the Rajasthan Royals, a team in the Indian Premier League that recently signed him to a contract that would pay him nearly $2 million a year.
The pain is unlikely to be limited just to the players involved. Cricket Australia may also be caught in the maelstrom. Since footage of Bancroft’s ball tampering emerged, several sponsors have already spoken out. Sanitarium, a food company and a leading sponsor, termed the events “a shameful moment for Australian sport.”
The timing is particularly unfortunate as Cricket Australia is currently in negotiations over the broadcast rights to Australian cricket for the next five years.
Perhaps the most poignant reaction was that of Jim Maxwell, considered the voice of Australian cricket. On air during the third Test match, Maxwell fought back tears. “I’ve started to become more and more offended by the arrogance of some of the players in the way they behave,” he said, terming the ball tampering “so blatant, so stupid, naïve and immature.”
In Cape Town, Australia’s humiliation extended to the result. The side lost by 322 runs to go 2-1 down in the four-match series. As they head to Johannesburg for the final match, Australia are playing for much more than just a tie in the series.
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