Ball-tampering: Why it cut Australian cricket so deep

The Australian cricket team was once held in such high esteem that former prime minister John Howard joked he held only the second most important leadership role in the land, after the national Test captain.

But the sandpaper-gate scandal has changed perceptions of the men in the famous baggy green cap, perhaps irrevocably, while the image of governing body Cricket Australia has also been seriously tarnished.

The controversy erupted when batsman Cameron Bancroft was caught trying to alter the ball using sandpaper in the third Test at Newlands in South Africa.

To the outside observer, the affair may have seemed more farcical than shocking.

Bancroft infamously hid the sandpaper down his trousers when television cameras caught him scuffing the surface of the ball, and then captain Steve Smith’s evasive answers at a press conference dragged his team further into the mire.

Smith, Bancroft and fellow conspirator David Warner initially thought the fuss would blow over quickly. After all, the punishment for ball-tampering was only a one-match suspension.

Plenty of high-profile international cricketers had received minor punishments and escaped with their reputations intact after being found guilty of the same offence.

The list includes England’s Mike Atherton, Shahid Afridi of Pakistan and current South African skipper Faf du Plessis (twice).

But public reaction to the Australians’ behaviour was furious, Smith was stripped of the captaincy and all three players received lengthy bans.

The scandal also cut a swathe through Cricket Australia management, with Sutherland, coach Darren Lehmann and team performance boss Pat Howard all heading for the exits amid claims they fostered a toxic team culture.

“Headbutt the line”

To understand why the backlash was so extreme, it helps to bear ex-prime minister Howard’s observation in mind.

And as ABC’s national sports correspondent Mary Gearin pointed out when the scandal broke, Australia’s cricketers enjoy a unique place in the affections of their fans.

“The national men’s cricket team has had a century and a half of brand dominance,” she wrote. “Our team, like it or not, resides right near the heart of our national identity, and allowed a space in our psyche that absolutely no other team, or entity, enjoys.”

For decades, the Australian Test side has adopted a prickly, uncompromising demeanour on the field that former captain Steve Waugh said was intended to bring about the “mental disintegration” of opponents.

Rival fans accused the Australians of being boorish and insulting, with even some of their own supporters uncomfortable with their antics.

But players defended themselves, insisting they played hard but fair.

“There’s a line. We’ll headbutt the line but we won’t go over it,” spinner Nathan Lyon said last year.

The ball-tampering scandal not only crossed the line but obliterated it, leaving the national team’s reputation in tatters.

Waugh said there was genuine shock among Australians that their team would resort to cheating.

Fairfax cricket writer Jon Pierek said in the wake of the scandal that the Australian public were clamouring for their cricketers to drop the ugly behaviour and transform into players they could once again adore.

“This is the moment Australian cricket must shed its bully-boy reputation and a win-at-all costs attitude that has ripped the game apart,” he said.

In an effort to meet those demands, Cricket Australia commissioned an independent review of its culture and practices.

The review was released on Monday and it was scathing of the sport’s governing body, labelling it “arrogant” and “controlling” in a quest to win at all costs.