Despite three years having passed, the cricketers at the centre of the Sandpapergate scandal cannot expect forgiveness from sports-worshipping Australians any time soon. By Bharat Sundaresan.

It’s just not cricket

Australian cricketer Cameron Bancroft is questioned by umpires Richard Illingworth (left) and Nigel Llong during the third day of the third Test against South Africa at Newlands in March 2018.
Australian cricketer Cameron Bancroft is questioned by umpires Richard Illingworth (left) and Nigel Llong during the third day of the third Test against South Africa at Newlands in March 2018.
Credit: Gianluigi Guercia / AFP

In January this year, Trevor Chappell admitted he had never really “spoken in detail” with brother Greg about the underarm incident. It was part of an interview based around the 40th anniversary of the infamous episode that robbed Australian cricket of its innocence. The tinge of irony in the youngest Chappell’s revelation was impossible to avoid – four decades on, the rest of Australia has never really stopped talking, in detail, about that fateful day at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

So, when Sandpapergate again made headlines around the country last month, its resurgence seemed inevitable. It’d after all been only a little over three years since Cameron Bancroft was caught with his hand down his pants in front of a few dozen cameras during the third Test against South Africa in Cape Town. And all it took to set the ball bouncing again was for the beleaguered opener to offer some ambiguous comments in his interview to The Guardian about his teammates’ alleged involvement in the ball-tampering fiasco. If anything, it also gave away the fact that, like the Chappell brothers, the current Australian players also haven’t really spoken to each other about the events from Newlands stadium in any “great detail”.

It’s probably best they do, because they can be sure Sandpapergate isn’t going away any time soon. If there’s one aspect of Australian society you learn about very quickly as an overseas settler, it’s the fact that this sports-loving nation doesn’t believe in letting sleeping scandals lie, especially if they involve cricket. You simply have to look at how often the underarm incident gets brought up, if not in general discourse, then in a vignette for a series or as a parody, and definitely when the Kiwis are in town.

What is it then that stops Australians from letting go of the outrage they attach so strongly with any transgression on the sporting field from one of their own? It perhaps starts with the emphasis they place on sport and its connection to their national culture. And even if it doesn’t define Aussies as a society, its close association to Australianness is rather evident. No wonder you had every Australian, regardless of whether they were invested in cricket or not and including then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, expressing their disgust at what they’d seen on TV.

David Rowe, emeritus professor of cultural research at Western Sydney University’s Institute for Culture and Society, has spent many years studying and researching the sociological impact of sport on various cultures, particularly in an Australian context. He has also written several books on the “unruly trinity” of sport, culture and the media. A couple of years ago, he compared the citizenship tests in Canada, Britain and Australia to get a better understanding of this close bond.

“In the ‘common bond’, which is the document given to people taking the citizenship test, it refers to Australia as a ‘nation of good sports’. So, they’re saying Australianness isn’t only about being good at sport, but it’s about being a good sport. That should explain the shame around Sandpapergate and the underarm incident,” says Rowe.

“In both cases, it was a question of this being a decline of values, a decline of decency. It was embarrassing and it was low-rent – sandpaper of all things, or rolling the ball along the ground. You couldn’t even admire its audacity in many ways. It made Australia look cheap and underhanded. That’s why it doesn’t go away.”

Like most sports, cricket is no stranger to scandals. But for most, ball tampering might count more as a necessary evil than some sort of unforgivable crime. It’s been well publicised that even the greatest players in the history of cricket have occasionally pushed the envelope when it comes to “taking care” of the ball. And for most non-Australians, the quantum of punishment brought down upon  Bancroft, Steve Smith and David Warner did count as a massive overreaction.

Other countries have had to endure greater indignities. Such as the match-fixing scandals that have plagued Indian cricket over the years. The collective reactions to these, however, have been much milder. Nobody really associates it with an attack on national pride. One morning in May 2013, in the wake of the Indian Premier League (IPL) spot-fixing scandal, four cricketers, including a World Cup winner, were paraded on camera as enemies of the state with their faces covered with black cloths. Only a few hours later, thousands filled the stadium and millions tuned in on TV to get their daily IPL fix.

What is fascinating in Australia is how other sporting codes seem to get a little more leeway, even if the players’ offences might be more criminal in nature. While cases of AFL or NRL players being found guilty of domestic or sexual abuse are dealt with strongly, they rarely seem to become a national crisis. According to Rowe, this is where the proverbial moral panic takes over.

“There is a question of proportionality here,” he says. “There is no necessary relationship between the act and the scandal. Something like Sandpapergate or the underarm incident, they immediately get blown up because they’re captured in real time in front of very large audiences, and national pride is at stake. Considering how regional every other sport is, cricket is the national sport, which in some ways unites Australians. Cricketers are held to a higher standard of conduct than any other Australian sportspeople just because of the mist that surrounds the game.

“In a digital world, a scandal is always around to be reactivated. With moral panic, there’s amplification and de-amplification. Since the ball-tampering and underarm issues were both highly visual in cultural terms, they’ll continue triggering cultural memories and continue to lie bubbling under the surface.”

They therefore have not only the tendency to blow up every so often but also to dictate the commentary around the overall culture of Australian cricket. Such as we’ve seen since Cape Town. It’s meant that Australia has gone from celebrating a captain who would openly talk about psychologically disintegrating the opposition (Steve Waugh) to denouncing one for uttering a generic cuss word on the stump mic that gets thrown about once every three minutes during everyday Australian life (Tim Paine). The upshot of the latter was that Paine offered an apology the morning after he’d indulged in a war of words with Indian all-rounder Ravichandran Ashwin at the SCG. It was as if Paine the statesman, assigned with the task of taking the Australian team past the Cape Town ignominy, had in that moment dragged them back towards it.

It is Trevor Chappell who perhaps summed up the aftermath of Sandpapergate the best soon after it had transpired. Not surprising, considering he’d lived since 1981 with the tag of being the villain who brought disrepute to Australia on, of all places, the cricket field. He spoke about how Bancroft, Smith and Warner would have to “live with it forever” and acknowledged he had never quite managed to shake off the underarm incident. And as Bancroft, the Trevor Chappell of Sandpapergate found out last month, his role in the unsavoury episode is likely to follow him around for quite a while yet. Because Australia isn’t seeking closure from it any time soon.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 5, 2021 as "It's just not cricket".

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