Sandpaper-gate – If that was justice, I’m a Kakadu plum.

This article first appeared in The Cricketer online in November 2018.


Picture credit: Newshub, New Zealand

The Cricket Australia Board met last week [20 November 2018] to consider submissions made by players’ union, the Australian Cricketers’ Association, which argued for the immediate lifting of the sanctions imposed on Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft following the so-called Sandpaper-gate scandal.

The Board dismissed the submissions on the grounds that “the original decision … to sanction the players was determined after rigorous discussion and consideration … CA maintains that both the length and nature of the sanctions remain an appropriate response in light of the considerable impact on the reputation of Australian cricket, here and abroad”. Of course, what CA regards as rigour, appropriate and reputation goes to the very nub of the problem.

As Ian Hislop famously remarked when Private Eye emerged on the wrong side of a libel judgement, “If that’s justice, I’m a banana!” The sanctions handed down by CA in March were equally fruit shaped, and the decision last week to uphold them added a Melba sauce.

At the time, ball-tampering was a Level 2 offence under ICC Playing Conditions, grouped with offences of similar standing, such as time wasting – think Stuart Broad constantly re-tying his bootlaces – or a bowler running on a protected area.

The ICC Code of Conduct imposed a maximum penalty for a Level 2 offence of 100 per cent match fee and/or up to a one-Test ban. Both were imposed on Smith. Bancroft was fined 75% of his match fee. Warner emerged without sanction.

The penalties imposed by the ICC were entirely in keeping with its Code of Conduct and with precedent. Two years earlier, in a similarly high-profile examination of ball-tampering, colloquially known as Mint-gate or Lolly-gate, Faf du Plessis was fined his match fee and given three demerit points – a one Test ban required four – for applying sweet residue to the ball. The case led to a far more forensic look at the practice with just as much hand-wringing and naval gazing without so much as a one-match ban for Du Plessis.

The practice of using substances, from dirt to sugary saliva, in an attempt to make the ball swing this way or that has been widespread at every level of the game for decades. Marcus Trescothick admitted in his biography to working his way through 15 Murray mints a day with the sole purpose of applying artificial shine to the ball.

Lawrence Booth made light of the faux shock generated in some quarters. “Remember,” he said, “this is the same batsman who, during the previous home series against Australia, spilt his confectionery all over the Headingley pitch in front of the square-leg umpire.” On that occasion, Trescothick had a pocketful of lollipops, but the match referee felt no need to wield even a really little stick.

Yet there have been barely a handful of charges for ball-tampering. One of the few was Rahul Dravid, who in 2004 was fined 50% of his match fee for rubbing a partially eaten lozenge on the ball. After Mint-gate, Matt Prior commented “Amongst the players the lines are pretty clear and use of sweets to shine the ball is accepted … EVERYONE uses sweets! You’d have to ban a player every match”.


The inevitable perception is the investigatory team flew out to South Africa with Turnbull’s admonitions ringing in their ears and One-Year Ban pre-printed on their luggage labels


Perhaps most tellingly, Steve Smith admitted “We along with every other team around the world shine the ball the same way [as South Africa]”.

The ICC and domestic boards have routinely turned a blind eye to the practice and operated a “nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more” approach to policing ball-tampering.  After Mint-gate, the MCC and the ICC took the view that ball-tampering, as an offence, was correctly positioned within the hierarchy of misdemeanours and decided that no changes were necessary. 

Former Pakistan batsman Ramiz Raja, a member of the  MCC world cricket committee, reassured players that it was less the practice that was the issue – “Mike [Brearley] put it absolutely brilliantly … You must not get caught. It is as simple as that”. This is jurisprudential clarity as offered by Eric Idle and Monty Python. 

In terms of the advantage being sought by ball-tampering, there is a belief, wholly unproven it should be said, that keeping one side of the ball shiny helps conventional swing while roughing up the other side will enhance reverse swing.  NASA scientist Dr Rabindra Mehta, who has made a study of cricket-ball aerodynamics, believes the effect of such interventions is overplayed, but let’s focus on intent rather than actual effect. 

Du Plessis attempted to affect the performance of the ball by making one side artificially shiny. Bancroft attempted to change the ball’s performance by making one side artificially rough. In terms of intent and desired outcome, the two events are identical. They differed only in the means chosen to alter the condition of the ball.

So why were Smith and Warner banned for 12 months while Du Plessis merely lost his match fee – a penalty, incidentally, that he considered so unfair that he appealed the decision?

