It was heart-rending to see Steve Smith’s press conference video yesterday. A success story, a role-model, a hero reduced to zero. It was difficult to associate this diffident-looking, devastated and broken man with the swashbuckling batsman we loved. One could not help feeling very sorry. Such a sad self-inflicted turn of events for one of the most talented cricketers of all time.
On one hand, this was Karma for Australian cricket. For years now, Aussie cricketers have been throwing their tantrums around, under the name of playing hard. They waxed poetic of the famous “line”, drawing it unilaterally for themselves and for others, in such a duplicitous way that they lost a lot of respect in the cricket world. I respect and admire Steve Waugh immensely, but I cannot forgive him for legitimising and even idolising cheap sledging in Aussie cricket and hence world cricket. And once that happened, there was no looking back. This team decided what was personal and what was not, what meant racial and what did not. Sarawan’s sledge back to McGrath was considered personal – but McGrath’s original remark that drew that retort was completely fine! Adam Gilchrist – another cricketer I very much admire, criticised his opponents for not “walking”, completely ignoring his own team mates who only talked and did not walk. All these holier-than-thou gimmicks of the Aussies were not just displaying their arrogance but also self-feeding it; and they were filling their pot of Karma, unbeknownst to them; respect for them was going down, sentiment against them was going up. It was so apparent in the reactions they got after gentleman Warner’s incident in Cape Town last week – the Aussies not just did not get sympathy, they got derision and ridicule in response. And then the pot of Karma overturned, and it turned so completely that Smith, Warner, Bancroft and all of Aussie Cricket came under its spell.
The whole ball-tampering incident was a big slap on the face of the gentleman’s game. It exemplified everything the famous spirit of cricket denounces. The intent of cheating, the deliberate planning of cheating, the act of cheating itself and then the dastardly act of hiding the cheating – all on the screen for the world to see. There was nothing between the lines to read, nothing left to interpretation, it was pure unadulterated cheating. No third umpire needed, no referee needed, as the realisation of what had happened dawned on the world. And while we were still reeling from it, and hoping our eyes and brains had made some mistake, came the press conference with Smith admitting not just to the cheating but also to deliberately planning it. I am sure that was a moment of stunned silence in the world of cricket fans – as they tried to come to grips with what they had seen and now what they were hearing. There was a sinking feeling beginning to take form – of shock, denial, acceptance, sadness, betrayal, ….. And then Smith’s self-assured “I am still the right man for the job…” statement with regard to captaincy. I think that was the last straw. Out poured the reactions in an avalanche that Smith & Co were swept away by.
The reaction was as much to the cheating as to Smith’s nonchalance about it, not just to the gravity of the dishonesty but to the arrogance that the statement reeked of. The yellow tape Bancroft used tampered not just with the ball but with the precarious balance the world had maintained between loving the Aussie team for their cricket and disliking the non-shiny side of their arrogant style – and once those floodgates were open, Smith & Co had no chance. A tad unfair, maybe, but Karma is never fair in the short term – always in the long term.
A lot has been written about the need for Aussie cricket to reflect on this and make amends not just outwardly but to how they think about the game, about themselves and others; how they need to not just redraw their “line” but also understand that the line has to be drawn with mutual consent because they need to accord the same respect to others that they expect for themselves. I do hope they take this up seriously, because we all know when they do, they do it so well. They are a team that cannot just change things for themselves, they can do it for the whole cricket world which looks up to them. This is their chance.
Coming back to Smith’s second press conference though, it was very sad to see him in the state he has reduced himself to. It was very obvious that the enormity of the situation, the gravity of his gaffe, the impact of his arrogant impunity had finally dawned upon him in its full ugliness. The flood of reactions had washed away the screen of arrogance that had earlier masked his vision. In his own words, he was “gutted” by what he saw. His contrition seemed absolute, his ask for forgiveness very real. My heart went out to him. I am still angry at what he did, but I am much closer to forgiving him than I was before seeing that regret. And with that emotion ebbing now, I am thoughtful – why did he do it? Why was that need to win (or was it to not lose?) so high that it led him to cross the line? This was not a dotted line he was crossing, it was a hard one; it was also not as though he overstepped by mistake, he did so deliberately. What was that thought process that led to it, I wonder…
I come from a conservative upbringing where we were taught never to get close to that line. That’s why I operate at an arm’s distance from the line and am happy and comfortable with it. I understand people are different and others do like to operate close to the line, unlike me. I have nothing against that. But then one needs to take the precautions needed when you are so close to it, because when you are, it’s so easy to cross it – either by mistake or because you are tempted to test out the other side. The choice of operating in that space has to be coupled with the consciousness that there is NO room for error, and with a fortitude of character to say ‘no’ when temptation beckons. That’s what Smith lacked – I know he called it an error of judgment but I would call it lack of that strength of character needed to say a firm NO to that temptation, a pre-requisite to choosing to stay so close to the line. Of course Smith sees now how much sheen of his life and career he staked to roughen up the ball – he should have had the mental makeup of seeing it before he made that call. And he should have had people and coaches around him to develop that thinking.
For that, you need the right coaches. Coaches who provoke crowds to make a player cry are not the kind who can develop this grain of character in their teams. A culture that encourages one to “head-butt the line” does not help either. This is a fallacious concept devised by people to rationalise what they wanted to do. A line by design is such that if you don’t control yourself against it, you will go over. So, head-butting it is synonymous to crossing it, and comes with its consequences, a simple lesson in geometry and ethics that hopefully people have learnt very dearly.
I do admire Smith’s courage and honesty in that press conference – saying all that he did has made him rise from the ashes of what happened, making many angry and betrayed fans like me come close to forgiving him. Had he shown the same humility in the first press conference, he may have seen a lesser reaction, who knows. But his honesty was very touching and refreshing.
This saga teaches us yet again what we should know intuitively – that the “line” is critical – it’s not a one-dimensional figure as defined in geometry. It defines one’s multi-dimensional character. It is to be respected and acknowledged, whether it is in the ethical space like in ball tampering, or when in deciding personal space between us and others, like in sledging.
I hope we as friends, parents, teachers, coaches and mentors can help our young folk to understand the importance of this line and how to treat it. I hope we can help them develop the sense to distinguish a dotted line from a hard one and that grain of character which can help them make the right decisions when playing close to it, if they have to. I hope Steve’s turmoil at what he has done to himself and all around him is a permanent lesson to him, and I hope his young fans take his teary advice to heart. I hope cricket in Australia and in the world takes a lesson from this episode that competitiveness is important but there are other things more important than that, that we cannot play a game without giving each other respect, and that no person or team is so great that they can decide unilaterally how they will treat others or decide where the line needs to be drawn. I hope we get back the sense of “what’s cricket” and what’s not. Then all this pain, anguish, emotion might have been worth something.
We will forgive you, Steve, not just as yet, but hopefully soon. We hope you forgive yourself soon too, so that you can move on and still achieve all those great things you are meant to. We will wait for it. In the meanwhile I hope and pray that all of us respect the “line”, whether in cricket or in life in general, so that it does not display itself in its full fury like it has to Steve.