The Australians leaving Capetown was eerily reminiscent of Ben Johnson leaving Seoul after he was stripped of his medal. There weren’t as many cameras and the frenzy over doping in an Olympics cannot be compared to ball-tampering in a test match but the cameras and press were all over coach Darren Lehmann, vice-captain David Warner and captain Steven Smith.
One day Steve Smith was one of the world’s most celebrated captains and batsman.
Next day he was a national villain, with people calling for his ban from the sport itself.
He even stepped down from the role of captain of the Rajasthan Royals, who were making a come back into the team after 2 years, being banished from the league after their owner was found guilty of betting against his own team, a crime far worse than ball tampering. The face of their team couldn’t be a cheat.
Steve Smith now finds himself in a place where no sportsperson dares to tread – cheating the sport itself.
When we grew up, Australia were the benchmark. They were merciless and went about their game with a regimented approach that consisted of flat lining opponents, leaving them gasping for air. The rendered the 2003, 2007 and 2015 World Cup finals virtual no contests. A victory against them was worth its weight in gold. They set the standards in fielding, bowling and batting and had in Adam Gilchrist the most destructive wicket-keeper batsman of all time. Pakistan had the world’s most feared bowlers but their team’s performance, much like their team personnel, was a Russian roulette. Captains and coaches changed by the hour and the team was playing against itself most of the time. South Africa somehow always managed to lose the plot when they came to the finish line. Sri Lanka lacked consistency and West Indies were already in decline. Australia, they were complete. They had players Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, the Waugh brothers, Adam Gilchrist, Damien Fleming and Brett Lee.
In test cricket, they were unbeatable for the longest time. They have hounded England into oblivion more often than they can count in the Ashes and though their record has been patchy overseas, no team in the modern era can boast of winning consistently outside home.
But why is Australia suddenly incurring so much wrath for ball tampering, a crime that even the most decent of all men, Rahul Dravid, had been fined for in 2004?
Why are parallels being drawn between fixing and tampering, which truth be told, are are two ends of the totem pole when it comes to cheating? Players have tampered with the ball to get more swing for ages. It isn’t legal but it hasn’t drawn this much attention and calls for axing and life bans.
The truth is this – as much as we look down upon losing, winning too much, and more importantly, how you win, counts for a lot.
Australia have never given an inch in battle. But in sport, there are bad losers as well as bad winners.
A bad loser is the Detroit Pistons walking off the court with defeat inevitable in the 1991 NBA finals in closing moments of play without even shaking hands with the Chicago Bulls. It is one of the most unsportsmanlike moments in the history of basketball. The Detroit Pistons were given the moniker ‘the bad boys’ for their rough and tumble style of play that didn’t endear them to many people barring their fans. In the clip, sports writer Mitch Albom says ‘those who looked at the Pistons as villains, saw it as a correct end for a villain. The villain goes down. We never liked them and when they don’t win, look how they behave.’
Lance Armstrong will go down in history as one the biggest cheats in sport ever. But here are a few facts that not everyone may know;
a) His team mates who confessed to doping were given two year bans and could cycle again. Armstrong was given a life ban.
b) The UCI, the governing body for cycling, declared all results of the Tour de France null and void from 1999-2005, the years in which Armstrong won the title. Essentially, it admitted that doping was so rampant that it would be impossible to figure out who the clean riders were.
So why was Armstrong handed the severest punishment of all and sent into cycling purgatory?
He sued journalists, bullied friends who spoke the truth about him, and lied to people about his doping for years. He used his battle against cancer and his cancer foundation as defense every time accusations were thrown at him. But before his story turned from non-fiction to fiction, he was one of the most popular athletes in the world. He was and still is and inspiration to cancer patients and he won the Tour de France a record six times. The problem was he had very few supporters and when it was revealed that he coerced and bullied his own team mates into doping and threatened them with dire consequences if they spoke up, the public’s anger knew no bounds.
When Maria Sharapova was suspended of doping, she got very little support from the tennis community. Reports suggested that she was haughty and had very few friends on the circuit.