When the scandal was first exposed, there was not the slightest notion that CA had remotely transitioned from that laissezfaire world where ball-tampering was met with a Gallic shrug and a disinterested pull on a Gauloises to one where evangelical zeal held sway. The awkward press conference that followed the capture on television of the inept attempt to rough up the ball was an admit-and-contain strategy that somebody in charge signed off. 

The incident required a quick response and the contrite-brazen-it-out approach looked to have been drawn from a well-thumbed scenario manual that had pretty much worked in the past.

The intervention of an outraged premier Malcolm Turnbull and the Australian Sports Commission changed everything. From that moment, ball-tampering was no longer an endemic but barely policed offence that led to occasional tuts and wrist-slaps. Seen through a political and commercial filter, with the latest round of broadcast rights negotiations at a critical point, it became a national cause célèbre requiring the swiftest and severest action. CA did not disappoint.

Once they were stung into re-evaluating the event, the whole thing, from conduct to penalty, took less than four days. Let’s accept that the players’ early admission of guilt contributed to the speed of it all, but the pace of the ostensibly deep investigation was breathtaking. The investigating team, led by Iain Roy, CA’s Head of Integrity, and high performance manager Pat Howard arrived in Cape Town on the morning of Monday, March 26.


Ball-tampering was a subterfuge to which the authorities largely turned a blind eye. It was low art and low risk; a cheat’s charter as much fashioned in St John’s Wood and Dubai as it was employed by the three Australians


Chief executive James Sutherland arrived on the morning of Tuesday, March 27. By the morning of Wednesday, March 28 the bans were in place. Justice seemed less summary than flown in. The inevitable perception is the investigatory team flew out to South Africa with Turnbull’s admonitions ringing in their ears and One-Year Ban pre-printed on their luggage labels.

David Richardson, CEO of the ICC, having both missed and dismissed the opportunity to change attitudes to ball-tampering after Mint-gate had a belated epiphany: “We’ve come to realise,” he said, “that ball-tampering goes to the spirit of the game. I must admit this has been an eye-opener for me personally. We need to look at the penalty imposed”.

It may have been an eye opener for Richardson. Little comfort, I imagine, to Smith, Warner and Bancroft, punished for conduct that the ICC openly admitted it never fully realised was an issue. Ball-tampering was a prestidigitation that the cricket world more or less embraced as part of the game. It was a subterfuge to which the authorities largely turned a blind eye. It was low art and low risk; a cheat’s charter as much fashioned in St John’s Wood and Dubai as it was employed by the three Australians.

The ICC has since upgraded ball-tampering to a Level 3 offence, and additionally increased the sanction for such offences to a six-Test ban.  This is now the official penalty benchmark. After considering the impact of Sandpaper-gate, a six-Test ban is where the ICC positions the offence. Smith and Warner, though, will each miss a total of 48 international matches – 12 Tests, 29 ODIs and seven T20Is – plus all other first-class cricket for a year.  CA abandoned the sledge in favour of the sledgehammer.

The damning Longstaff Ethics Centre review into Australian cricket culture, which flowed from the scandal, was published in October and accused CA of being “arrogant and controlling”. It blamed it for driving a culture of win without counting the costs, an approach, it concluded, that inevitably led to Sandpaper-gate itself.  Longstaff’s observations will have surprised no one with the possible exception of CA itself.

Management and executive casualties have included James Sutherland, coach Darren Lehmann, Pat Howard, chairman David Peever, and director and former team skipper, Mark Taylor.

While the arrogant and controlling architects of Sandpaper-gate, doubtless left with their pensions and other financial packages intact, Smith, Warner and Bancroft remain the whipping boys as Australian cricket continues to self-flagellate, their reputations in tatters, their incomes cut off and their careers stalled.

If one thing has emerged from the decision of CA last week to reconfirm the bans on Smith and co, it’s that it has learned little from the whole sorry saga.  The self-proclaimed rigorous discussion and consideration by Iain Roy and James Sutherland, undertaken in the white heat of panic with a something-must-be-done endgame, have been exposed as lacking natural justice or proportionality.

Eight months on, CA has enjoyed a sufficient cooling-off period to consider its own part in the systematic head-butting of lines revealed by Longstaff, and offered an opportunity to reflect a little more dispassionately on the Jeffreysian penalties imposed on Smith, Warner and Bancroft. Instead, Cricket Australia has taken the easy option of letting the bans play out rather than consider what is fair and right.

The actions of Smith and Warner were crass and showed unacceptably poor judgement as skipper and vice-captain. But when we consider the failings of the leadership group, let’s look beyond the Australian dressing room.


© Tregaskis, 31 December 2018

This article first appeared in The Cricketer Online in November 2018 –


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