Bancroft just has to avoid the gargoyles Warner and Smith
Australians need to understand that they cannot sandpaper away what happened at Newlands
And they’re back. Just like that. Did they ever go away? Maybe not: “It’s been awesome, it’s like we didn’t really leave.”
That’s David Warner, who masterminded the ball-tampering plot that was exposed at Newlands in March last year and led to Cricket Australia (CA) banning him, Steve Smith and Cameron Bancroft.
They’ve served their sentences and are back in the international game. Actually, they haven’t and they’re not. Bancroft was suspended for nine months and returned at the Big Bash in December. But March 29 is when the one-year sanctions handed to Smith and Warner expire. Until Friday they remain unarguably the most disgraced figures in the history of Australian cricket.
But, like Warner, you would have been forgiven for thinking he and Smith were returning heroes when they were spirited to the United Arab Emirates more than a week ago to reestablish their bond with their temporarily former teammates, who were preparing for a one-day series against Pakistan there.
What the hell were CA thinking, parading two crooks as if they were shining examples for all to follow? In three words: they weren’t thinking. In two words: nothing’s changed. In a word: WTF?
“It’s like two brothers coming back home,” said Justin Langer, whose appointment as Australia’s coach in the throes of the fallout from Newlands was its own sick joke considering he was, during his playing days, the embodiment of so much that was ugly about Aussie cricket.
And that despite Australia, all of it, it seemed, overreacting to a grotesque degree in the aftermath of what happened in Cape Town. Darren Lehmann, Langer’s predecessor, resigned in tears. James Sutherland’s 17 years as CA’s chief executive ended under this cloud. David Peever quit as board chair, as did Mark Taylor as a board member. Pat Howard’s stint as high performance manager was snuffed out early. The then prime minister, whoever he was – it really doesn’t matter who – weighed in with clumsy condemnation.
But, somehow, not quite 12 months later in the Emirates, life was beautiful for the still-banned Warner, ever the inveterate personal evangelist: “The boys were very accepting of us coming in and with open arms.” He added that there were “a lot of big hugs and cuddles”.
Did Smith also enjoy the group session of make-up heavy petting in the dressing room?
“It’s been great to be back around the group. They’ve been really welcoming again, and it’s almost like we never left. So everything is on the right track.”
Poor, awkward Smith. He was the megalomaniacal Warner’s lickspittle during his ill-fated tenure as Australia’s captain, and almost a year away from the former’s poisonous influence hasn’t changed that: by the sound of things he is still trying to talk Warner’s walk.
Australians need to understand that they cannot sandpaper away what happened at Newlands, never mind how overt their wailing and gnashing of teeth – the sincerity of which is in serious doubt in the wake of the revealing stupidity of welcoming Smith and Warner back to the fold for “big hugs and cuddles” before the end of their bans.
Their former captain and vice-captain are lost causes doomed to follow unhappiness into the sunset; one as someone who could have been great, the other as someone who thought he was great. They turned out to be as great as a couple of common shoplifters and they will be stuck in that purgatory forever.
But Bancroft has a chance to revert to normal life, whatever that is for professional cricketers. At least, he did have before Durham went and appointed him their captain for the coming county season.
That prompted Shaun Marsh, Bancroft’s Western Australia teammate, to say what he would have thought were all the right things, which considering the context were all the wrong things: “He’s a fantastic bloke. He’s obviously a really good leader in his own right and I'm sure he'll do a really good job over there. He’s a really good guy with a really good cricket brain. He’ll demand a lot of hard work ... he’ll tackle it with both hands; that's what ‘Bangers’ is about.”
Does “a fantastic bloke” and “a really good guy” cheat? And then try and hide his cheating and lie his way out of trouble? How could he possibly be “a really good leader” given the example he has set? Does “he’ll tackle it with both hands” mean “Bangers” spent his nine months in the dog box becoming as adept at ball-tampering with his non-dominant paw as he is with the other?
Let’s not get hung up on the anodyne offerings of someone who has been media-trained to within a breath of his own humanity, even by Australian cricket’s exemplary standards of turning people into puppets for press purposes.
And there’s a strong case to be made that Bancroft has done the crime and served the time, and should now be free to continue with his career. Anything else would be unfair.
But what the hell were Durham thinking? “We certainly considered two of our existing Durham players for the role but they didn’t want to do it, they wanted to focus on their own performance,” their chief executive, Tim Bostock, told the BBC in explaining why Bancroft was “the best available option”.
He captained Australia’s under-19 side in two one-day games in 2011, and he led Gloucestershire’s second XI against Somerset in one match in 2017. And that’s it as far as his leadership experience is concerned.
One of the two players Durham considered, Alex Lees, has done the job in 115 games. But if he doesn’t want to … “Cameron, most importantly, wants to do it,” Bostock said. “He doesn’t [have a lot of captaincy experience] but neither had Joe Root when he became England captain, and I don’t think Michael Atherton did either.”
Root had 18 games at the helm before he first led England. Atherton had captained teams in exactly 100 matches, 28 of them first-class games, when he became a Test skipper – and just more than a year after that he was done for ball-tampering, against SA, in his 11th Test in charge. He survived to lead England in 43 more.
Bancroft, a middling 26, could yet have his own Test resurrection. But he will have to stay away from people like Smith, a weakling, and Warner, a bully – gargoyles skulking on the ruins of a once mighty cathedral, yesterday’s broken men.
And, Bancroft can be sure, they’ll be there: staring at him from across the same dressing room. Good luck, young man.