Stop the Smith witch hunt

March 27, 2018

Steve Smith may be in the wrong, but calls for him to receive a lifetime ban from cricket are an over-reaction. Picture: AAP

England's Marcus Trescothick admitted that he intentionally used an artificial substance to tamper with the ball during the 2005 Ashes series. Picture: AAP

Cast your mind back to the best series of Test cricket you have ever witnessed.

Now look around you and take notice of the closest 10 people in your vicinity.

Nine of those people answered with the 2005 Ashes in England.

The 10th person is — put simply — dead wrong.

You may wonder why I am bringing up the greatest cricket series in living memory at a time where the game in this country is embroiled in turmoil.

It is because that gripping contest — like countless others in world cricket — was defined by calculated, premeditated and comprehensive ‘‘cheating’’ in an attempt to gain an ‘‘unfair’’ advantage over the opposition.

It may have only been made public after the fact, but England — and more specifically former opener Marcus Trescothick — intentionally used artificial substances in the form of breath mints to aid the task of procuring reverse swing from the ball.

Take in for a moment some of the excerpts from Trescothick’s autobiography Coming Back To Me.

‘‘I was firmly established as the man in charge of looking after the ball when we were fielding. It was my job to keep the shine on the new ball for as long as possible with a bit of spit and a lot of polish,’’ it said.

‘‘Through trial and error I finally settled on the best type of spit for the task at hand.

‘‘It had been common knowledge in county cricket for some time that certain sweets produced saliva which, when applied to the ball for cleaning purposes, enabled it to keep its shine for longer and therefore its swing.’’

Simon Jones and Andrew Flintoff produced devastating spells with the illegally-obtained reverse swing, turning the series in England’s favour.

Mike Atherton, Shahid Afridi, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and even South African’s Vernon Philander and Faf Du Plessis have all been caught up in ball-tampering scandals of their own.

So it should come as no surprise that Australia — a team that has pushed the boundaries and straddled the line for as long as I can remember in order to gain an advantage on the field — was eventually implicated in a ball-tampering saga of its own.

The arrogance of Australian sports lovers is to believe that ‘‘we’’ are too good to stoop to the levels of other national teams when it comes to altering the state of the ball.

But I can plot a clear path in Steve Smith’s psyche that led to his forever-infamous lunchtime conversation, and Cameron Bancroft’s subsequent friendship with a piece of makeshift sandpaper.

For as long as he has been captain, Smith has been in control.

His performances with the bat have papered over many cracks in Australia’s line-up, allowing the squad to enjoy a period of relative success after the horrors of Hobart in November 2016 — where the Aussies were rolled for just 85.

In this series though, Smith has struggled to impact the result of each Test with the willow.

Yes, in Australia’s first-up victory he produced respectable — if not Smith-like — contributions of 56 and 38.

But in the next three innings all Smith could muster was 41 runs at a tick under 14.

When he left the field after the first session on day three of the third Test his side was floundering without him, and staring down the barrel of a huge second-innings chase to keep the a series victory alive.

Unable to call upon any prowess with the ball himself, Smith was left to watch his bowlers toil for little reward.

That quiet voice in his head likely started to whisper.

‘‘The South African’s had the ball hooping around. Why can’t we move it? Maybe I can help the process.’’

The rest will go down in history as what some are calling the darkest day in Australian cricket.

But please, spare me the witch hunt.

Smith is in the wrong. As is Bancroft.

They will rightfully cop a whack from Cricket Australia after the ICC hit them with little more than a wet lettuce leaf.

But to call for lifetime bans for them and the rest of the ‘‘leadership group’’ is simply ludicrous.

Smith’s captaincy credentials may have taken an irreparable hit, and he may never lead his country again.

That does not mean he is not an integral part of Australia’s playing set-up for the next six to eight years.

He is, after all, the best batsman since Bradman — and there is nothing more Australian than winning at all costs.

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