Test cricket is a game of second chances. Of all the ways in which it imitates life, this is the most subtle as well as the most powerful. A batsman dismissed for nought in the first innings gets a chance to score a century in the second; a bowler wicketless at first go can take five before the match is completed. Every player has a chance to redeem himself.
The concept of the second chance is built into our religions based on the undeniable fact that as human beings we make mistakes. We lie, we cheat, we make poor judgements, we play across the line, we misjudge a throw and get run out. We also make amends, compensate, retribute.
Low points of the game
When we get caught, we pay for it. When Steve Smith was Australia's captain, he was banned for a year for the ball tampering episode ('sandpapergate') in the Newlands Test in South Africa. It was one of the low points of the game — a captain deliberately hatching a plot to cheat the opposition by altering the state of the ball using sandpaper. And then getting a junior member of the team to carry out the physical act before the cameras on the field of play. It was an act of desperation or stupidity — or entitlement, depending on your idea of the Australian cricket ethos.
Smith bid a tearful (but temporary) farewell to cricket. He was just 29 then — youth was never an excuse, of course — and must have known he might get back the top post one day.
Now that he is vice-captain to Pat Cummins in the Ashes series next week , that chance is just a niggle away.
Smith made 774 runs in the last Ashes series, returning to the game after a year's ban (his captaincy ban ended in March 2020). As Greg Chappell wrote in a newspaper column, quoting Gandhi, "No human being is so bad as to be beyond redemption."
Not in good light
Chappell was speaking of Tim Paine, the man chosen to lead Australia and clear up the stench of that ball tampering scandal that rocked world cricket. It turned out recently that Paine had been sexting a colleague back in 2018, and although Cricket Australia had exonerated him then, the fear that the story was about to go public caused Paine to quit, and the administrators to let him go having cleared him earlier. It doesn't show Cricket Australia in good light.
Cricket captains are no longer picked on the basis of their strategic or technical brilliance but on their image as clean, virtuous human beings who will not cause sponsors any embarrassment.
In Australia currently such a player is Cummins, and his insistence on having Smith as vice captain has brought the latter a step closer to the job he once held. Cummins has given us a new term too — "elevated vice- captaincy", by which he means that his deputy will be leading the team on and off, especially when Cummins himself is in the middle of a bowling spell.
Redemption built into it
Smith has expressed remorse. He will have to live with the consequences of the failure of his leadership in the Test which saw Aussie behaviour at its worst. When he was punished, the possibility of redemption was built into it, as Cricket Australia made clear then.
Redemption cannot come without forgiveness; forgiveness follows remorse. But first there has to be acceptance or acknowledgement of the offence. This is the lesson from South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation commission which looked into the wrongdoings during the apartheid era and led to amnesties.
When the sandpaper scandal first broke, many felt that Smith and the others ought to be banned for life. They had brought the game into disrepute, after all. And it was not a spur-of-the-moment act. The idea of a pre-determined attack on the fairness of the game was reprehensible to many including the then Australian Prime Minister who spoke out.
Result of strong sentiment
Others, including former England great Mike Brearley felt the reaction was as much a result of strong sentiment against a team that gave the impression of being entitled and claimed to play "hard but fair" but had now been shown up. Technically, ball tampering was only a Level 2 offence in the game (it has now been promoted to a Level 3 offence).
Smith turned 32 this year (Cummins is 28), and has a few good years of cricket left. He has paid his debt for a deed however disgraceful, and deserves a second chance like anybody else.
"Cricket is played by human beings," wrote Brearley in his Spirit of Cricket , "We have to learn to suffer and endure periods of impotence and vulnerability. Everyone is liable to backslide. We need justice to be both discriminating and tempered with mercy…"
That applies to both cricket and life.
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