For those who came in late... In March last year Warner, then Australia's cricket vice-captain, was suspended along with captain Steve Smith and fellow opening bat Cameron Bancroft for tampering with the condition of the ball during a test at Newlands, South Africa, and for lying about it afterwards. Bancroft, at Warner's suggestion and with Smith's knowledge, applied sandpaper to the ball to rough up one side so it would swing. Warner and Smith got 12 months, Bancroft got nine.
In the last month, as the Aussie cricket season has rolled on, we have heard from both Smith and Bancroft. Smith was first out of the blocks, featuring in some Vodaphone ads which neatly commercialise his suspension and doing a press conference as well as some interviews. Here's one he did with former Aussie wicketkeeper Adam Gilchrist. The crucial quote:
SS: ... it was a mistake on my behalf as a leader to allow something like that to happen out in the middle.
AG: The term you 'allowed' it to happen tells me that you were very aware someone's made a decision to do that. Are you at liberty to describe the scenario there, the setting?
SS: I saw the potential for something to happen out in the middle. I didn't particularly know that it was going to happen, but at that point I sorta said "I don't want to know about it". That was my failure of leadership. That's where I should have said "What are you guys doing? Stop it. This isn't on." So that's my failure of leadership and I've owned it and taken responsibility for what happened....
So, he has accepted responsibility, and yet he hasn't. His culpability was not in actually doing anything, just in not preventing it.
Soon after, it was Cameron Bancroft, who recently returned to playing. Here he is, also talking to Gilchrist.
AG: Were you asked to do it?
CB: The interesting thing was, at the time, yeah, definitely, I was asked to do it. I guess I just didn't know how to be true to myself in that moment. So, I didn't actually know any better. I didn't know any better because I had no prior experience to kind of go – of course, the act of using sandpaper on a cricket ball is wrong…. I take no other responsibility but the responsibility I have on myself and my own actions, because I am not a victim – I had a choice, and I made a massive mistake. And that's what's in my control.
AG: Who was it who asked you to do it?
CB: At the time, Dave (Warner) suggested to me to carry the action out on the ball, given the situation we were in the game. I didn't know any better. I didn't know any better because I just wanted to fit in and feel valued, really. Simple as that.
So yes, he made a mistake, but Warner suggested it and he didn't know any better, he just wanted to fit in. Like Smith, he accepts responsibility and deflects it at the same time.
You can see where all this is going, can't you? Smith formally accepts responsibility, but not for actually doing anything. Bancroft also accepts responsibility, but mainly for being immature and suggestible. Both their fingers are not so subtly pointing in the same direction - towards Warner.
Warner, so far, has said nothing.
He will face a difficult decision in the next couple of months. Does he just swallow his pride and accept all the responsibility? Does he contradict his partners in crime and suggest they were more culpable than they are prepared to own? Does he drop some others in the poo as well? Or does he just keep quiet and let his bat talk for him?
So by way of bucking the trend, here are a few things I think Warner might be able to offer in his defence, should he choose to do so.
1. They have been harshly treated
Ball tampering is cheating. People who tamper with the ball attract penalties. The penalties are usually quite mild. South African captain Faf du Plessis has been caught twice, and has been fined once and suspended once, for one match. In June 2018, Sri Lankan captain Dinesh Chandimal was pinged for the offence and suspended for one match. He was so incensed at the charge he took his team from the field, and was suspended for another four matches for bringing the game into disrepute. In each case, the penalties were handed down by the International Cricket Council. In each case the national board stood by the players and did not impose any additional penalties.
The ICC's penalty in the Newlands case was similar - one match for Smith, a fine for Bancroft, nothing for Warner. The difference was that in their case, their Board hung them out to dry. The reason? Sponsors. Money. TV deals.
2. There is a wider cultural problem
In the wake of the scandal two separate inquiries have identified that there is a bigger problem both in the team and in the Cricket Australia set-up. The problem is, winning is everything. Smith, in his interview, describes it this way.
AG: Any moment you can think where we started to go off track to allow that to happen?
SS: I think back to Hobart when we lost there against South Africa (November 2016) and it was our fifth straight lost in Test cricket I think after three Tests in Sri Lanka and I remember James Sutherland and Pat Howard coming into the rooms there and actually saying "We don't pay you to play, we pay you to win".
