Back in 1994, Englishman Michael ‘Shawshank’ Atherton filled his pockets with dirt and strolled casually onto the hallowed turf at Lord’s Cricket Ground. His purpose was not to execute an intricately planned escape from a maximum security prison, but rather to rub said earth all over one side of a piece of varnished leather.
This seemingly innocuous deed is in fact anything but.
For an intensely dull and easily outraged portion of cricket’s fanbase, media and players, this act is a sin so heinous as to sit alongside the seven ‘big ones’ laid out by good old Pope Gregory in 590AD. Had cricket existed back then, it’s certain that the pontifex maximus would have included an eighth deadly no-no on his list, just after Gluttony and Sloth: pila sollicitare, aka ball-tampering.
It was therefore unsurprising that when Atherton pulled his dirty – heh – trick, it sparked widespread hand-wringing throughout the cricket world. And, 24 years later, when Australia’s Cameron Bancroft, Steve Smith and David Warner conspired to achieve precisely the same result as Athers, albeit employing sandpaper rather than dirt, the reaction was equally hysterical.
But really, at the end of the day, this is just a few lads rubbing soil on a ball.
The very foundations of the sport haven’t been shaken. No-one has been physically hurt. There’s no reason for prime ministers to be getting involved, especially one who is supposed to be dealing with a disastrous foreign policy decision largely necessitated by the type of person who gets venomously angry about ball-tampering:
Theresa May "shocked" and "bitterly disappointed" by Australia cricket cheating scandal. Spokesman adds: "The Prime Minister is clear that cheating has absolutely no place in cricket or indeed in any sport."
— Andrew Gregory (@andrewgregory) March 26, 2018
Ball-tampering is not permitted as part of the laws of cricket. It’s against the rules. Therefore, it shouldn’t be done.
But if you listened to those who’ve ‘spoken out’ against Bancroft and Smith, you’d think they’d done something worthy of the electric chair. Yet the game’s governing body doesn’t appear to be anywhere near as intolerant of the offence as the rest of the world. As Atherton himself points out:
“It has gone on since the year dot … the level of moral indignation is always slightly out of kilter with the offence. If the condition of the ball is changed, you get a five-run penalty and change the ball. That hardly sends the message that this is a heinous crime… The (International Cricket Council) code of conduct has four levels and this is level two.”
— Reuters UK (@ReutersUK) March 26, 2018
Bancroft and Smith broke the rules. Frankly, they cheated. Nearly every ball in every cricket match that has ever been played has been tampered with in some way: the seam picked with a nail at the end of the run-up; the sun-cream on the trousers; the saliva deliberately in order to maximise the effects of the ball-work.
This is very much cricket’s equivalent of diving. Everyone does it, and most get away with it. But the ones who get caught are well and truly thrown under the morality bus. Now, it looks as if Warner and Smith may get one-year bans, while Darren Lehmann and his staff could lose their jobs.
Honestly, is this really something that should be costing people their livelihoods?
Sure, there’s something a little bit seedy about the concerted decision of the Australian ‘leadership group’ to do this deliberately. And, sure, they put themselves in this position through their own actions. But anyone who thinks that similar ‘groups’ haven’t resolved to break the rules in the past is misguided.
No-one’s saying this is right, or that it should be tolerated, merely that there are far worse things that could, and have, happened on a cricket field. Yeah, this is bad. But it’s not the end of the bloody world.
Get over it.