Two years ago, Steven Smith left South Africa with a police escort. The former Australian captain had just embarked on the most difficult period of his life following the ball tampering fiasco which began with Cameron Bancroft stuffing a piece of sandpaper down his trousers and ended with a nation reeling.
If that sounds hyperbolic consider that Primer Minister Malcolm Turnbull was among those who added to the discourse, labelling the events in the shade of Table Mountain, “a shocking disappointment”. Two books, by renowned voices Geoff Lemon and Gideon Haigh, were penned. Darren Lehmann resigned as the coach. A sports organisation that came to embody a particular brand of Australian masculinity was forced to reconsider some of its key tenets that had defined it for more than a generation.
In the middle was Smith. A cricketing savant whose insatiable appetite for runs had catapulted him to an echelon only reached by a handful of batters in history. Alongside him was his pugnacious deputy David Warner. A straight-talking, thick forearmed bruiser whose genuine tenderness was masked by the unsavoury character he had been asked to play by his superiors.
Two of Australians greatest players were disgraced. The badge they wore on their chest had sunk to depths not seen since Allan Border revived it a lifetime ago. Both shed tears back in their home country. Smith in particular was a bubbling mess, apologising for what he had done and pleading with cricket fans around the world to reserve a small space in their hearts for forgiveness once he had served his suspension from the game.
Now Smith intends to “smile and laugh”, as he told journalists in Johannesburg ahead of his team’s first of three T20Is against South Africa starting on Friday.
Naturally, all questions led back to those epochal events of 2018 and Smith’s Lazarus-like resurrection that has seen him pick up just where he left off. Since his ban, Smith has played nine Tests, 13 ODIs and six T20s averaging 73.42, 50.66 and 146 respectively. He has four hundreds (three in Tests, one in ODIs) and has reaffirmed his status as an all-time great in waiting.
In England he copped abuse from a crowd that booed him more out of a warped sense of duty than with believable vitriol. It didn’t matter. Jofra Archer’s bombs couldn’t derail him and neither could the beer-bellied punters watching slack jawed as Smith’s bat arced through the air at impossible angles to send the ball careening to the fence.
Back at the scene of his crimes, Smith has accepted his place in history and the caveat that will forever accompany his name. Like a former convict on the straight and narrow, Smith is at peace with the mistakes of his past.
“It’s nice to be back playing in South Africa,” he said. “The last time I was here things didn’t end overly well, but I’ve also got really fond memories of playing here. Just walking into the hotel in Sandton [where the Australians are stationed in the north of Johannesburg], initially I was like, “The last time I was here it wasn’t pretty”. It wasn’t the best time in my life. But I’ve moved on from that. I’ve learned a lot over the last two years.”
Smith revealed that he has already had pleasant exchanges with South African fans in restaurants. “People have been lovely,” he said. “Guys have come up and taken some photos and been really nice. It’s been normal. Compared to when I’ve been here previously.”
South Africans are a forgiving lot. Few countries could have emerged from the wreckage of apartheid without a bloody civil war. A growing number of citizens feel that former president Nelson Mandela sold out the black African majority to the former oppressive white minority and have sought to rewrite his legacy. Whichever way one chooses to view the project labelled the ‘New South Africa’, there is no denying that the country Mandela created could not have come into being without a healthy dose of forgiveness.
Smith and Warner will receive their share of abuse. The sporting rivalry between South Africa and Australia has enough pressure points without the addition of the ball tampering affair. Before that fateful day in Cape Town, Warner had already been a target of knuckle-dragging thugs who thought it appropriate to mock his wife as a means of getting to him. By wearing masks depicting New Zealand rugby star Sonny Bill Williams, who had a relationship with Candice Warner before she married David, a handful of South African supporters demonstrated that there are few chasms considered too low for misogynists.
Some, like Lemon and Haigh, have argued that that incident, as well as a scuffle in the tunnel involving Warner, Quinton de Kock and a shirtless Faf du Plessis, fostered a climate that made the sandpaper episode possible. Throw in Australian hubris and a toxic culture that championed bravado over gentlemanly conduct and a perfect storm was created. Only the gentle hands of Tim Paine and Aaron Finch, the captains of the Australian Test and white ball teams respectively, have restored some respectability.
That Smith and Warner returned to the team at all is deserving of praise. That they returned with trademark effectiveness with bat in hand means a movie will one day be made about their exploits. They will forever be branded as cheats by detractors and it is hard to argue against that assertion. Repented criminals still carry the baggage of their past with them and these two Australian batting maestros are no different.
Will they be ridiculed? Absolutely. The pantomime of elite sport demands it. Is that just? Maybe not, but justice on the sports field is a subjective term and there will be South African fans jealous that Australian cheats were welcomed back when their hero Hansie Cronje is still a byword for corruption and match fixing. Though the two cases have many differences, there are enough similarities for Smith and Warner to stick in the craw of jingoists baying from the sidelines over the next month.
“David loves the banter coming from the crowd,” Finch said. “It gets him into the game, regardless of what I think, the crowd are going o act however they please. I don’t think it’s going to make much difference to us. We are going to play cricket with a smile on our face, and represent Australia very proudly.”
The redemptive narratives of Smith and Warner drip with metaphor and meaning. Two characters that couldn’t be more different forever intwined in this epic story. They return to a familiar backdrop for the next scene. How much they have developed in the intervening years will soon become clear.
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