Australia stumble into cricket's moral maze

The Rough Side: A brief history of ball-tampering (2:28)

A look back at the prominent ball-tampering controversies that have engulfed world cricket in the recent past (2:28)

Toddlers with their fingers in the cookie jar rarely look as guilty as cricketer Cameron Bancroft did on Saturday afternoon in Cape Town during Australia's third Test against South Africa. It had already been a bitterly contested series, with a suspension (later overturned), altercations between players and claims of a hacked Twitter account.

Then, with Australia struggling to slow down South Africa's second innings during the afternoon session of the third day of the five-day match, images started fizzing round the globe of Bancroft scrubbing the match ball with intense and suspicious vigour while his side was fielding. Soon after, he was caught once again on camera, surreptitiously transferring a yellow object from his pocket to the front of his cricket whites, before claiming to the umpires that the item that had aroused their suspicions was actually a soft black cloth.

And that, for a global audience of jurors, was case closed, m'lud.

To ascertain a fundamental truth about Bancroft's actions, you don't need to know the arcane Laws of Cricket, or understand the aerodynamic implications of how a cricket ball swings when one side has been roughed up (although we'll come onto that...) They were, to anyone with even the remotest understanding of what constitutes fair play, as wrong as wrong can be.

And the fall-out has only just begun. Steven Smith, Australia's captain, has admitted that his "leadership group" came up with a pre-meditated plan to break the rules; he's been stood down from his role and sent home in disgrace ahead of next week's final Test in a series that South Africa now leads 2-1.

The reputation of a man who, three months ago, defeated England and recaptured the Ashes on Australian soil amid a run of form that evoked comparison with the greatest of the great, Don Bradman, is unravelling with bewildering speed. It is not out of the question that Smith's bosses at Cricket Australia -- embarrassed, furious, and under pressure to be seen to take action -- will slap him with a ban of a year or even more.

But let's pause the narrative for a moment, and take stock of what exactly is going on here. Because regardless of all the outrage and indignation that has frothed to the surface since the incident on Mar. 24, the nature of Australia's transgression -- though blatant, stupid, arrogant and a flagrant breach of the rules as they stand -- was not even close to being the worst sin ever committed in a sporting realm.

In fact, it was a Level 2 violation, according to the code of conduct laid down by the International Cricket Council (ICC) -- placing it on a par with over-zealous appealing, or sporting a sponsor's logo beyond the permitted parameters.

Nobody gets sent to jail for scratching cricket balls -- unlike the Pakistan cricketers who accepted money to bowl no-balls in the Lord's Test in 2010. There's not even a significant risk to life or limb -- unlike, say, during the Bodyline series in 1932-33, when England's strategy of intimidatory short-pitched bowling led to a fractured skull for Bert Oldfield and a near-riot at the ordinarily genteel Adelaide Oval.

And perhaps most pertinently, every elite cricket team engages in ball-tampering to a greater or lesser degree. Not least Smith's opposing captain in Cape Town, Faf du Plessis, who has twice been fingered by the ICC for altering the condition of the ball - once with the zip of his pocket in 2013, and again with the sugary saliva from a breath mint three years later. Remarkably, his team was even warned in the very same match, only hours after Bancroft's transgression, for scuffing their own ball off the abrasive ends of the pitch while throwing it back from the outfield.

Du Plessis endured a flurry of media interest for his actions -- particularly for "Lollygate", which took place in the full disapproving gaze of the Australian media -- but life soon returned to normal for him. Much as it did for the Yankees pitcher, Michael Pineda, who on a chilly night in Boston in 2014, was busted using pine-tar, stored in a reservoir on his neck, to help maintain his grip on the ball. Pineda's subsequent ten-match ban was as much about stupidity as rule-breaking. If you're going to cheat, was the message, at least be subtle about it.

Central to all of this is cricket's art of reverse swing, which dawned in Pakistan in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Reverse swing works on the principle that, the older a cricket ball gets -- and the greater the contrast between the smooth side and the shinier side -- the more wickedly it will deviate through the air. It is similar in principle to everything baseball pitchers know about aerodynamics, and the wink-wink culture that surrounds it is paralleled in both sports, too. But any one baseball is a dime a dozen. In Test cricket, the same ball must be used for a minimum of 480 deliveries, or the best part of six hours -- in which time it will be scuffed by the pitch, by the bat, by the boundary hoardings ... by the fielder's fingernails.

Among cricket's original reverse swing practitioners was Imran Khan, former Pakistan Test captain and, come July, potentially the country's next Prime Minister. But it wasn't until Imran's acolytes, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, burst onto the scene on the England tour of 1992 that its full moral horror was unleashed on the world.

