Melbourne: While Steve Smith has one former captain in his corner, his hopes of captaining Australia again may have been wounded – perhaps fatally – by Cameron Bancroft.
While the interviews Bancroft and Smith conducted with Fox Cricket, and aired on Boxing Day, were intriguing, they did not offer any new details about the “why” and “who knew what” in the now infamous lunch break on the third afternoon of the third Test against South Africa in Cape Town in March.
David Warner was known to be the architect of the plan to scuff the ball with sandpaper. But by Smith confirming he knew something was up but didn’t do anything about it, and Bancroft confirming Warner had persuaded him to do the job, Warner has been backed into a corner to elaborate on his version of events.
What would have been fresh was if other players had been linked to – or knew of – this plan, or anything earlier, including through the Ashes. That could be a ticking time bomb.
However, disregarding the specifics of who did what, Bancroft’s assertion that he felt he would have let the team down had he not done what was asked of him highlighted the toxic nature of the team, and the leadership failures of Smith as captain and Warner as vice-captain.
Bancroft was 25 and in his eighth Test, yet still did not have enough courage to take a stand.
As Michael Vaughan said recently, the best teams have “11 captains” who take ownership. Yet that was far from the case in Smith’s team.
Through that interview, Bancroft may have inadvertently shut the door on Smith’s plan to return to the top role when his leadership suspension expires in March 2020.
CA still hopes Tim Paine can at least survive until that point, with the plan being that Smith – by then with a year back in the fold – would be rehabilitated enough to return should Paine, then 35, be on the way out.
While that is more than a year away, and the firestorm may have eased by that stage, there is a feeling Smith is even more damaged now – perhaps mortally – in terms of his leadership ambitions.
That Warner was subsequently banned from ever having a formal leadership role again highlighted what the Cricket Australia brass felt of his role in this and, as Simon Katich noted, perhaps his rap sheet over the years.
It’s easy to pile on Smith right now but it must be pointed out he is serving his time, has scored runs in NSW Premier Cricket and last week declared he had learnt much about himself during the ban and was looking forward to again being available for selection on March 29.
But there is a bigger picture here.
The Australian captaincy must be without impunity. Will Smith have the respect of his teammates and rival players should he return in the top role?
Will he be able to pull a teammate into line who may have transgressed and that player take heed without questioning whether Smith truly has the right to do so?
The sledging Smith receives could be merciless. Will he able to deal with that and then focus on his batting and tactics and team matters?
In a second incarnation, how would he really change the culture of the side?
Has he really emerged from the “gilded bubble” the team was said to have lived in during and before his tenure?
This is a man who quit school, had a manager at 18 and was representing his country at 21. What has really changed?
Dean Jones, who knew a thing or two about headlines during his career, took to social media to vent his frustration.
“What these interviews have done… and when Warner does his with 60 mins… will just throw more fuel on the fire. All 3 were badly advised. Just keep quiet boys… do your time and play…. that’s if they get that chance again,” he wrote on Twitter.
As many have noted in recent days, Smith has been poorly advised in his media dealings, his interview last week coming a day after he had used a Vodafone advertisement – in which he spoke of his “dark days” – to help push his public rehabilitation. That also raised eyebrows for its timing so close to the showcase Test of the summer.
Smith has played the blame game this week, rehashing the events of Hobart two years ago when then CA chief executive James Sutherland and former high performance boss Pat Howard vented their feelings to the players after the series loss to South Africa.
“We don’t pay you to play, we pay you to win,” Sutherland reportedly said.
It’s never a good look when the “suits” get involved in dressing-room matters. Yes, that highlighted CA’s “winning-without-counting-the-costs” mentality but Smith said post-match that defeat would be the making of him as captain.
Unfortunately, that “making” was a winning mantra that went too far in a team the public did not warm to.
It should be pointed out Sutherland, at the request of the CA board, did warn the players about their behaviour after an ugly and heated first Test in Durban – but nothing changed.
That was a failure of all parties, not just of Smith.
What comes next could be even more explosive should Warner, said to be in a “dark place” and reeling at the latest series of interviews, opt to go public and add to his version of events.
It could further erode Smith’s hopes of regaining the captaincy.
Warner has yet to elaborate on what drove him to get Bancroft to do the dirty work, coming at a time when a series full of sledging and ill-feeling was slipping away.
Many, many questions remain. Here are two for Warner – why were the local Super Sport cameras already following him in Durban and was there anything beneath his taped left hand? We are not suggesting there was anything illegal but these are fair questions.
Former captain Ricky Ponting believes Smith can return to the top role because he has “owned up about what his leadership failures”.
Ponting says he personally could “forgive” Smith, as many will and should, but forgetting is another issue.
And this is a story that may never go away, for the first question Smith would probably get at his first press conference as a reinstalled captain would be: “Can you guarantee there won’t be repeat of the ball tampering?” Thus rehashing the whole ordeal.
Smith said last week he could return next year an even better batsman – and that’s something all cricket lowers would rejoice in – for he, Kane Williamson and Virat Kohli are probably without peer. Why not just let him concentrate on this?
When Paine’s tenure as skipper is up, there is a good argument to suggest a fresh slate – and captain – will be required.
There may be no obvious candidates right now but it’s something already on CA’s mind.