In his short Test career, Cameron Bancroft has hardly set the world alight with his batting – registering a high score of 82 in one of only two times he has gone past 50 – but he has certainly proven himself no stranger to drama.
Having become the first Australian opener to make his debut in The Ashes since Michael Slater in the 1993/94 series, Bancroft was thrust into the limelight at the end of his first game for being the victim of a supposed head butt from England wicket-keeper Jonny Bairstow.
Sat next to his captain, Steve Smith, Bancroft had the assembled media in hysterics as he hit back their questions in the style of an opening batsman carving a swinging ball through the covers. His humorous responses, in which he played down the seriousness of the offence, had a similar effect on the man sitting next to him, who could hardly control his laughter as his youngest charge explained the incident in the bluntest terms.
A little over three months later, the same pair found themselves once again facing the media together, although this time in very different circumstances. There was no laughter among the press as they assembled in Cape Town, while the two men in the hot seats looked as if they had forgotten the meaning of giggles, so glum were their expressions.
In admitting to ball tampering during the third Test at the Newlands cricket ground, Bancroft was confessing to an act of pre-meditated cheating that can simply not be accepted in a game that prides itself on being the epitome of fair play.
The ICC reacted quickly to ban Smith for one game and award Bancroft three demerit points, but Cricket Australia were much harsher in their assessment of their actions. Both Smith and David Warner, the supposed ring-leader, have been banned for a year for their roles in influencing the younger Bancroft, who himself received a nine-month ban.
As more details of their crimes and punishments have emerged this week, Smith, Warner and Bancroft have resembled broken men, each offering up tearful apologies about their regret.
Warner himself has admitted that he may never play for Australia again, possibly a great talent lost to one foolish action. Bancroft, due to his poor record thus far, may face a similar fate as other men now have the chance to come in and stake their claim for permanent inclusion.
Smith, with batting statistics similar to those of the great Don Bradman, is sure to return once he has served his ban. His talents are too great to be ignored, but the possible tainting of a character that was on the way to becoming an all-time great is a shame.
At first, Smith was compared to Hanse Cronje, the former South African captain who influenced younger players to play badly in a major match-fixing scandal, but as the week has gone on he has begun to look more like a blind Gloucester, led astray by his blindness to the devious actions of the Edmund in his charges, Warner.
As such, the golden boy, who claimed the Ashes almost single-handedly only a few months ago, has become a fallen hero, unable to come to terms with his crimes as he wept in Sydney Airport, requiring his father’s support.
His tearful reaction should not act as a defence against his crimes. He and Darren Lehmann, who has also subsequently paid the price for his failure to control his troops, should have had greater awareness of their players’ actions.
Yet, it would be a travesty to confine Smith’s achievements in the game to history already. His response to this disaster will define his career. He is not alone among those who have been able charged with ball tampering; his opposite number Faf du Plessis has had his own controversies, as did the deity that is Sachin Tendulkar.
Tendulkar never faced a ban, as Smith does, but went on, untainted, to play over 100 more Test matches before retiring with more runs than any other man in history and 100 international centuries.
While Smith will be unable to move on from this incident in quite the same way, he has the talent and – at the age of 28 – the time to recover from this scandal and make a return that will secure a record that stands up to any others across the history of the game.
Australian cricket must look at its setup and how a scandal like this was allowed to happen, and the investigation must address an ethos that has been so keen to establish a moral line in the game before crossing it in such a shameful manner. Their draconian punishments are the first step in a reestablishment of order, with more restructuring sure to follow.
It all seems a very long way from the sunny winter when they were flogging a flailing England team and laughing about their opponents off-field misdemeanours. The nation will look back to such halcyon memories with a darker tint, full of regret about their heroes’ failings.
Smith should similarly reflect, use his pain to get him through his exile, and his talent and determination to return to drive Australia to the top of the game again.
Image courtesy of NAPARAZZI