Simply put, the fear of the unknown put the fear of God into the game's establishment. Wasim and Waqar could dawdle through the first few overs of the life cycle of their cricket ball, accepting its degradation as a trade-off for what would inevitably come. And then, wham! Out of nowhere, the ball would start to talk and stumps would begin to fly. It was breath-taking and bewitching, and like all the best witches, it was met with fear and pitchforks, and chased out of Salem by the authorities.

But, of course, that didn't end the matter, far from it. While the more gentlemanly aspects of Test cricket held sway, out in the wilderness, reverse-swing grew in strength as a dark art -- passed by word of mouth from bowler to bowler, and enhanced in legend thanks to tales of nefarious deeds, including Imran's own admission that he had once used bottle tops to gouge out great chunks of leather. Think Gaylord Perry and his fabled use of Vaseline, and you're on the right lines.

But unlike Perry -- whose reputation as a spit-baller was so blatant that he once mocked it in a SportsCenter commercial -- there does not need to be a direct correlation between reverse swing and cheating. Of course, as Bancroft inadvertently demonstrated at the weekend, cheating might help, just as the Twins pitcher Joe Niekro thought it might be useful to have an emery board stashed in his pants during a match against the Angels in 1987. But for baseball, such transgressions are more black and white, given how often a new ball is brought into play. Every aspect of cricket's attitude to reverse swing lends another shade of grey.

Which has proven awkward in the last couple of days, for if there's one cricket team that professes to know the difference between black and white, it's the Australian cricket team.

"The enormity of what's happened has probably started to sink in," said their wicketkeeper and emergency captain, Tim Paine, in the wake of his team's stunning fall from grace. This Friday in Johannesburg, Paine will take official charge of the Test side for the very first time, and in so doing, attain one of the most revered roles in world sport. He could not have wished for a more sordid scenario in which to fulfil a literal boyhood dream.

The nation that he will lead onto the field were the victors of the first-ever Test match (against the mother country, England) way back in 1877. Every new player (Bancroft being the 451st and most recent) gets presented with their very old Baggy Green cap, a symbol of national pride that bears as much cultural and historical import as the Star-Spangled Banner. In fact, Australia's Test team is so synonymous with the nation's history and self-image that the captaincy has often, without irony, been referred to as the second-most important office of state (and Smith, in fact, was the 45th incumbent ... what is it about that number?)

And that may, in turn, explain why, when Australia's Test captain, of all people, admits to cheating in a cricket match, the only man with sufficient gravitas to pronounce on the matter is the Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, who went before the media last Sunday morning to express his outrage and call for "decisive action" against his country's team of cheaters. For all the opprobrium heaped upon Bill Belichick during the Patriots' Spygate scandal in 2007, he was at least spared the thoughts of George W Bush.

Make no mistake, Australia is deeply ashamed of what has transpired. But just as reverse swing is not as evil as its reputation is cracked up to be, so the myth and mystique of Australian cricket is not quite as clear-cut as the legend would have you believe. Internationally, there is a massive dose of schadenfreude being dished out on Steve Smith's men.

Australia's cricketers like to consider themselves the sport's moral arbiters. They play hard but fair, so the legend goes. They bark like dogs on the field but crack open a beer in the dressing-rooms afterwards.

They know where the line is -- they "headbutt" the line at times, as their spinner Nathan Lyon put it during the recent Ashes series against England. But like cycling's Team Sky and their obsession with "marginal gains", they would never, ever, consider crossing the line. No way. Not us ...

That façade has crumbled in the space of a weekend. "I won't comment on the way [South Africa] have been behaving, but I just know from an Australian cricket perspective, we hold our heads up high," said David Warner, their current vice-captain, when du Plessis was sucking on his mint in 2016. "I'll be very disappointed if one of our team-mates [changed the condition of the ball]."

"The rules are in place for a reason," he added. "If you're not going to use them, then why bother having them?"

Well quite.

Over the last decade, nothing has been done to address a law that abjectly fails to reflect the sport as it is now played. And the upshot are scenes such as we witnessed in Cape Town this weekend -- whereby a side is caught cheating, egregiously, in broad daylight, but is unable to comprehend the levels of opprobrium their actions have attracted, because ... well, everyone does it, don't they?

Not like that, they don't. Whatever it is that needs to be done about bringing the dark arts into the light (and many still insist that the sanctioning of wrong-doing, as per the proposals for legalising doping, would be a dismal reflection of where the sport is currently at) the line would surely have to stop way, way short of the lengths to which Australia's cricketers stretched it this week. And if that was the case, the charge could carry sanctions befitting the moral crime of which they have been convicted.

But instead, we are here, and the world is looking on agog -- those unaccustomed to cricket's peculiar ways are bewildered by the blatancy; those more immersed in the sport are now seeing the sanctimony of Australia's players in a new and unflattering light.

Their route out of this moral maze promises to be long, arduous and convoluted.