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‘Desperate’ Australia succumbed under pressure of expectations

It would seem as though the Aussies do not have the firepower anymore for World domination.

Steve Smith & Cameron Bancroft News - Deep Dasgupta
Steve Smith and Cameron Bancroft of Australia. (Photo by Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

It had promised to be the series of the year. With Australia winning the first Test in Durban and Kagiso Rabada taking an 11-for in the second game in Port Elizabeth, the doors were wide open for two absorbing final Tests to decide the apt winners. But then, non-cricket took prevalence over cricket and the entire Australian team was found involved in abetting in the awful crime of tampering the ball in the third Test in Cape Town to regain the advantage.

The youngest member of the team – Cameron Bancroft – was made use of to execute the plan and when everything was caught on camera, Bancroft along with skipper Steven Smith admitted to the negative tactic they had adopted to return in the game and the series.

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‘Desperation’ drove Australia to win and that’s where the problem is

According to Captain Smith, it is the “desperation” that drove them to cheat and herein lies the root of this immoral act. Aside far from what they were a decade back, Australia today is ranked third in the ICC Test list behind India and South Africa with Trans-Tasman rivals New Zealand, Ashes opponents England and even Sri Lanka not very far behind. This puts Australia under the pressure of a lifetime to differentiate themselves from the rest, something they had done with style from the Allan Border days right up to those of Ricky Ponting.

Border had revived Australian cricket; Smith couldn’t

The circumstances in which Smith took over as the captain of Australia have similarities with the time when Border had assumed responsibility. Border had a relatively weaker side compared to some of its previous bunches but his no-nonsense approach and razor-sharp take on the game revived the country’s cricket to great heights, including winning the first world cup for the Baggy Greens in 1987. Australia had the never-say-die attitude towards the game even before Border’s arrival and he polished it further to give it a long legacy. The Mark Taylors, Steve Waughs, Pontings and Michael Clarkes only maintained it, sometimes to a level of absolute superiority.

But after the exit of the golden generation of Australian cricket, the team’s slide happened consistently. Smith’s superhuman batting form succeeded in hiding the collective mediocrity to a great extent but the Australian players knew that the expectations to live up to the reputation of their predecessors weren’t easy.

It is an irony that Australia, who have been known to outsmart their opponents through shrewd and ruthless mind games, could not handle the pressure this time against South Africa who they have beaten in their own den over the years. In fact, the last time the Proteas defeated Australia at home was way back in 1969-70 and the expectations to keep up the good run against their biggest rivals in the Southern Hemisphere in away conditions perhaps did the young team in once they found the third Test match slowly slipping out of their hands.

Smith, a captain with dubious traits

It is also an irony that Smith, who won the prestigious Border Medal on more than one occasion, could not rise as a leader like his predecessor in Cape Town. He was found to be a victim of his infamous “brain fade” which had earned him brickbats against India in a Test in Bengaluru last year. Worse, while the Bengaluru incident saw Smith on the dock, the Cape Town scandal saw the entire Australian cricket team and the pride of a cricket-loving nation facing the humiliation of their lifetime. Just belting the ball into the stands doesn’t make good players great leaders. This Australian team’s senior members have shown how their reckless approach has reduced the Baggy Green into a joke the world over.

The Australians have terribly fumbled to take this episode through because they lack quality. In the past, captains like Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting exhibited the killer instincts with success because they had great resources to give shape to their plans.

The skills that people like Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne and Adam Gilchrist and many more in those teams possessed was enough to rattle the opponents by staying within the ambit of cricket. Sledging was still there but it was more about the behavioral part than the technical. But now, with the required skills missing, the Australians’ killer instincts have started producing something heinous and illegal. It doesn’t keep itself limited within the ambit of cricket’s spirits. It’s the game’s good fortune that Australia’s black deeds were caught red-handed by the camera and the team’s leadership had to concede to their fault and try to control the damage. But this time, the damage has been far too great because the camera has made it too conclusive an act.

Australia has also got another problem. The team did not spare a single opponent during their days of glory – be it through verbal attacks on the best players in the opposition ranks, mind games and abuses.

Parallel to their glorious records in cricket, Australia has also been a team which has indulged in immoral acts – right from underarm bowling to instructing the on-field umpires on the verdict to be given. It was more out of arrogance but yet Australia got away with those many a time because they were winning as a better all-round side. Now when they have found themselves in a hole, nobody in the cricketing fraternity is in a mood to forgive them by remembering the treatment that Australia had meted out to them in the past.

Grave act did not even spare a great captain like Hansie Cronje

Ball tampering is seen as a far more sinister design than petty sledging and abuses just like match-fixing and to see the once mighty side involving itself in such a shocking exercise, the outrage was far too big, even from within Australia who took it as a national humiliation.

In the past, we have seen a revered leader like Hansie Cronje of South Africa lost all his hard-earned respect in just one series against India in 2000 because of match-fixing allegations.

Cronje and the bunch of cricketers in his team who found themselves in the controversy could not win the respect back and the former South African leader had a sorry end to his life in a plane crash in June 2002. India’s famed captain Mohammad Azharuddin and a popular player like Ajay Jadeja could not also regain the prestige that the game had earned them because of similar charges. Smith and his men might not have been aware of those shameful precedents as their action suggested.

Australian cricket is at the crossroads now. From the prime minister to the chairman of the cricket board to the common supporter, everybody in the island nation whose cricketing journey had started (1877) well before its journey as a country (1901) is wondering what had struck their country’s reputation. For many, there was no need for Australia to take help of such means after their grand show in the last Ashes and the first Test against South Africa. But for the cricketers, the unseen but elephantine pressure to stay above the rest was perhaps too much to absorb. And hence they slipped.

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