Australia weren’t just sore losers. They were also bad winners.
In the 2015 world Cup final, they were taking on New Zealand, one of the most lovable teams in cricket who stood for everything that’s right in the game and were the epitome of spirit of the game. The Aussies mocked the New Zealand batsman when they were dismissed and generally behaved like boors, against a team that was playing in the right spirit.
Like how children of high ranking officials behave, Australia have always thought that the term spirit of the game didn’t apply to them. They have crossed the line far too many times and like entitled kids, don’t know how to react when people give it back.
That’s why in 2001, Michael Slater had the gall to walk up to Rahul Dravid and berate him for staying his ground, when replays clearly showed that the ball had pitched before he caught it.
That’s why Glenn McGrath had the audacity to ask Ramnaresh Sarwan what Brian Lara’s c**k tasted like and when he didn’t like the reply he got, almost threatened to rip Sarwan’s fucking throat out. Of course McGrath’s wife was suffering from cancer and Sarwan didn’t know it. Nonetheless, it was Glenn McGrath who instigated it.
That’s why Darren Lehmann got away with a warning when he shouted ‘black c**k’ in the direction of the Sri Lankan dressing room in 2003 and the Australians didn’t think twice before bawling their eyes out when Harbhajan Singh called Andrew Symmonds a monkey in 2008.
That’s why in the ill-tempered match in 2007 at Sydney was such a watershed moment, one where Michael Clarke claimed a catch when replays showed that the ball had pitched. How did the umpire make his decision? He took Ricky Ponting’s word. And in the press conference, Ponting got livid, questioning a journalist who accused him of cheating.
Here’s the secret to winning, something that most people, teams and organisations don’t get – you can win even when you lose. And it is seldom measured on a scoreboard.
In the animated movie Cars, Lightning McQueen, after a series of misadventures, learns what winning really means. It’s an animated movie but its lessons apply to all of us.
The unenviable situation that Australia find themselves in isn’t that three of their players have been suspended; it is that people were waiting for them to fail. That’s what happens when disrespect and entitlement become a paradigm – people begrudge your success and victories and when the fall comes, the pile-up of anger and discontent is massive.
Roger Federer is perhaps one of the most intensely competitive tennis players but that hasn’t dimmed his popularity. His gargantuan fame hasn’t gotten to his head. He is a Goliath that people still root for.
You don’t just love sportspersons’ when they win. You love them for who they are and how they win. In a results driven, win at all costs atmosphere, scant regard is paid to these invisible aspects.
After all the shouting, the punishment has been passed. Steve Smith and David Warner have been banned for a year, Cameron Bancroft for 9 months. A year is an eternity in sports and there has been a lot of discussion on the quantum of punishments and why ball-tampering was suddenly the worst thing that happened to cricket. Well, it was a planned move, something stupid in the age of a million cameras. They then brushed aside rumors of tampering. Of course, multiple wrongs don’t make a right. When Steve Smith turned to the dressing room during the India series, it was termed a ‘brain fade’ and quickly put to rest. Now all misdemeanors are coming out, like some Pandora’s box being opened.
Steve Smith, along with Virat Kohli, is one of the finest batsmen in the modern era. David Warner, no stranger to fights and needless exchanges, is like some criminal who finally got caught red handed. A few days earlier, he was in the news for punching Quentin de Kock when the sides were walking back to the dressing room. Cameron Bancroft is like the deer in the headlights, at the wrong place at the wrong time.
The world is waiting to see if Australia use this as a catalyst for change. Actually, the sense of entitlement is prevalent in a lot of cricketers in the T-20/IPL era, where money is put over legacies and impact. I hope Steve Smith uses his second act to carve out a truly rich legacy. A player of his caliber deserves it.
Too much of a good thing can turn against you. In one of my favourite Queen songs, Freddy Mercury sings
‘Oh, how would it be if you were standing in my shoes
Can’t you see that it’s impossible to choose
No there’s no making sense of it
Every way I go I’m bound to lose’
Winning is important. It gets you the trophies, fame and the money.
But knowing how to win is worth its true weight in gold.