The International Cricket Council (ICC)’s Code of Conduct for Players and Player Support Personnel (Code of Conduct) governs the conduct of cricketers and lists offences and sanctions that may be imposed in the event of the Code of Conduct being breached. Offences are ranked from Level 1, being the least serious, to Level 4 offences which are the most severe – carrying a penalty of anywhere between an eight match and lifetime ban.
Incredibly, the guidelines promulgated simultaneously with the Code of Conduct, describe Level 1 offences as “conduct of a minor nature” including “cheating during an international match”. While certain instances of cheating may amount to a higher level of offence under this code, the mere fact that the ICC can deem any instance of “cheating during an international match” as a “minor” offence is quite simply astounding. While seemingly quite happy to impose a two match ban on a fired-up young fast bowler for gently brushing shoulders with then Australian captain Steve Smith, this conduct which brings into question the very integrity of the centuries-old gentlemen’s game apparently isn’t actually all that bad.
Perhaps that is what was going through the mind of Smith and his now infamous band of bandits in Australia’s “leadership group” at Newlands during lunch on the third day of the third Test match in a four-Test series between South Africa and Australia this past weekend. Deadlocked at one apiece, the Newlands Test promised to be the pivotal game in the much anticipated series between the two great old rivals, something that Smith would later confess to have been part of his thinking in his actions that followed.
In a refreshingly feisty Test series, controversy was already boiling, with Australian Coach Darren Lehmann branding the Newlands crowd as “disgraceful” for a few ill-advised chirps aimed at his players. Lehmann, who in his playing day became the first player to be banned by the ICC for racially abusing opposition players, calling members of the Sri Lankan teams something which I wouldn’t want to quote even by replacing some letters with #s and !s, was ridiculed for this by former players of many countries who felt that the chirps of the Newlands crowd were nothing in comparison to those thrown from the stands of the MCG or Australia’s average slip cordon.
The atmosphere was on edge, and so was the situation of the match. This led Smith, as he put it, to “look for an advantage”. The leadership group, consisting of Australia’s captain and senior players, enlisted to the services the team’s junior member, 25-year-old Cameron Bancroft, to bring on to the field of play what they describe as a “piece of tape” to collect gravel and rub against the ball in order to alter its condition to make it behave in a manner that made it more difficult for the batsmen to face.
Essentially, they decided to cheat. However, they wouldn’t do it themselves – they would put the head of the youngest and most vulnerable member of their team on the chopping block to carry out their fraudulent scheme.
Bancroft followed orders but what they had failed to account for, other than their morals, was the 20+ cameras filming the action. They were caught red-handed and the world could see. When Bancroft realised this, he hid the tape (strikingly similar to sandpaper in its appearance) in his underwear, like a recreational drug user would hide his “stash” to smuggle it past a bouncer into a nightclub. This too was caught on camera.
The evidence was damming and with no opportunity to conjure up an innocent explanation, the Australians confessed to deriving a scheme to knowingly cheat in an international Test match. It was simply shocking.
I took my seat well before play on day 4, anticipating a cricketing atmosphere akin to a heated English football derby. But despite considerable “boos” for the Australians upon entering the field and the odd witty chirp, I was surprised. The atmosphere was laid back and there was no evidence of this “disgraceful” Newlands crowd. The only disgraces were on the field where a shattered Steve Smith had stood down as Australian captain minutes before the first ball was bowled, along with Vice-captain David Warner who nobody was surprised to hear was also involved in the cheating scheme.
Even Australian supporters were shocked that the crowd was “letting the team off so lightly”. But the subdued atmosphere was understandable. South African cricket supporters (in fact supporters of several cricketing nations) had been in a war of words with the Australian cricketing hierarchy for some time. This morning, there was nothing more to play for – the battle was over. The Newlands faithful were content and calm in the knowledge that they had won it, and the Australians were silent in the sad resignation that they knew that they had lost.
And then came the verdict from the ICC.
Steve Smith was banned for a single Test match. Bancroft would receive no ban, but would be fined 75% of his match fee. David Warner got off scot-free. The message from the ICC was essentially this: cheating in a Test match isn’t allowed, but it isn’t a very serious offence.
To understand how this sanction was imposed, we must go back to ICC Code of Conduct. As stated above, it ranks offences from Level 1 to Level 4. In many parts, the wording is vague and leaves a great deal of discretion to the presiding officer who must make a value judgement based on common sense and precedent. For example, “conduct which is contrary to the spirit of the game” can amount to an offence in terms of any one of the four levels. The guiding criteria is the seriousness of the offence which ranges from “minor” to “overwhelmingly serious” across the four levels.
Therefore “cheating”, which is mentioned expressly as something which could constitute a Level 1 offence could also amount to a Level 4 offence if it “overwhelmingly serious”. Surely, a scheme derived from senior players to cheat in a Test match is extremely serious – so why then did Smith and co. not face a heftier sanction? The reason is that the seriousness criteria apply only to offences that are not expressly stated as falling under a particular level.
“Changing the condition of the ball” is expressly listed as a Level 2 offence. The ICC’s argument is that it was therefore hamstrung to impose a level two sanction which ranges from a fine of 50% of the match fee to a one-Test suspension. Therefore, Smith received the strongest sanction available for ball tampering.
But did he?
In fact, Bancroft and Smith were charged for different offences. Bancroft was charged for changing the condition of the ball – an expressly worded Level 2 offence. Yet Smith did not physically tamper with the ball and was therefore charged with the more vague offence of “conduct that is contrary to the spirit of the game” which can constitute an offence in terms of all four levels depending on the seriousness.
The ICC decided to label Smith’s conduct as “serious” – which amounts to a Level 2 offence. By way of comparison, a Level 3 offence in terms of this ground is defined as “very serious” which could have resulted in a ban from anywhere between two to four Test matches. If it was deemed “overwhelmingly serious”, it would have been branded a Level 4 offence which could have resulted in a ban of anywhere between four matches to a year – or even a lifetime ban in some cases.
So by its mere characterisation of the offence into a Level 2 offence, the ICC is telling the cricketing world that the creation and execution of an elaborate scheme to cheat in a Test match by the captain of Australia and other senior members of the team is not “very serious.” If it was “very serious” – then Smith would have been charged with an offence under Level 3.
For the cricketing lover, this is deeply saddening. The ICC has joined Cricket Australia as the real losers in this scenario. They have told the children that love the game that cheating is not “very serious” and, in doing so, have brought its very own laws into disrepute.
Australian Cricket has a great deal of rebuilding to do to restore the dignity that has long been bestowed upon their proud cricketing institution. But the restoration of the ICC’s reputation has perhaps got even further to go.
When Cricket Australia decided on Tuesday night they would impose yearlong bans on Smith and Warner and a nine month ban on Bancroft, this was perhaps a greater indictment on the ICC than the players themselves. Cricket Australia has, in effect, overruled the ICC’s sanction of their own players, imposing a penalty that would be one the maximum penalties for a Level 4 offence in terms of the rules of the ICC.
They say that possession is nine-tenths of the law, and this week’s events will do little to dispel the myth that Australia possesses the keys to cricket’s governing and decision-making authority. Yet the ICC itself possesses the keys to this great old game built for centuries of the values of respect and honour. Unfortunately, it seems, they fail to appreciate that the decisions that they are making are turning time-honoured traditions into a ticking time-bomb for cricket’s future. DM