opinion

"I've never seen anything like him." The lessons we can all learn from Steve Smith.

In March 2018, three Australian men likely made the single biggest mistake of their lives.

Steve Smith, the then Captain of the Australian national cricket team, along with Vice Captain David Warner and player Cameron Bancroft, decided to rough up one side of the ball with sandpaper in order to make it swing while in flight.

It’s difficult to imagine a clearer way to cheat in a match that doesn’t lend itself to many options. There’s a field, a bat and a ball. If a team can manipulate the direction of a ball, they’re manipulating the outcome of the match.

And so, the world watched as 25-year-old Bancroft pulled a small bright yellow square from his pocket and used it to rub the cricket ball he prepared to bowl.

The moment Cameron Bancroft was caught on ball-tampering camera. Post continues below. 

Australian coach Darren Lehmann reportedly remarked, “What the f*ck is going on?” watching the footage replay on screens at Newlands Stadium in Cape Town. As the umpires moved in on Bancroft, he knew – everyone knew – the seriousness of what had just happened.

The Australian cricket team, one of the best on the planet, had just been caught cheating yellow-handed on live television. Ball-tampering was no longer a dark art of the cricket world, a grey area no one really talked about. There would be no appeals and no possibility of defence.

There would, however, be questions. Bancroft was the least experienced player on the field. Surely this hadn’t been his idea.

Fifteen months later, we know the decision had been made by the “leadership group” – an admission offered by 28-year-old Smith after the third day of play.

It was a discussion Smith had been privy to, and he did not act to stop it. Neither did Vice Captain, 31-year-old David Warner. They both stood down from team leadership immediately.

Cricket Australia launched an independent investigation which found that Smith had brought the game into disrepute and had misled match officials. He was banned from international and domestic cricket for 12 months, and was not to be considered for a leadership role for 24 months.

In a press conference upon Smith’s return to Australia, he apologised.

“I made a serious error of judgement, and I now understand the consequences. It was a failure of leadership; of my leadership,” he said, pausing for a breath, tears welling in his eyes.

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“If any good can come from this, if it can be a lesson to others, then I hope I can be a force for change…

“I know I’ll regret this for the rest of my life. I’m absolutely gutted. I hope in time, I can earn back respect and forgiveness,” he said.

And so, as they say, Smith did his time.

He put his cricket gear in the family garage.

He went away to “come to terms with everything”.

And now – no longer the Captain – he’s back on the field.

“I’ve never seen anything like him,” Steve Waugh said following Smith’s Ashes performance.

“His preparation is amazing, he’s thorough, he hits more balls than I’ve ever seen anyone hit and when he goes out to bat it’s almost like he’s in a trance-like state.”

Overnight Smith became only the fifth Australian ever to score two centuries in the same Ashes Test, drawing comparisons to the world’s greatest ever batsman, Sir Donald Bradman.

But it’s not the statistics that matter so much.

It’s the optics.

This is a man who not long ago could barely speak to the Australian public, his shame was so palpable. A man whose life might have felt over 15 months ago, now on a field with focus in his eyes, blatantly refusing to be reduced to the worst thing he ever did.

Smith matters because he is the face of redemption – a reminder that no mistake, no lapse in judgement or personal failure is too big to overcome.

It took seconds for Smith’s world to fall apart, a glimpse of a yellow sheet of sandpaper, and 15 months to build it back up again. Booing still strikes from the sidelines, and ‘cheat’ is a name he might never fully escape.

But Smith ought to serve as a reminder that good people do stupid things. Bad things, even. And once the thing has been done, our only choice is how we respond to it.

Our propensity in the 21st century to ‘cancel’ anyone who reveals themselves to be somewhat human isn’t serving us well. It’s not really a surprise that at a time when we’ve never been harder on each other, refusing to forgive those in the public eye for even the smallest of transgressions, our mental health is in steady decline.

There perhaps isn’t a more important lesson for the kids that look up to Smith, that their hero made a mammoth mistake. The biggest in cricket. And it hurt and he cried and he apologised and he bore the consequences. But the world kept spinning. We moved on. And things will always get better.

For some, forgiveness will take a lot longer. And that’s okay.

In the meantime, Smith will just shut up, and hit the damn ball as well as he can.

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