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We all have a lot to learn from Sandpaper Gate, an Open Letter to James Sutherland

David Warner & Steve Smith (Image: Facebook)

Dear Mr. Sutherland,

Firstly, I would like to clarify that I’m writing this letter to you as a cricket lover, fan, follower and a great admirer of Australia as a sporting nation. I know that the past few days have tough for you, the board and the Australian cricket loving public, in general, to digest this incident that has shook the cricketing world. It has already been labelled as one of the darkest and saddest days in Australian Cricket history.

On the offset, please allow me to applaud the zero tolerance approach and seriousness with which you have handled the entire #SandPaperGate saga. This definitely sends a strong message across to the team, players, the nation and also the cricketing world that you do not tolerate any form of cheating, corruption or behavior that brings the game into disrepute. I daresay that any other cricket board/association or country would not have imposed such heavy sanctions on players for an offense that is still illegal in the laws of the game but not that grave in context and comparison to some of the other stuff that past players and teams have done. The closest comparison that I can draw to this incident is the match fixing saga in the new millennium that shook the cricketing world and BCCI and PCB having to ban some of its biggest cricketing stars for life. People had lost trust and belief in their stars and had started questioning the integrity of the sport which had to be re-built from scratch. However, having said this, there is absolutely no comparison between match fixing and ball tampering. It was a totally shambolic incident and was of a different level altogether which naturally deserved the most severe punishment.

Gauging from the reactions and comments from former players, fans, followers and even the country’s prime minister over social media and on television, it would be fair to say that majority of them feel that they have been let down by their heroes by virtue of this act. The sanctions raised on them surely shows how seriously Cricket Australia looks upon these issues and how passionate and proud Australia is as a sporting and cricketing nation. I have been to your beautiful country several times in the past few years and have seen the passion and pride that people have in sports from close quarters. In each of my trips, I was always amazed by the way sport is ingrained in the DNA of the Australian people and how much importance is given to kids for participating in sports. I remembered a joke from one of my friends living there that in Australia, the parents wouldn’t care to ask their kids if they did their school homework, instead they would be more worried about if their kids went out for a jog or not.

Seeing Steve Smith break down in that press conference was heartbreaking and a very emotional moment for all the people who watched it. One can only imagine what he and his family must be going through during these testing times where literally every tom, dick or harry might be wanting a chance to have a go at them and put them to shame. Perhaps the biggest and only positive to have emerged out of this saga is the fact that Steve Smith and Cameron Bancroft owned up to their misdoings in front of the world to accept their mistake. While people might argue that everything was black and white and was caught on camera, even after all that, doing what they did was commendable and the right thing to do. Facing the humiliation and taunts in front of camera and a huge audience is not easy when the whole world is watching and baying for your blood. It takes a lot of courage and strength to face the world and gives out a clear message that they are sorry for what they did and want to put the past behind and are ready to pay for their mistakes.

Putting emotions and sympathies aside for the players involved, I would like to take the liberty to express my views and probably the views of the cricketing fraternity in large. This episode has acted as a catalyst for the entire cricketing fraternity to take pot shots at Australia, their cricketers, coach and administration in general. There was a strong undercurrent to this entire episode with a toxic team culture prevailing for a long time and it was more like a time bomb waiting to explode anytime. The way the Australian cricket team has been behaving and playing their cricket over the past few years and specially last few months has been reprehensible and surely against the spirit of the game. There’s a reason why cricket is called a gentleman’s game and Australia’s cricketers have been poor ambassadors and not been even close to gentlemanly in their demeanor. All this garb of “play hard but play fair” or “win at all costs” mentality has probably ruined the DNA of how cricket or any sport in general needs to be played. The free hand given to players to express themselves however they wanted has actually led to these kind of incidents without any fear of being confronted by higher officials. There are many examples to quote but the first one that comes to mind which was as unlawful and blatant as this one was the famous ‘brain fade’ moment in Bengaluru in the 2017 test series. Had a stern warning been dished out to the team then and there itself by Cricket Australia, the story might have been different in Cape Town.

