Australian cricket broke down in tears as a shattered Steve Smith took full responsibility for the ball-tampering crisis that has engulfed a nation and a similarly emotional Darren Lehmann fell on his sword as coach. Lies and deceit made way for anguish and penance in Sydney, Perth and Johannesburg on Thursday.
The scandal that has resulted in Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft being hit with lengthy bans from the sport for cheating – and ultimately left in disgrace – bottomed out.
Smith, speaking on his arrival back in New South Wales from South Africa and after being stripped of the captaincy for failing to stop Bancroft tampering with the ball under orders from Warner, cut a sorry figure. The 28-year-old was barely able to control his tears as, with his father, Peter, alongside him, he apologised.
“To fans of cricket all over the world and to all Australians who are disappointed and angry: I’m sorry,” said Smith, as the camera flash bulbs crackled away at the former Test captain’s every pained convulsion.
“I want to make it clear as captain of the Australian cricket team I take full responsibility. I made a serious error of judgment and I now understand the consequences. It was a failure of leadership, of my leadership.”
Smith added that, to his knowledge, the ball tampering during the 322-run defeat by South Africa in Cape Town was a first from his team. Now banned for a year and from the captaincy for two, he put his huge error of judgment down to the fact “good people make mistakes”.
When the world's number one Test batsman – a player feted as the new Don Bradman – was then asked what he would say to a young supporter, he replied: "Firstly, that I'm deeply sorry. I love the game of cricket, I love entertaining young kids, I love kids wanting to play the great game of cricket that I love.
“Any time you think about making a questionable decision, think about who you’re affecting. You’re affecting your parents and to see the way my old man has been, and my mum, it hurts.
"I just want to say I'm sorry for the pain I have brought to Australia, the fans and the public. It's devastating and I'm truly sorry."
Watching these raw scenes, and those from a similarly contrite press conference held by Bancroft in Perth, the team’s coach, Lehmann, decided his time, too, was up. The fourth and final Test with South Africa at the Wanderers that starts today, with the hosts 2-1 up, will be his last match in charge.
The 48-year-old had been cleared of involvement in the events at Newlands last Saturday when Bancroft was caught on camera applying sandpaper to the ball in the desperate pursuit of reverse swing for the bowlers.
On Wednesday, Lehmann had spoken of rebuilding the team’s culture. But after consulting his family, and in response to what he described as abuse directed at them from the public, he called time on a five-year reign that has returned two home Ashes wins and the World Cup in 2015.
“I really felt for Steve as I saw him crying in front of the media and all of the players are really hurting,” said Lehmann, welling up as he spoke. “As I’ve stated before, I had no prior knowledge of the incident and do not condone what happened at all, but good people can make mistakes.
“My family and I have copped a lot of abuse and it’s taken its toll. As many of you in this room will know, life on the road means a lot of time away from our loved ones and, after speaking with my family at length over the last few days, it’s the right time to step away.”
Bancroft, the apparent stooge in the operation, learned yesterday he would not be joining Somerset for the county season during his nine-month ban. Eight Tests into an international career that was yet to catch fire, the 25-year-old admitted a long road back lies ahead.
He said: “It is something I will look to improve on and earn the respect back of the community. I’ve worked so hard to get to this point in my career and to know I’ve just given somebody else an opportunity for free is devastating for me.”
Bancroft declined to respond when asked whether he had been bullied into the scheme by Warner, the fiery vice-captain of Australia, whom his governing body painted as ring-leader.
Warner, facing the possible end of his international career and having been barred from leadership roles once his year-long ban expires, spoke only briefly on arriving in Sydney with his wife, Candice, and their two daughters.
Describing “a tough and emotional time” for his family, the 31-year-old said he would have his say in the next couple of days. In an earlier statement on social media he had apologised for his part in the scandal and added: “I need to take a deep breath and spend time with my family, friends and trusted advisers.”
‘Enough is enough’
The question now is whether an appeal against his punishment, and those for Smith and Bancroft, follows. The Australian players’ union has already called into question the process by which the three were dealt with and the severity of the sanctions when compared with the one-match ban for Smith from the ICC.
That punishment, which also resulted in fines for the captain and Bancroft, was met with widespread derision, despite sitting within the governing body’s code of conduct. Ball tampering is considered a minor infringement by the laws of the game too, given it incurs a mere five-run penalty.
The International Cricket Council's chief executive, David Richardson, announced a review of the code is under way.
“We have seen a number of incidents of poor player behaviour in recent weeks which has included ugly sledging, send-offs, dissent against umpires’ decisions, a walk-off and ball tampering,” he said.
“This has been perhaps one of the worst periods in recent memory for consistently poor player behaviour and the global outcry in relation to the ball tampering is a clear message to cricket: enough is enough.”