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If Steven Smith didn't deserve a harsh punishment, why does his 1-year ban feel so satisfying?

Steven Smith's Australian team is neither very successful, nor very likeable. Maybe that is the reason his punishment was so severe.

EXPERT COLUMNIST
Editor's Pick 28 Mar 2018, 21:40 IST
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Steven Smith
Steven Smith

The most compelling thing about Sandpaper-gate - aside from the jokes, which have been thoroughly imaginative and hilarious - has been the realization of just how many different dimensions there can be to a story.

Cameron Bancroft's stupidity, the mysterious arrogance of David Warner, Steven Smith's dishonesty/panic/sacrifice, the barely-believable naivete of Darren Lehmann, Australian cricket's boorishness, the unexpected uproar Down Under - very rarely do you find a single incident traversing the whole gamut of earthly possibilities. It almost feels like we have been hurtling towards this perfect flash-point of emotions all our lives; this has been what the cricketing world has been destined for all along.

Warner, of course, is now destined to never lead Australia. And Smith is destined to miss one whole year of his peak - a peak that has confounded and dazzled us in equal measure - with a possible exclusion from the 2019 World Cup squad looming too.

The sheer improbability of the situation seems even more surreal when you put it into context of how things were just a couple of weeks ago.

After the first Test, Smith and Warner (along with the rest of the Australian team) were on top of the world, having just beaten South Africa into submission. But now, they stand disgraced and humiliated, staring at a cricket-less 12 months and an uncertain long-term future.

What a difference a couple of weeks can make, if you have sandpaper for brains.

That Bancroft was sensationally stupid to stuff sandpaper down his pants is beyond doubt. That Smith and Warner were certifiably crooked to have hatched the plot in all its premeditated ugliness is incontestable. But to think that Lehmann was so naive that he didn't know what was going on right under his nose? And that Mitchell Starc believed the copious amount of reverse swing he was getting was down to his own prodigious skill?

Smith, Warner and Bancroft have borne the brunt of the punishment, which has set into motion another groundswell of indignation. Everyone wanted heads to roll in the aftermath of the scandal, but they wanted specific heads to roll, and Lehmann was firmly at the forefront of that list. And the severity of the sanctions has also made us all think twice about whether Smith and Warner deserve to be cast out so unceremoniously.

Shane Warne has come out and said the punishment doesn't fit the crime. Harsha Bhogle thinks the length of the ban has something to do with how betrayed Smith's own countrymen feel right now.

Even that most outspoken of Aussie critics, Michael Vaughan, has called for restraint (but not without throwing some shade in the process).

But restraint is not something that has been shown by Australian cricketers in the recent past, and that may have been the most telling factor in this entire episode.

It's easy to dismiss a worldwide outpouring of outrage over a seemingly minor transgression as a knee-jerk reaction. It's not as easy to sweep that outrage under the carpet, especially if you are James Sutherland, the CEO of Cricket Australia (CA).

There's a reason cricket's latest ball-tampering controversy has elicited more gnashing of teeth than any previous such incident. In this latest trial by media (and fans), the Australian cricket team is not innocent until proven guilty.

When all those Pakistani bowlers were accused of ball-tampering, we asked whether this wasn't just the white man's ploy to discredit an astonishing Asian art. When Sachin Tendulkar was charged with the crime, a whole nation (and its powerful cricket board) came to his defense, ensuring that the referee who had made the filthy accusation was removed from the subsequent match. And even when the 'white man' Faf du Plessis was found guilty (not once, but twice!), it was brushed aside as just another harmless little piece of mischief that hadn't significantly changed anything.

That's the extent to which ball-tampering has been normalized. But the moment the Australian cricket team got involved, all of that went out of the window.

Enough and more has been said about how the Aussie cricketers conduct themselves on the field of play, and none of it is flattering. Steve Waugh blazed a trail of excellence with his mythically skillful team, but he also made sledging - or 'mental disintegration' - a legitimate cricketing tactic. Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke continued in the same bullying vein, trying to belittle their opponents every chance they could. And Smith has often been likened to a savage serpent who whispers poison into your open wounds when nobody is looking.

Except that this time, everybody was looking. And what they saw was a confirmation of all the suspicions they've harboured for years.

A year ago Virat Kohli accused Smith's team of systematically abusing the DRS system, and a lot of people now think Kohli stands vindicated. But you don't have to go as far back as a year, or even a month, to understand why the Aussies are considered unsportsmanlike; it's a matter of days.

Just a week ago Smith was expressing displeasure that he couldn't convince the ICC to ban Australia's destroyer-in-chief Kagiso Rabada; the batsman with the greatest record since Don Bradman wanted people to know that the bump he received from Rabada was 'a little harder than it actually looked on the footage'. And Lehmann, bless his heart, was heard talking about how the South African crowd had indulged in disgraceful verbal abuse towards his players, presumably because he had forgotten all the decades of verbal abuse that visiting teams had faced from Australian spectators.

It's not quite the case of the boy who cried wolf, and not even a classic 'karma is a bitch' example. But Autralian cricket has been going down a certain path for a while now, and the ball-tampering confession has compounded all of their past crimes - big or small - into one gigantic punching bag.

In a way, Smith is lucky that his distinctly mediocre team has still been mustering wins here and there (although that's mainly because he's been scoring all of the team's runs, so maybe he's not exactly 'lucky'). If Australia hadn't been in contention for the No. 1 Test position these last few years, public outrage would have brought them to their knees a long time ago.

That's the thing with success. When you are good - and the Waugh/Ponting teams were really good - you tend to start thinking quite highly of yourself. Now an inflated ego may not be a bad thing in isolation, but the trouble is that it often manifests itself into unbecoming behaviour.

I wouldn't go as far as to say it's a natural human tendency for successful teams to also be arrogant, but recent history suggests it's natural for cricketers. The current Indian team may not have as much of a superiority complex as Australia do, but they seem well on their way. And we know they'll get away with it whenever they do reach there, just like the Australian teams of old did. Success begets acceptance of a whole lot of unsavoury things.

That doesn't make it ideal though. And it certainly doesn't make it acceptable for a team to continue behaving like they are God's gift to mankind even when they have been reduced to a barely-respectable bunch of home track bullies.

The Australian team is no longer the dominant force in world cricket, and it has a history of unsportsmanlike conduct. Those two things ensured that when Smith crossed the vaunted 'line', the condemnation and punishment were swift and sizeable.

Heck, Smith might have even made the ultimate sacrifice by refusing to throw Bancroft under the bus, and instead taking the blame on himself and his beloved 'leadership group' (read Warner). In another universe, Smith's act would have been lauded for being both noble and selfless. But to us, knowing what we know about his team's past behaviour, it just seems like a decision born out of panic - not to mention stupidity.

Maybe Smith, Warner and Bancroft didn't deserve to be made the sole scapegoats of the sordid saga, and maybe they didn't deserve to be banned for a whole year. But that wasn't for us to decide; that was for CA and Sutherland to decide. And when you have the unenviable task of restoring the trust in Australian cricket, you have to make some tough calls.

The hope is that CA was totally objective in its decision-making process. Because the rest of the cricket world certainly can't be objective about Smith & Co; we all want blood.

Thirst for vengeance from completely unaffected bystanders: chalk that out as yet another fascinating dimension to this most memorable of stories.

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