Steve Smith’s return to the Test captaincy was supposed to cause an outrage, if you believed Shane Warne’s pre-Ashes series rant about the star batter’s reinstatement to an official leadership role.
Apart from Warne’s former teammate Damien Martyn adding his support on social media, has anyone noticed anything resembling the predicted torrent of anger about Smith being captain again.
“If something happens to Pat Cummins and they make Steve Smith captain, goodness me, I think there’ll be an outrage,” Warne said last month.
Smith paid a heavy price for the Sandpapergate scandal when two of his players hatched a bone-headed ball-tampering plot and he turned a blind eye.
The world’s best batter lost the national captaincy and served a year-long suspension alongside Cameron Bancroft and David Warner with Smith (two years) and Warner (lifetime) also stripped of leadership roles.
The punishments seemed far too harsh at the time and in retrospect they seem even worse.
Smith should have been fined and banned for a few games but he should never have copped such hefty punishment.
Cricket Australia was too quick to react to the supposed outrage – if you believed the scaremongering brigade, the Cape Town incident had the potential to cause every sponsor to withdraw their funds and junior cricket as we know it to collapse because their role models had done the wrong thing.
The Australian players were portrayed as ruthless, win at all costs bastards who would sell their grandmother if it meant they could somehow gain an edge on the playing field.
In actual fact, much of their anger on that 2018 tour stemmed from the vile treatment they had received, including Warner’s wife being callously lampooned by spectators, including two Cricket South Africa executives, and Proteas keeper Quinton de Kock clashing with the opener in the stairwell after the First Test in Durban.
Warner accused his opponent of “vile and disgusting” comments about his wife but after both players faced a disciplinary hearing, the Australian was fined 75% of his match fee while de Kock was only docked 25% of his.
South African fast bowler Kagiso Rabada had made physical contact with Smith in the previous Test at Port Elizabeth as part of an elaborate send-off after getting him out.
He was banned by the match referee for two games as it was his fifth offence in the space of 13 months, but the Proteas appealed and the ICC’s independent commissioner said he could not be satisfied the contact was deliberate.
Rabada was then allowed to play in the infamous third match at Cape Town with the four-Test series locked at 1-1.
Also playing out in the background was the belief from both teams that the other was doctoring the ball to get the ball reversing soon after it had lost its initial shine.
Reverse swing does not seem to be as apparent in the past few years of Test cricket – it’s almost like every team was doing something similar to Bancroft’s nefarious tactic but has cleaned up their act for fear of also copping over-the-top punishments.
None of this excuses the conduct of Bancroft, Warner and Smith but it paints the picture of the kind of hostile environment which can lead any sportsperson to make stupid decisions when they believe everyone is against them.
So when Tim Paine stood down from the captaincy last month after his inappropriate conduct towards a Cricket Tasmania staff member was revealed, Warne reignited the debate over Smith’s leadership qualities.
“Now I’m for all people who make mistakes, and I made more than most, but there are some mistakes that you make, like in this situation, ‘yeah we’ll forgive you’, but I think your second chance is being able to play again because if you think about it, he allowed someone to put sandpaper down their pants and try to shine the ball. I mean, how do you do that under your watch as captain.”
Well, at least, the spin king was self aware enough to acknowledge his own long list of off-field dramas which meant he was never entrusted to lead his country apart from 11 one-day internationals in 1998-99.
He was actually made Test vice-captain to Steve Waugh following Mark Taylor’s retirement in 1999 after he had been found guilty of committing a much-worse cricketing sin than roughing up a ball with sandpaper – Warne and Mark Waugh escaped bans and were only fined after it was revealed they had accepted money from an illegal bookmaker for providing information.
Warne won 10 of the 11 matches he led Australia in the one-day arena – an astute tactician whose on-field analysis to this day is still world class despite his many critics but you can be sure he’s never got over the fact he thought he should have captained his country much more than he did.
Smith clearly stuffed up and should have received a punishment harsher than the previous slaps on the wrist that had been dished out for ball tampering involving captains.
England’s Mike Atherton was fined in 1994 after being caught rubbing dirt onto a six-stitcher while Faf du Plessis, the South African skipper who opposed Smith in Cape Town, was fined his match fee and had a few harmless demerit points added to his record in Hobart in 2016 for sucking on mints and then using the saliva to shine the ball.
And that was his second offence after a few years earlier he had been fined for using the zip on his pants to scuff up the ball in a game against Pakistan.
Smith was his usual active self in the field as skipper after making 93 in the first innings in Adelaide – he made a calculated call to bring Mitchell Starc back into the attack after Cameron Green broke through with Joe Root’s wicket and the left-armer delivered by removing Dawid Malan.
After Cummins made a superb start to his Test captaincy career in Brisbane, interrupted by being a COVID close contact in Adelaide, the moment he is able to rejoin the squad, he will take over again and should be skipper for a few years at least.
Smith, who is 32 and four years older than Cummins, is unlikely to ever lead Australia again in Tests apart from an interim basis unless his NSW teammate suffers a long-term injury.
Travis Head was elevated to vice-captaincy status for the Adelaide Test, is seen as a future leader as long as he can cement his spot in the middle order while Marnus Labuschagne’s spot is much more secure and he will also be a strong candidate to be installed as leader when the Cummins era ends.
Cummins has stated he only wants to lead at Test level despite being an automatic selection in all three formats.
White-ball skipper Aaron Finch is 35 so his international career is not likely to last much longer so perhaps Smith can be handed the T20 and one-day teams now that he’s shown he can again be entrusted with such responsibilities.
There will be no more outrage despite what you might hear elsewhere.