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The Australian ball tampering scandal everyone’s talking about, explained

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Here’s what’s happening in Australian cricket.

Australian cricket has been rocked with a ball-tampering scandal. A piece of tape has brought down some of the sport’s biggest stars and sent shockwaves so monumental that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was forced to issue a statement. It’s being dubbed “#SandpaperGate,” and here’s how it all came about.

Locked in a close test match (the five-day version of the sport) against South Africa, Australia became desperate to gain an advantage. During a lunch break on Day 3, team leadership devised a plan to tamper with the cricket ball to influence the game.

Cameron Bancroft was given a piece of yellow tape, covered in debris from the field, as a makeshift piece of sandpaper. He used the gritty surface to scuff up the ball, changing how it would perform in the game. Bancroft attempted to hide the tape in his pants, and when questioned by an umpire he produced a cloth sunglasses case, saying he was simply wiping the ball.

On-field cameras caught the whole thing.

Why would scuffing the ball do anything?

Unlike baseball, in test cricket the ball is only changed at the behest of the fielding team — and kept in play for a minimum of 80 overs (similar to innings). This means the ball is only changed every 480 bowls or so. Natural wear on the ball produces different results and can be a legal tactical decision by a team captain.

Fast bowlers typically like balls when they’re as new as possible. The shiny, pristine surface allows them to get more speed off the pitch when it bounces. Then, as play wears on and the ball is scuffed up, a team transitions to its spin bowlers. They prefer the surface to be as worn as possible, creating more friction with the pitch at the point of contact — thereby making the ball move further when the bowler applies spin to the ball in the air.

Swing bowlers like the ball somewhere in the middle. If a ball wears unevenly during play, it changes how air travels over the ball in flight. A swing bowler wants to move the ball in flight (as opposed to a spin bowler who wants it to move after it contacts the ground), which means achieving uneven wear is the ideal.

Typical “swing” can be put on the ball regardless of how old it is and occurs shortly after the ball leaves the bowler’s hand, but “reverse swing” is late-breaking movement as the ball approaches the batsmen — and achievable when the ball wears on one side. Similar to a knuckle ball in baseball, it’s difficult to locate and very tough to hit. Australian captain Steve Smith noticed that reverse swing was giving South Africa a problem, so he called for the ball to be worn down using the tape to artificially allow the team to use it.

What happened?

Initially Australia’s plan worked. Umpires accepted Bancroft’s claim he was just wiping the ball clean, which is legal, and did not change the ball or award a penalty. However, scrutiny intensified after the day of play, and then everything fell apart.

At first the Australian team held firm to their lie that they were only cleaning the ball, before Bancroft and Smith both admitted to the cheating.

Smith claimed responsibility for the cheating, saying team coaches were not aware. He admitted the actions weren’t “in the spirit of the game.”

Many public figures, including former Australian captain Michael Clarke, were in shock.

Turnbull spoke to reporters on the ball-tampering scandal.

“We all woke up this morning shocked and bitterly disappointed by the news from South Africa. It seemed completely beyond belief that the Australian cricket team had been involved in cheating. After all, our cricketers are role models and cricket is synonymous with fair play. How can our team by engaged in cheating like this? It beggars belief.

It’s their responsibility to deal with it but I have to say the whole nation who holds those who wear the baggy green up on a pedestal — about as high as you can get in Australia, higher than any politician that’s for sure — this is a shocking disappointment and it’s wrong and I look forward to Cricket Australia taking decisive action soon.”

Day 4 of the test ...

On the final day, Smith and vice captain David Warner stepped down from the team before play began. It triggered a collapse and South Africa easily won.


Two bodies have overseen how punishments would be handed our. The International Cricket Council (ICC) and Cricket Australia, each handed out their own judgement on captain Steve Smith, Cameron Bancroft (who tampered with the ball), and vice captain David Warner (who was part of the group that decided to cheat).

  • Smith: One match fine, One match suspension (ICC). One year suspension from international cricket, two year suspension from serving as Australia team captain (Cricket Australia).
  • Bancroft: One match fine (ICC). Two year suspension from serving as Australia team captain (Cricket Australia).

Warner: One match fine, One match suspension (ICC). One year suspension from international cricket, will not be considered for any future captaincy (Cricket Australia).

In addition, Australian coach Darren Lehmann resigned from the team. He was found innocent of any wrongdoing, but partially blamed himself for what happened.

“After viewing Steve and Cameron’s hurting, it’s only fair that I make this decision. I’m ultimately responsible for the culture of the team.”

Smith and Warner also stepped aside from the Indian Premier League, and were subsequently banned because of the ball tampering. The pair also lost numerous endorsements stemming from the cheating.

Former England spinner Graeme Swann explained why the incident was such a big deal:

“They have set themselves as this higher-than-high, pious team who set the benchmark for what is right and what is wrong in cricket, when everyone who has played against them knows it’s an absolute joke.”

What happens now?

Australia has named Tim Paine as the current captain, making him the 46th in the 142-year history of the team. It’s currently unclear who will be the new coach of the national team.