Johannesburg (AFP) – Embattled Australia vowed to spearhead a new era of “respect and sportsmanship” after the ball-tampering scandal which sent shockwaves through the sport.
After a week in which captain Steve Smith, his deputy David Warner and young batsman Cameron Bancroft were banned and sent home in disgrace, Australia returned to action on Friday in the fourth and final Test against South Africa.
In a gesture of reconciliation, the Australian and South African teams lined up before the start of play at the Wanderers and shook hands with each other.
“Cricket’s a gentleman’s game. I spoke to our players about bringing it in. It’s not something we’ll do every Test match but I think it’s not a bad way to start a Test series,” explained Australian captain Tim Paine who suggested the pre-match handshake.
“I think it’s just a good show of sportsmanship and respect.”
The 33-year-old added: “There’s been a lot of water under the bridge and a bit of tension between the two sides. We want to be super-competitive but we also want to respect the opposition and it was important to show that today.”
Coach Darren Lehmann, who will stand down after the match despite being cleared of any involvement in the scandal, gathered his shell-shocked team in a huddle before action began, but admitted it was hard to concentrate.
“We’re not a hundred percent mentally right but we’re representing our country and we’ve got to get the ball rolling by playing the best cricket we possibly can,” Lehmann said.
Despite the cordiality on the Wanderers pitch, some fans in a series-best crowd of 17,023 could not resist poking fun at the Australians’ attempts to doctor the ball with sandpaper in the third Test in Cape Town last weekend.
One banner among a group of spectators wearing yellow read: “Sandpaper Special, Only R10 (10 Rand)”.
The home fans also enjoyed the last laugh by seeing their team, already 2-1 up in the series, pile up 313-6 with opener Aiden Markram hitting a career-best 152.
Meanwhile, in Australia, a wave of sympathy for Smith was gathering pace after he gave a heart-wrenching public apology.
Others questioned the severity of the bans handed out — one year each for Smith and Warner and nine months for Bancroft who was captured on TV trying to scuff the ball with sandpaper before comically stuffing the evidence down the front of his trousers.
Smith’s tearful appearance in front of media helped trigger Lehmann’s resignation but also prompted calls to rein in criticism which has verged on hysterical.
– ‘That’s enough now’ –
“Dear Australia, that’s enough now,” ran a headline in British newspaper The Times. “This was ball-tampering, not murder.”
Australia’s leg-spin great Shane Warne wrote in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph: “We are all so hurt and angry and maybe we weren’t so sure how to react. We’d just never seen it before.
“But the jump to hysteria is something that has elevated the offence beyond what they actually did, and maybe we’re at a point where the punishment just might not fit the crime.”
Former Australia coach Mickey Arthur said he felt “desperately sorry” for Smith, whose career as the world’s top batsman will now be put on hold.
“I know he eats, sleeps and drinks cricket,” said Arthur, who now coaches Pakistan.
The Australian Cricketers’ Association voiced concern over the players’ welfare, and argued that the sanctions were disproportionate compared to other sanctions for ball-tampering.
Cricket Australia also remains under pressure after sponsors have walked away over the damaging saga.
Losses include an estimated Aus$20 million (US$15 million) partnership with naming rights sponsor Magellan, which tore up its three-year contract after barely seven months.
Former Test opener Justin Langer is a strong favourite to become Lehmann’s successor, although reports said Australia could name a separate coach for the ODI and Twenty20 teams.