Very few would argue Steve Smith isn’t one of, if not the best Test batsman in the world. After the events of the Cape Town Test, very few would argue he is a great captain and leader. Being skilled with the willow in hand and piling on runs all around the world is one thing, captaining your team with integrity and strong leadership is another.
Smith’s decision not only to allow, but to encourage Cameron Bancroft to ball tamper on Saturday afternoon at Newlands was not the decision of a strong leader.
Firstly, the decision to actively seek to cheat the game of cricket is abhorrent and should see Smith’s sacked as captain of his country. Secondly, to throw the team’s most inexperienced player, an eight Test rookie eager to please his captain, under the bus and allow him to commit the crime for the world to see shows Smith’s inability to take responsibility for poor decisions.
In his post-play press conference alongside Bancroft the Australian captain said he was embarrassed, he appeared remorseful and said it was the first time this had happened and the last time it would do so. Was he sorry he instructed the team’s junior player to try and blatantly cheat to get Australia back into the game? Or was he sorry he got caught? His demeanour suggested the latter.
The actions of Smith and his press conference words were eerily reminiscent of the ‘DRS-gate’ saga during the Bangalore Test last year. On that occasion Smith put it down as a “brain fade” and fronted up to the press conference full of remorse and apologies. At the time his excuse was widely accepted, in hindsight it may have been just another attempt to gain an advantage and win at all costs.
Under Smith’s captaincy and the reign of Darren Lehmann as coach the Australians’ on-field behaviour has deteriorated, and they weren’t angels to begin with. They have consistently head-butted the ‘line’ of what is acceptable. The same imaginary line they seem to own, and adjudicate on, has definitely been stepped over.
A stronger leader than Smith would demand higher standards from his players. A more statesman-like captain would reign in the likes of David Warner rather than unleash him like some sort of abusive, sledging fuelled attack dog. Instead Smith has allowed his team to stumble from one on-field incident to another, often making excuses or suggesting they had made an error in judgement and would simply ‘move past it.’
Perhaps it is time Cricket Australia look to move past Smith, and find someone in their ranks more capable of leading the team into battle. One who won’t let the heat of the contest and desperation to win alter his morality in the game.
There is no doubting Smith’s greatness as a batsman, and he certainly leads from the front in that regard. But a captain is so much more than runs on the board and notches in the win column. A captain must lead strongly, a captain is responsible for ensuring his team plays the game the right way, and a captain must have integrity and be respected by all and sundry.
This incident will certainly see Smith lose a lot of respect, particularly from opponents and perhaps most damningly from the Australian cricket public. Australian fans are a vocal bunch, and are often willing to let things slide as long as players continue to win games for the country. Australian fans stand strong and united behind their captain and back their team to the very end.
However, they are also proud of their country’s history on the field and their image off it. Speak to any Australian who plays the game at any level and he or she will beam with pride when they tell you they play the game hard, but fair.
Well Smith has now overstepped the ever important line, and what he did was not fair to the game of cricket. Greg Chappell was admonished for ordering his brother Trevor to bowl underarm, even if it was technically within the rules. Smith has not only behaved outside the spirit of the game, but he has broken the laws of cricket and tried to cheat the game.
A true leader would not stoop to such lows, to actively plan to cheat. A strong captain would not get so desperate. A captain who leads with integrity would not ask the young rookie to do something he wouldn’t do himself.
It’s hard to imagine such an incident happening under the likes of Ian Chappell or Allan Border – tough, hard, but respected leaders of Australian cricket. By allowing this win at all costs culture to develop Australia have dug a hole almost too deep to climb out of, and with Smith at the helm the hole only appears to be getting deeper.
The Australians may never have been the most loved team around the world, but they were always respected, even admired for their hardness.
It’s hard to see their tattered reputation recovering anytime soon, particularly under a captain who has helped shape this current pattern of behaviour.