It is as if Lionel Messi or LeBron James were banned for a year for cheating. But in this case the superstar is Steve Smith, one of the best cricketers in the world and the captain of the national team in Australia, where fair play is prized and cricket is a national obsession.
On Thursday, Smith returned to Australia, which was still reeling from the scandal and demanding answers over his failing to intervene in a ball-tampering scheme while on tour in South Africa and initially lying about it to sports officials and the news media.
Cricket Australia has a lost its naming sponsor only seven months into a three-year, $15 million contract. But more broadly the country is coming to grips with cheating in one its most popular sports, and asking itself if its self-satisfaction in fair play was a myth all along.
“I know I will regret this for the rest of my life,” Smith said, fighting back tears at a news conference in Sydney. “I made a serious error of judgment and I now understand the consequences. It was a failure of my leadership. I will do everything I can to make up for my mistake and the damage it has caused.”
But to understand the fall of Smith, who was barred from all Australian international and domestic cricket for 12 months and from the 2018 season of the Indian Premier League, it is necessary to understand his rise.
In Test cricket — the traditional five-day format of the sport — among all players who have scored at least 2,000 runs, Smith has the second-best career average per innings. His 61.37 average is behind only that of Sir Donald Bradman, whose 99.94 average is so far ahead of the competition that, to cricket fans, mere utterance of those four digits evokes his name.
Smith’s ascent has been particularly cherished because he seemed to represent traits that Australians like to consider their own.
He was largely self-taught. He honed his technique by playing in his back garden, on uneven paving, drawing comparisons to Bradman, who spent hours throwing a golf ball against a water tank, and hitting it with a stump.
Another resonant trait is Smith’s sheer resilience and audacity.
At the start of his international career, Smith was widely regarded as a joke. When Smith was recalled by Australia midway through the team’s humiliating defeat by England in 2010-11, he shrugged it off, explaining that his role was merely about “having fun and making sure everyone else around is having fun, whether it be telling a joke or something like that.”
Although his batting technique was dissected ruthlessly, Smith went on to double down on his idiosyncratic method, and enjoyed a sustained run of success that is one of the more remarkable in cricket history. Since a match in Perth at the end of 2013, which Smith has identified as the turning point in his career, he averages 70.71 in Test matches, scoring a century every four innings.
He has done all this with an everyman appeal endearing to Australians. He is “one of the more genuinely decent people to skipper the Australian team in recent decades,” the longtime cricket journalist Peter Lalor wrote in The Australian. He is so driven and obsessed with the sport that his fiancee has said that Smith sometimes makes her throw balls into the bowling machine, to give him extra batting practice.
So the revelations about the match in South Africa have left Australia aghast.
It has been confirmed that Smith did not intervene despite full knowledge that the team’s vice captain, David Warner, was instructing Cameron Bancroft, the most junior player, to rub sandpaper on the ball, altering its aerodynamics.
Warner also received a yearlong suspension, and Bancroft was barred for nine months.
“To see the way my old man has been, and my mum, it hurts,” Smith said. “I just want to say I’m sorry for the pain I have brought to Australia and the fans and the public. It’s devastating.”
Some have offered sympathy or support for Smith.
“Hope everybody has had their pound of flesh now,” said Mark Butcher, a former English player.
Faf du Plessis, South Africa’s captain, who has twice been reprimanded for tampering — he was fined, never suspended — sent Smith a text message to express his sympathies. “I feel for the guy,” du Plessis said, adding that he considered the length of the ban harsh.
Others, however, said the punishment would send an appropriate message.
There is a link between Australia’s “boorish and arrogant” behavior over the last few years and this incident, wrote Mickey Arthur, a South African who coached Australia from 2011 to 2013. “Cricket Australia needed to make a stand.”
Beyond the specifics, this episode promises to have wider repercussions. In the sport generally, it is inviting a debate about ball tampering — widely believed to be endemic in the sport, albeit more subtly than by Australia’s players last week — and the game’s entire conduct, after myriad recent problems with behavior.
David Richardson, chief executive of the International Cricket Council, the sport’s governing body, said, “Enough is enough” after “one of the worst periods in recent memory” for the game.
In Australia, the affair is raising questions about the country’s notion of being the land of the “fair go,” and whether the cricket team’s apparent “win at all costs” approach is emblematic of a deeper strand in the country.
The Australian foreign minister, Julie Bishop, said that many high commissioners and ambassadors had declared their shock over the incident, and that it had damaged the country’s reputation abroad.
“Australia is seen as a country that plays fair, that plays by the rules, abides by the rules,” she said.
Smith is unlikely to captain Australia again. But, at only 28 years old, he is widely expected to make an international comeback after his ban.
“Cricket is the greatest game in the world,” Smith said. “It’s been my life, and I hope it can be again. Good people make mistakes.”