Johannesburg (AFP) – Embattled Australia go back to the business of playing cricket Friday after a week of scandal, suspensions, confessions and torrents of tears.
When Australia take the field at the Wanderers in Johannesburg for the fourth and final Test against South Africa, it will be a very different-looking side which was trounced in the ill-fated match at Cape Town.
There will be no sign of disgraced trio Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft while, up in the stands, coach Darren Lehmann will oversee his last match before stepping down.
Captain Smith looked a broken man at a tearful press conference in Sydney after being banished and suspended for a year for his role in the ball-tampering scandal which shredded his reputation and rocked the sport.
“I take full responsibility, I made a serious error of judgement and I understand the consequences. It was a failure of leadership,” said Smith, whose batting talents have been compared with those of iconic Australian cricketer Don Bradman.
“I know I will regret this for the rest of my life. I am absolutely gutted. Cricket is my life and I hope it can be again. I’m sorry. I’m absolutely devastated.”
Vice-captain Warner, fingered as the mastermind of the plot which saw Bancroft use sandpaper to illegally scuff the ball at Newlands before he comically hid the evidence down the front of his trousers, has also been booted out for 12 months.
All three have apologised with Warner admitting the scandal was “a stain” on the sport.
Smith’s tears were later matched by Lehmann who said Thursday he would quit as coach despite being cleared of any involvement in the scandal.
“This will be my last Test as head coach of the Australian cricket team,” Lehmann said in Johannesburg.
– ‘Toughest thing I’ve done’ –
“Saying goodbye to the players was the toughest thing I have ever had to do.”
Lehmann said “the feeling is that Australian cricket needs to move forward and this is the right thing to do”.
South Africa skipper Faf du Plessis, whose side lead the four-match series 2-1, said he felt sympathy for Smith.
“I have compassion for what he’s going through. I think he’s one of the good guys and he’s just been caught in a bad place,” said Du Plessis, who has twice been found guilty of ball tampering himself, but was only fined and never banned.
The confessions of Smith and Bancroft, in particular, have prompted many in the game to appeal for the players to be cut some slack.
Former Australia great Shane Warne, no stranger himself to controversy, offered the trio an olive branch despite days of the Australian public baying for blood.
“What the public wants to see is change. They want to see you be a better person,” he wrote in a column for the Sydney Daily Telegraph. “They’ll support you if they see that, and they’ll forgive you.”
Former England batsman Mark Butcher tweeted: “Just watched Smith presser. Hope everybody has had their pound of flesh now.”
In handing out their tough punishment, Australian cricket chiefs bowed to uproar at home where sportsmen and women are held in high esteem and expected to act in the best interests of the game.
CA’s response wasn’t enough to save an estimated Aus$20 million (US$15 million) partnership with naming rights sponsor Magellan which tore up its three-year contract Thursday after barely seven months.
The financial cost for the players is also growing with sporting goods company ASICS ending its relationship with Warner and Bancroft. Electronics giant LG axed Warner on Wednesday, while Weet-Bix and Commonwealth Bank dumped Smith.
Wicketkeeper Tim Paine will take over the Australian captaincy for the match in Johannesburg.
The International Cricket Council said it will review its punishment for ball-tampering and warned the game is in danger unless decisive action is taken.