"It has been bizarre, crazy, ridiculous... We joke about it but it's literally like a soap opera. There's something happening every day."
When Faf du Plessis was asked about his views on the latest ball-tampering controversy, he, like the rest of us, felt the ongoing South Africa versus Australia series had a hint of surrealism about it, as if it's all part of a movie. There is the pantomime villain in David Warner who provokes his opponents but gets offended when his family is brought into the mix. There is the young and eager Kagiso Rabada who is wrongly implicated in an evil plot to enrage him, gets banned by the authorities, and is later saved by a kind and astute lawyer. The plot thickens when the team that has been acting like saints so far gets exposed and the whole world gets to see their wicked plan of ball-tampering.
The main acts have taken a back seat now as James Sutherland, the CEO of Cricket Australia, has flown in to clean up the mess left behind by Steve Smith, Warner and Cameron Bancroft. Fans of Quentin Tarantino may be able to relate this to the sequence in Pulp Fiction where Winston Wolfe makes an appearance after an SOS is sent to him by Marsellus Wallace to help Vincent Vega, Jules Winnfield, and Jimmie Dimmick get rid of a corpse. The suave and canny Wolfe announces his arrival with a pithy, "I'm Winston Wolfe. I solve problems."
Sutherland has plenty of problems to solve at the moment. Back home, the media, sponsors and cricket-watching public in general are outraged at the current sequence of events and are demanding severe action to restore Australian cricket's tarnished reputation.
Australian cricketers also have a strong players' association that may have already had a quiet word with Sutherland on the whole issue. A few months back, Cricket Australia was brought down to its knees by a players' strike over the contract issue. Any overreaction from the board in meting out punishment to the players may result in a similar backlash from them.
The players themselves may lawyer up against their employer if Cricket Australia ends up taking action without ample evidence or announces punishment that is disproportionately high for the crime committed. One must remember, while cricket is a matter of national pride for many Australians, it's also a source of livelihood for the players involved.
Sutherland's press conference in Johannesburg was supposed to answer all questions about the ball-tampering incident that has shaken up not just Australian cricket but the entire cricket world. Even though Sutherland didn't give away too much in his press interaction it was clear how Cricket Australia is going to proceed on this.
Sutherland made it clear early on in his press brief that the matter is far more severe than just the technical case of ball-tampering. "This issue goes beyond the technical nature of the offences and various codes of conduct. It is about the integrity and reputation of Australian Cricket and Australian sport. Ultimately, it is about whether Australians can feel proud of their national sporting teams." He was playing to the galleries here and soothing hurt Australian souls.
The rest of Sutherland's brief and interaction with the press was a classic corporate cover-up. When the stockholders aren't happy, you must roll some heads to assuage them and regain their confidence, but as you are doing that, you must control the damage that is caused by losing critical resources.
"The key finding is that prior knowledge of the ball-tampering incident was limited to three people - captain Steven Smith, vice-captain David Warner and Cameron Bancroft. No other players or support staff had prior knowledge, and this includes Darren Lehmann, who despite inaccurate media reports, has not resigned from his position. He will continue to coach the Australian men's team under his current contract."
The scapegoats were identified. Smith and Bancroft had publicly accepted their guilt, so there was no way they could be saved. Warner is obviously a part of the 'leadership group' identified by Smith, so he had to go as well. In Warner's case, it appears the whole team had turned up against the man who has historically been a loose cannon and has probably embarrassed his teammates as much as the Australian cricket fans.
It's hard to imagine Australia's fast bowlers weren't aware of the fact that there was an attempt to alter the condition of the ball to assist them. It's even harder to imagine that Lehmann, who essentially runs the entire show in this Australian team wasn't aware of it, especially after the whole world saw how he relayed directions via walkie-talkie to cover the tracks and destroy evidence. But the board is in damage control mode now, and they are not going to accept anything beyond what they cannot avoid.
As we wait for the exact nature of the sanctions against the three players named by Sutherland, the broader question of degrading culture in the Australian team still lingers. Sutherland announced that there would be a review into the conduct and culture of Australian men's cricket team. If he was serious about this review, he could have also sent Lehmann back home until it is complete.
As head coach and mentor of a young team, Lehmann sets the tone on the way players behave. In 2013, the newly-appointed head coach had called England pacer Stuart Broad a cheat and appealed to the Australian crowd to give him a hard time when he visited their country. A fish rots from the head down. When the coach doesn't show respect for the opposition, the rest of the team is expected to follow suit.
It's essential that Cricket Australia doesn't brush the more critical issue of player's behaviour under the carpet by merely announcing sanctions against three players. If a change of personnel isn't bringing about a shift in culture, then this whole exercise is going to prove an eyewash. A bit like how Australia promised to show a more soft and gentle side to it after the tragic demise of Phil Hughes only to return to an even more hostile and vicious team culture.
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