Steve Smith’s pair of hundreds in the first Ashes Test have probably cemented his place among Test cricket’s all-time greatest batsmen. Not many would dispute that, but what does remain up for debate is whether he should have been given the chance at all. Was this really redemption? Have *you* forgiven him?
There Will Always Be Cheats in Sport
From grassroots to the elite, cheating in sport is something that will likely never go away – sport’s intensely competitive essence more or less ensures there will always be some prepared to do whatever it takes to win.
In any walk of life, forgiveness is an admirable trait, but in sport – particularly in the UK where our sense of fair play is ultra-keen and even proven by science – it’s sometimes more difficult to come by and arguably with good reason. Many cheats, such as sprinter Justin Gaitlin, are afforded second chances. Others, like Lance Armstrong, are not. Who in their right mind would argue Armstrong deserved another chance?
National Icon to National Disgrace…National Icon Again?
The Cape Town ball-tampering affair, however, saw Smith crash from national icon to national disgrace. And yet, less than a mere 18 months after the scandal, Smith held court at the Edgbaston crease for over 11 hours, almost singlehandedly taking Australia from 122-8 in the first innings to a crushing and vital win. Smith is now lauded as a hero, his performance framed as redemption….redemption from a blatant and flagrant act of cheating only last year.
When Smith took off his helmet and raised his bat after that first innings ton, that feeling of redemption felt universal. The Edgbaston crowd that had heckled, jeered and booed him, stood to applaud has he walked back to the pavilion hours later – but social media told a different story. Under every tweet and every Facebook post about Smith’s knock(s) was a deluge of protests from angry cricket fans from Calcutta to Christchurch who felt Smith simply should not have had even the opportunity to score more runs.
Wounds Inflicted by Smith & co Will Take Time To Heal
Granted, social media can be a cesspit and any subject, no matter how tame, can provoke wildly over-the-top opprobrium from online trolls, but this felt different. Much of the criticism was considered, and felt difficult to argue with – the damage Smith, Bancroft and Warner caused to cricket’s integrity can not simply be wiped out by a pair of wonderful hundreds. Can it? At the very least, it’s going to take time for those wounds to heal.
Most sports fans – and indeed players, at any level – are hypocrites to some extent. We criticise opponents for things we’ve done ourselves and often fail to practice what we preach. It’s a reflection of the sometimes tribal nature of sport. After a widely-viewed street brawl, England fans welcomed back Ben Stokes with open arms, and many of those same fans have opposed Smith’s return. But Smith’s transgression – not an extra-curricular offence but one that spits in the face of the sport itself – does feel more difficult to forgive.
Cheating and Grassroots Sport
After Smith’s shame, there were fears in Australia that the scandal would have ramifications for the grassroots game in terms of participation at grassroots level. With the game struggling for numbers both here and in Australia, it wasn’t a good look – to put it mildly.
Earlier this year, we wrote about the fine line between gamesmanship and cheating, after the Jos Buttler mankad incident. In it, we touched on how, in grassroots sport, it is so much easier to get away with cheating. With such wafer-thin structures and procedures in place, no player found to be cheating at grassroots level can expect to come under the sort of scrutiny Smith has, nor receive anything like the same kind of punishment – so what real deterrent is there? It has to be a concern that starry-eyed cricketing youngsters, seeing Smith’s heroics so soon after bringing the game into the ultimate disrepute, may feel there’s nothing to stop them mimicking their hero’s actions and getting away with it.
Ultimately, good people make mistakes. Smith, Bancroft and Warner admitted their guilt and served their time, and Smith – to his great credit – donated his earnings from a tournament in Canada to the grassroots game. But however magnificent Smith’s hundreds, it doesn’t feel right that he should have to make hundreds to be redeemed. After all, Warner got out cheaply twice – does that mean he is not redeemed? Will his redemption only come when he makes a big score? That – surely – is not cricket, and true redemption and forgiveness can only come in the fullness of time.
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