SYDNEY (AFP) – Being Australia’s cricket captain is widely seen as the second most important job in the country behind prime minister. Many would argue it holds even more prestige.
This high esteem, and Australians’ deep love of the game helps explain the stunned disbelief that has greeted skipper’s Steve Smith’s admission that he cheated, and even worse, that it was planned.
In an astonishing development, the captain said he hatched a plot to tamper with the ball in the third Test against South Africa, which saw team-mate Cameron Bancroft use yellow sticky tape on Saturday in Cape Town to try and alter its condition.
He was caught on camera and comically tried to hide the evidence by stuffing it down the front of his trousers.
Everyone from former Test greats, to the Australian Sports Commission, and the public condemned what happened, with the story dominating front pages, television news and coffee shop chatter.
Even Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said he was “shocked and bitterly disappointed”.
“It seemed completely beyond belief that the Australian cricket team had been involved in cheating,” he said.
Cricket, long considered the gentleman’s game, is more than a sport in Australia – it is widely seen as helping shape the country itself, with its British origins helping foster and develop the national character, morals and ideals.
Wearing the baggy green cap of the national team is sacred, an honour earned by barely 450 people.
With that accolade comes great responsibilities in a former colony whose national identity owes much to its prowess in sport.
“To cheat is just not in the spirit of what Australians do. They fight hard, they play hard, but they don’t cheat,” cricket fan Steve Chaka told AFP in Sydney.
Another, Giovanni Cettolin, said Smith’s lapse of judgement was “definitely not good sportsmanship for an Australian”.
“Us Aussies all dig in and fight hard, you know, and obviously he didn’t do that. It’s a shame, it really is.”
As Jaimie Fuller, executive chairman of the Skins compression wear group of companies, explained in a full-page newspaper advert yesterday: “Cricket is such a part of our national psyche that it helps define us.
“It helps give us a sense of what is fair, and what is not; what is right and what is wrong.”
He said Cricket Australia had a moral responsibility to display good governance in how it responds to the scandal.
“If you don’t, it’s not just the Australian cricket team who is shamed, but it will be all of you. It will be cricket. And it will be all of us.”
Catherine McGregor, author of the book “An Indian Summer of Cricket”, said it would take a long time for the Australian public to forgive “this cruel betrayal”.
“No other game is so self-conscious in revering noble defeat, nor in insisting how it is played is more important than the result,” she wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald.
“Cheating in order to win at any price ‘just isn’t cricket’.”
She added that the anger of cricket lovers around the country was understandable.
“They are the true believers. This team is unworthy of them.”
Australian cricket fans have long regarded the national team’s style as hard but fair, but there has been mounting concern about the perceived arrogance from some, with the cheating scandal a step too far.
Peter Lalor, cricket correspondent for The Australian and Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, said the conspiracy clearly showed “there is something rotten at the heart of the Australian cricket team”.
“The public has struggled to love a side that wins ugly, but success and nationalism and tradition have patched the frayed fabric,” he wrote.
“A conspiracy to cheat, however, has ripped the cloth and major repairs will be needed.”