When Steve Smith and Cameron Bancroft wound up their press conference at the Gabba in the final week of November last year and wandered back out towards the Australian dressing room, those of us who had just witnessed their comedy routine at the end of England’s humbling in the first Test looked around at each other with incredulity.
Australia’s 10-wicket victory in Brisbane had taken place against the backdrop of a breaking story: at the start of the tour, England’s wicketkeeper Jonny Bairstow had met Bancroft in a bar in Perth and greeted him with a headbutt.
A stump microphone at the Gabba had caught the Australians teasing Bairstow about it in the middle and it exploded into the public domain.
Cameron Bancroft and Steve Smith relished the situation around Jonny Bairstow’s headbutt
The story overshadowed the end of the match and made Bairstow an object of Australian mirth. Bairstow is not comfortable in the spotlight. He can seem awkward. People say he is desperate to be liked. He has a vulnerability that makes it is easy to imagine he could be bullied.
Details emerged from the England dressing room about some of the other things a few of the Australian players had been saying to Bairstow. They were never substantiated and, anyway, to repeat them would only have added to Bairstow’s unease so they were allowed to ebb away.
Still, being at the eye of this storm was not his idea of fun. He was persuaded to address the situation after the first Test.
As we waited for the Australians, Bairstow came into the press room to speak to the media. He read a prepared statement that sought to play down the incident and then left. He did not take questions.
Bairstow was uneasy about the situation and neither Aussie drew a veil over the incident
Smith and Bancroft sauntered in. Australia had just won the Test, don’t forget. The easiest thing to do now, the statesmanlike thing, the smart thing and, yes, perhaps even the merciful thing would have been to draw a veil over the incident between Bancroft and Bairstow. That is what another captain would have done.
But Smith did not do that. He did not need to bring Bancroft with him to the press conference, although as a journalist, I was pleased he had.
He could have answered the questions by himself, said that the matter with Bairstow was a misunderstanding, that it was closed, that he wanted to talk about the cricket. But it soon became clear Smith was relishing this. He wanted this. The Aussies had smelled blood and they were mad with its scent.
Spinner Nathan Lyon had said before the match he wanted to end English careers in the series. Bairstow was being lined up as the first scalp. So Bancroft and Smith began to twist the knife. Bancroft recounted what had happened in that Perth bar in loving detail. For those of us used to professional sportsmen skilled in the diplomacy of saying very little at all, this felt different.
Smith broke down in tears during press conference addressing the ball tampering this week
Bancroft told the story. Beside him, Smith abandoned himself to fits of giggles. It was compelling theatre. Their intent was obvious: they wanted to heap more embarrassment on England and Bairstow.
I mention all of this only for context. I have always liked Smith, mainly for his boyish enthusiasm. His obsessive love for the game has always shone through. Until then, I’d always thought he represented a gentler side of the Australian psyche. The episode with Bairstow was at odds with that impression.
It was an interesting first-hand glimpse of Smith’s Australia team at work. This was hard, ruthless stuff. This was kicking a guy when he was down and kicking him hard.
This was Australia delighting in an opponent’s mental disintegration. It wasn’t a surprise exactly. It was just the way they were.
Still, I don’t take pleasure in Smith’s fall or in Australia’s pain and anger at their players’ actions. And a little perspective is overdue. Smith, Bancroft and David Warner are not Lance Armstrong or Hansie Cronje. Not in their league. I hope that when their bans are over rehabilitation will be swift and they return to prosper in the game they love.
Their apologies, their tears and the stage management of their responses made their individual ordeals look uncomfortably like show trials.
Smith’s press conference and others have made their ordeals look like show trials
It is hard to see anyone in that kind of pain. It is hard to think of anyone in that kind of distress because of a game of cricket.
Smith’s is the saddest story of all because he was the best. When this flash flood of opprobrium has washed back, Smith’s fall will be something we look back upon with regret, a bit like with Shoeless Joe Jackson.
To see a great sportsman brought low, to see him ripped away from the game he lives for, is forlorn indeed. But that is as far as my sympathy extends. I don’t think Smith is a bad person but I do think he was undone by weakness. As he said himself, the ball tampering in Cape Town was a failure of his leadership. He didn’t have the courage to change Australia’s cricket culture. He let stuff go.
It is not all his fault but he inherited a win-at-all-costs mentality and went with it. He went with it and he accentuated it.
That’s how a mild-mannered guy like Lyon turns into an attack-dog before the Ashes.
That’s how a kid like Bancroft is put in a position where he is most likely to be the one taking the fall for tampering with the ball.
Cameron Bancroft has been put in a position where he is likely to be the one taking the fall
As a captain, Smith lived by the sword. The treatment of Bairstow is just one example. Anecdotal evidence, from umpires and opposition players, tells of many other examples.
Warner’s refusal to be drawn away from prepared answers during his press conference hints at wider problems. Smith’s tears at Sydney airport don’t wash that away.
On the field at Cape Town Smith lied to the umpires about what was happening. Bancroft lied to the umpires as well and lied again in the post-match press conference. For all the remorse of the players, it has not yet encouraged them to tell the truth about what happened. Their tears do not wash those facts away, either.
As for Smith’s ban, part of me thinks it is too harsh. Then I think about the ball tampering and the lying and the way others behaved under his leadership. And I think about former captain Michael Clarke’s warning the other day.
Bancroft was caught tampering with the ball during the Aussies’ Test in Cape Town last week
‘The truth. The full story. Accountability and Leadership,’ Clarke wrote on Twitter. ‘Until the public get this, Australian cricket is in deep s***!’ Warner’s evasions on Saturday suggest the full story is still a long way from emerging.
And I think about the way Smith let Bairstow suffer at the Gabba and what that said about him. And I wonder about one last thing.
I wonder if another player had been caught doing what Smith, Warner and Bancroft were doing, if Jonny Bairstow had been caught doing it, say, and had been vilified and lampooned, how would Steve Smith have treated that man then?
Would he have held out his hand to lift him back up or would he have walked into a press conference and laughed until the tears rolled down his cheeks?
How would Smith have treated the likes of Bairstow if they were caught doing it?
We should let Woods write a new chapter
A new biography of Tiger Woods has hit the shelves. It is a well-researched piece of journalism, apparently, but the timing of its publication may not help its sales. By now, I think most of us know that Woods was a lousy tipper, a bad husband, and a wannabe US Navy Seal. I get all that but I’m really not that interested any more.
Like most of us, I think, I’m just interested in Woods the golfer now. He’s paid a heavy price for some of the things he’s done and he’s lived through a few years of hell with pain from back injuries. I thought he was so far gone, there was no way he would ever make a meaningful comeback, let alone contend for a major.
Now, with the Masters a few days away, he might actually be in the hunt. If, somehow, against all odds, he pulls off the greatest comeback of all time, I’d read that story.
The real story around Tiger Woods is whether he pulls off the greatest comeback of all time