Cricket Australia should have opened sandpaper wound and flushed it out

It was telling that it took so little. A few vague words, a verbal half-shuffle that wasn’t evasive enough, and the whole story lit up like bonfire night. As part of a wider-ranging interview with the Guardian, Australian batter Cameron Bancroft called it “self-explanatory” that tampering with a cricket ball benefits bowlers, in the context of him being caught with sandpaper during a 2018 Test match.

The comments were received as newly damning of his former teammates, even though each implication has been sitting in the open since that match in Cape Town. There was metaphorising about skeletons emerging from cupboards and ghosts returning to haunt. But skeletons or ghosts require something to be dead first, and Australia’s cricket establishment never laid this story to rest.

When images of Bancroft’s hardware work first reached Australia more than three years ago, the public response was dramatic. Cricket Australia sniffed a redolent wind and dispatched to South Africa the organisation’s integrity officer, Iain Roy, along with high-performance manager Pat Howard and chief executive James Sutherland, responding to an offence that match regulations said was worth three demerit points: not enough to be suspended for a single Test.

But back home the cheating was a source of national shame, and CA’s response also had to account for an immediate cover-up attempt, when Bancroft and his captain Steve Smith lied at a press conference about how the tampering plan came about. This was to protect vice-captain David Warner, who CA would later name as the instigator. In the end, blame was quarantined to those three players. The rest of the team, the squad and support staff, were said to have known nothing. Many of them were not even questioned in the supposed investigation that lasted all of two days.

Central to the response was this contradiction: while CA showed off how seriously it took the matter, exiling those three players from all cricket for up to a year, it also refused to address the possibility of any prior offending. It was content with a story that no Australian cricketer had considered tampering until Warner had a brainwave at lunch on day three of a match, at which point he taught Bancroft how to do it despite never having done it himself, only to be caught immediately on bringing it onto the field.

Sutherland’s dead-bat was that CA could investigate previous matches “if there are credible allegations, and there is evidence to come to light”. This was midway through a series in which Australia sent the ball around corners in the first Test at Durban, and had it reversing all day long during the second at Port Elizabeth. Warner was publicly accused of tampering in that match, which was why he roped in the lower-profile Bancroft in Cape Town. But apparently it was not CA’s remit to look at any of this. There was no TV sting to force the issue.

The unavoidable conclusion is that enough CA people did not want to ask questions to which they might not like the answers, so answers haven’t come. None of the players has given any detail, which is why Bancroft’s one small comment, when answering a question about whether any of his bowlers knew about the plan, had such an effect.

The bowlers in that match – Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Pat Cummins, and spinner Nathan Lyon – have, to an extent, got a rough deal. The focus is on them rather than other teammates due to the question of how they could have bowled with a tampered ball without knowing.

The four put their names to a statement this week defending their integrity: “We did not know a foreign substance was taken onto the field to alter the condition of the ball until we saw the images on the big screen at Newlands”. Plausible, given that Bancroft had barely started before he was caught. Umpires saw no damage to the ball and declined to change it.

Yet it is also worth observing how specific that statement was: about the exact method used in one match. Bancroft’s “self-explanatory” comment could be read more broadly, about the fact that tampering was and is a tacit but prevalent part of the game. Pre-Covid, teams used sugar-spit and skin lotions. They can still soak substances into their uniforms.

There are far more zips on pockets than strictly necessary given the lack of loose change or car keys. Perhaps Bancroft’s perception is that there was a general understanding of work being done on the ball, and that the specifics of how don’t matter.

And perhaps tampering should be prevalent, or call it having more options in managing the most important piece of equipment on the field. Players do not scuff the ball for reverse when it is spinning or swinging conventionally. They do so when there is little else on offer. A game that helps bowlers is a better game. Reverse swing creates so many of the great moments and still requires great skill. Cricket is long overdue for a reasoned discussion about what could be acceptable, rather than a reflexive response from a 19th-century moral inheritance.

Had CA been willing to be realistic, Cape Town might have turned a painful moment into the start of a necessary conversation. Instead, the response was panic and a general slamming shut. The strategy was damage control. The long bans were performative, designed to cover everything: all debts paid.

The same approach persists. Nick Hockley, in Sutherland’s old chair, has called the Cape Town jaunt “a thorough investigation”, and repeated the line that CA would only look at information brought to it, rather than looking for anything itself. CA’s only move this week was to ask Bancroft if he had anything more to say, a move that likely made Bancroft feel that having nothing more to say would be a favourable position.

Evasion was the problem then and evasion continues. So the story quietens again for now, but it has advanced exactly zero distance. Those who follow the game still have little clarity on Cape Town, and none on the points of suspicion preceding it. The records of the investigation remain locked, and the players will be more circumspect than ever.

The frustration is that this could all have been over had the administration had the grit to open the wound and flush it out. That could have been 2018, it could have been this week. Instead, all the questions still lie unanswered. There’s nothing surer than that the same things will flare up next time around.