AFP Photo
AFP Photo

BRISBANE: Young cricketers across Australia have been swept up in the discontent as politicians, commentators and players demand strong action in the wake of a cheating scandal that has rocked the foundations of a national institution — the country’s cricket team.

With their heroes being humbled, junior players and their families and friends are having their versions of the “Say it ain’t so?” moment. Australia captain Steve Smith, vice captain David Warner and Cameron Bancroft have been suspended and sent home from South Africa for their roles in a ball-tampering attempt during the third test match against South Africa last weekend.

Benji, a right-arm wrist spinner from Sydney’s inner west who plays about 40 matches each year, didn’t think the Australians needed to cheat to win. That has been a common theme.

Shannon O’Connell is a junior coach and his sons Riley and Aidan both play at the Valley District Cricket Club in Brisbane, where the likes of former international captains Allan Border and Kepler Wessels were registered and where Australia coach Darren Lehmann has a family connection.

The O’Connells wondered why there needed to be a conspiracy among the senior team leaders and Bancroft to tamper with the ball when the Aussie bowlers were clearly in good form following a 4-0 Ashes series victory and a win to open the four-match series in South Africa.

And that’s what makes Benji Harris mad. The Australian players “have said things about other people cheating,” he said. “I thought if they’re saying these things, they obviously don’t cheat.”

The cricket season usually finishes at the end of the Australian summer when attention turns to the various football leagues. But because cricket is the only sport that truly unites every state for a full season, the ball-tampering scandal has been a hot topic among mates, at schools and around family dinner tables.

What constitutes the so-called Spirit of Cricket is being widely debated. This is, after all, very serious stuff in a sports-mad country such as Australia, where the job of the test cricket captain is considered by some to be on par with the government leader.

Australia has been a long-time pacesetter in cricket and forged itself as being the yardstick of the firm but fair approach, but the mantra about “not crossing the line” between right and wrong has becoming a hollow refrain.

Clearly, there was no such line in the locker room during a break in play in the third cricket test in Cape Town last weekend when the players discussed a way to rub tape covered with dirt onto the ball to change its condition. It’s been widely deemed as inexcusable. Kids like Benji want to forgive the players but are finding it tough.

He’s been playing the game competitively for six years, but says he’s “loved it for much longer than that.” The Harris family had cherished a photo of Benji and his two brothers taken with Smith — wearing his Big Bash League Twenty20 league uniform — near their home in 2013.

The photograph isn’t taking pride of place right now, although Benji Harris believes eventually the angry public should forgive the players. “But it’s hard to because they’ve done such a thing that has put a label on the whole of Australia, that we are cheaters,” he said. “It’s not the whole of Australia that has done this. So It’s hard to forgive them for putting something on us that we haven’t done.”

Some say the situation has been blown out of proportion, highlighting how stars of the game from other countries have either admitted to or been charged or found guilty of tampering with the ball during international matches, but rarely faced a sanction of more than one or two games.

“I’ve heard so many instances of things like that but what (the Australians) did was a lot worse,” Benji said. “They stepped over the line by a long way — they tampered with the ball.”

Riley O’Connell, who will be 16 next month and has played 11 seasons of cricket, was watching the game on TV when he noticed Bancroft’s bungled attempt to change the condition of the ball. He’s a pace bowler, so he’s aware how having one rough side can help with swinging the ball.

His first thought was that Bancroft may have been subtly coerced, similar to the way that rookie players are often placed in the more dangerous fielding positions close to the bat, or that he felt his selection may have been in jeopardy if he didn’t come up with a way to help the team.

Regardless, he saw it as a reflection of a poor team culture and an immature captain. He said he knows what cricket should be about through reinforcement from his parents and his grandfather, a long-time player and coach, and emphasis on the spirit of the game from coaches in the younger age groups before teenagers start focusing more heavily on individual skills.

“You could tell they were doing something that shouldn’t be done,” he said. “I’ve seen other international teams doing it (but) it’s not in the spirit of the game. “It made me angry, yeah. You’re picked to represent your country — you’re supposed to represent what they stand for.”

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