JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Australian cricket supremo James Sutherland had harsh words on Tuesday for the test trio being sent home after the ball-tampering scandal in Cape Town, saying they faced “significant” sanctions, but there was one term he refused to use - ‘cheat’.
Pressed at a packed news conference, Sutherland would only say the disgraced players - captain Steve Smith, vice-captain David Warner and opener Cameron Bancroft - had broken the rules.
Contrary to Australian media reports, coach Darren Lehmann was not involved in the plot, hatched during the lunch break on Saturday, to scuff up the ball with a small piece of improvised sand paper and had no prior knowledge of it, Sutherland said.
Lehmann, a no-nonsense former player under whom Australia’s test side has gained a reputation for pushing the limits of sporting acceptability, would continue in his position under his current contract, Cricket Australia’s CEO added.
“It’s not a good day for Australian cricket,” said Sutherland, who flew into South Africa on Tuesday morning to sort out the imbroglio sparked by Saturday’s incident. “It was not in the laws of the game and not in the spirit of the game.”
Smith and Warner have been stripped of their leadership positions and all three will now leave the tour in the wake of the ball-tampering scandal, which has shaken the sport and cut to the quick Australia’s “play hard but fair” psyche.
The 25-year-old Bancroft was caught on camera shoving the sticky yellow tape, which he used to pick up rough granules off the pitch, into the front of his trousers when he believed he had been spotted by the umpires during the third test.
Echoing comments from the London-based Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), guardians of the ‘spirit of cricket’ gentleman’s code that is supposed to guide the ethos of game, Sutherland said Australia and others must take a long look in the mirror.
“Winning is important but not at the expense of the laws or the spirit of the game,” Sutherland said.
While the four-match series, which South Africa lead 2-1 heading into the final test starting on Friday in South Africa’s commercial capital, has produced sensational cricket, it has been marred by on- and off-field altercations between players.
In the first test in Durban, Warner become involved in an off-field fracas with South Africa wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock, and in the following game fast bowler Kagiso Rabada was cited for nudging Smith with his shoulder after capturing his wicket.
Initially banned for two games, Rabada was cleared on appeal in time for the crunch Cape Town test, with the series level.
Tim Paine, appointed as the new Australia captain in place of Smith, faces a huge task in picking up his shattered side, not least after the 322-run drubbing they received in Cape Town at the hands of Rabada and veteran paceman Morne Morkel.
The squad has been bolstered by batsmen Matthew Renshaw, Glenn Maxwell and Joe Burns, but they will barely have time to acclimatize before Friday’s fourth test in Johannesburg.
Australia’s pre-meditated attempt to tamper with the ball, and thus make it swing more in the air, has drawn condemnation from around the world, with ball-tampering a serious breach of the International Cricket Council’s code of conduct.
However, the damage done to sports-mad Australia’s esteem is arguably far greater, with everybody from Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull down piling in to express their outrage.
Australian media are speculating that the three players could receive lengthy bans, of particular concern to Warner, who at the age of 31 is in the latter stages of his career.
Additional reporting by Mark Gleeson and Nick Said in Cape Town; Editing by Ken Ferris