This affected Warner in a particular way. He had been trying to repair his youthful reputation as a hard man, reining in his sledging and keeping quiet on the field. In the wake of that 2016 loss he was asked to be more confrontational, and duly obliged. He became Public Enemy Number 1 in world cricket's least likeable team.
Things got very ugly in South Africa, with a campaign both on and off the field to get under Warner's skin via his wife Candice. In the test prior to Newlands he had an ugly confrontation with South African wicket keeper Quentin de Kock following a comment about Candice's former lover, rugby player Sonny Bill Williams. Crowds made the same taunt. Two senior Cricket South Africa officials blocked a move to ban masks of Williams' face from the venue of the test at St George's Park, and were later pictured posing with two spectators wearing them. To make it worse, Candice and the Warner children were on tour with the team. What protection did the Warners have from this very public shaming? What is worse, to slut-shame a woman or to use some sandpaper on a cricket ball?
3. Smith is not stupid and Bancroft is not a kid.
Who is more culpable, the person who has the idea, the leader who endorses it, or the person who carries it out? At the moment we are being steered in the direction of seeing Warner as ultimately to blame. But Smith, who was captain, knew what was happening and chose to tacitly endorse it.
As for Bancroft, his pleas of youth don't cut it with me. He was 25 when the incident took place, and had been a professional cricketer since 2011. He knew the rules. He was old enough to make up his own mind. He chose to cheat.
4. Why were three batsmen altering the ball?
The purpose of roughing up one side of the ball is to help the fast bowlers to get movement through the air. Warner, Smith and Bancroft are all batsmen. Who is in charge of the condition of the ball in a fielding team? Yep, the bowlers. The ball starts off shiny and new, and then after it has been bashed around a bit they decide which side seems to be more damaged and shine the opposite side. The uneven shine causes the ball to swing. Batsmen get to do a lot of the shining, but they do what the bowlers tell them. Shining the ball with your hands, or your pants, and using saliva to do so, are fine. Using foreign objects or substances to help is not.
So were the bowlers in on the plot? Cricket Australia investigated and concluded not. Which leaves two possibilities. One is that their involvement was kept hidden. I reckon this is what happened, but based on zero evidence.
The other possibility is that Warner, Bancroft and Smith were incompetent. They hatched a plan, but not a very good one. There is no reason to have sandpaper on the field. There is no plausible deniability there. Once Bancroft was caught on camera, it was basically all over. His lame denial just made him look like a naughty schoolkid.
It's not like they didn't have more professional examples to copy. Chandimal, like dozens of ball-tamperers before him, used lollies. You suck on the lolly, then use the sugary saliva to heighten the shine. Teams do it all around the world. It's against the rules, but there is plausible deniability. There is no rule against eating lollies on a cricket field. You can just say it was an accident or an oversight. You can pop the lolly in your mouth when you know the cameras will be looking elsewhere. How many do this without getting caught?
Du Plessis used the other popular method, having a bit of dirt in his pocket which would stick to his sweaty fingers as he polished the ball. Like sandpaper, but with deniability. There's plenty of dirt on a cricket field. I didn't realise it was there, your honour.
By contrast, the Aussie's attempt was hopeless. Their incompetence at cheating speaks volumes for their general honesty.
Anyhow, we are forgetting something. Cricket is a game. People play it for fun. People watch elite cricket for fun. You feel happier if your team wins but losing is not the end of the world. Life goes on. And while I suppose some people enjoy seeing other humans humiliated, most would much rather see them treating one another with respect and kindness, even while they play hard.
In fact, too much winning becomes boring. Back in the early 2000s, when the Australian cricket team was thrashing everyone, it got wearying. It is no accident that the two most memorable series from that era were close, gripping contests that Australia lost - the 2001 series against India in India, and the 2005 Ashes. Who could forget the image of Andrew Flintoff consoling a tearful Brett Lee after Australia's oh-so-close loss in Edgaston in 2005?
True or not, here is Flintoff's later version of what he said.
‘Mate, this is embarrassing … you’ve lost, it’s cricket, nobody cares, the trophy’s (tiny), f***ing get over it – it really does not matter.’
It doesn't matter enough to cheat. It doesn't matter enough to humiliate someone. It doesn't matter so much that your whole being should be subsumed to it. It doesn't matter enough to be prevented from playing for a whole year over something stupid.
I hope Warner gets over it. Bancroft and Smith too. And the rest of us. It's just a game.