Somehow the current generation of Australian cricketers have been brought up to look mentally strong by talking and doing rubbish things on the field and that would be acceptable as long as it helps them win. This is a practice which has been prevalent for a long time and somewhere had a long lasting impact on what happened in Cape Town. What happened in Cape Town wasn’t a one off bad incident that has ruined the image of Australian cricket. In fact this incident presented a perfect opportunity for the entire cricketing world to derive ‘sadistic pleasure’ and assume poetic justice to most of the wrong doings that many a player have been subjected to by Australian cricketers in the past. Had Cricket Australia intervened earlier and corrected this trend and behavioral tendencies of players in the past, the collective outrage and mass hysteria surrounding this incident would surely have not blown out of proportions like in this case. As one former player and commentator mentioned in his comments, this Australian team looked completely out of control and lacked class or the worthiness of being called the national cricket team of the nation. Honestly, they were behaving like a bunch of college drop outs who suddenly won a lottery and were given the freedom to travel the world and do whatever they wanted to. This team surely lacked leadership both from the captain and coach to mellow them down or check their behavior in general. The so called ‘leadership group’ that was referred to time and again was just on paper and not seen in action. David Warner, being a serial offender and usual suspect in all controversies started believing that he is bigger than the game. The hypocrisy part of this entire episode came to light when Darren Lehmann reportedly complained about crowd behavior in South Africa. He is the same man who urged Australian crowd to harass and taunt Stuart Broad in the Ashes series down under a few seasons ago. This very statement of Lehmann was serious enough to be reprimanded and put on a tight leash by Cricket Australia.

I don’t know how the Australian public views or sees sledging, but in my eyes and certainly most of the cricketing world’s eyes, it’s a disgraceful act of weakness and cowardice than strength. It’s basically telling the opposition that when I’m not good enough to beat you with my talent or game, so I would bad mouth you and try to taunt you to lower your standards of the game under stress and constant attempts to break your concentration. With all due respect and my admiration aside for Steve Waugh, this is not ‘mental disintegration’ but ‘crass and unethical adulteration’ of sport. Ultimately, sport is played to show your skills, endurance and ability to handle pressure than how well you abused or gave a mouthful to an opponent player. It’s definitely not good for the game, especially for younger players and followers who want to emulate their role models.

We all love a bit of aggression and banter on the pitch, but only when it’s done within the defined boundaries. With Australians, such boundaries or the famous ‘thin line’ doesn’t exist when it comes to them sledging or abusing the opposition. Apparently, when they get back what they dish out, it becomes a talking point and things suddenly go out of control for them. The famous West Indian fast bowlers of yesteryear like Walsh, Ambrose, Marshall, Holding etc. never uttered a word to the batsman. They had the famous fast bowler’s stare that would tell a story or two. The very fact that cricket is not a contact sport says a lot about how players should conduct themselves on the field. There are ways and means to get under the skin of the opposition. Use your creative skills, set annoying fields as captain, bowl an uncomfortable line or length to a batsman, play the reverse sweep or the switch-hit and irritate the bowler. If these skills are exhibited on the cricket field, there can be no better value for money for a spectator or the fan.

Finally, amidst all the drama, I feel that this incident was probably a blessing in disguise for an intervention by Cricket Australia before things could get worse. Probably if this incident wasn’t found out or captured on television cameras, who knows what the players would have indulged in further. I think you should thank your stars that the buck stopped here and did not enter dangerous territories like match fixing which is a bigger menace. Many people on social media are also comparing this incident with match fixing, however that’s a bit of an over-reaction and match fixing is a much bigger crime than this.

We all have a lot to learn from this incident, it shows that cricket is a great-leveler and no player or team is bigger than the game. Steve Smith, with a ‘bradmanesque’ spree of form over the past 2 years and a batting average to die for, suddenly finds himself in the sidelines as a torn and tattered superstar who would be away from what he loves for the next 12 months in isolation from the entire world. We as cricket fans hope that he and the others involved come out of this as better individuals and better players after serving their bans and the pride and passion is restored within cricket fans in Australia.

Yours Sincerely

A Cricket fan, follower, critic and admirer!

(Venugopal Rajgopalan is a passionate cricket enthusiast, a decent club-level cricketer, a keen observer and an analyst. He has worked with international and domestic teams in tournaments like IPL and MPL (Maharashtra Premier League) as a performance analyst and had the good fortune to look at the game from closer quarters and understand its intricacies.)

2 COMMENTS

  1. A well analysed article on the recent ugly episode in cricket.Steven Smith an outstanding player has probably gotten away too often in the recent past in India as well as SA.I think Australian board is to be blamed for turning a blind eye in recent times.It is a wake up call for all boards. Loss is to the cricket loving public of the world.

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