The rights and wrongs of Steve Smith’s strange return to the game

So, a quick re-cap for those of you who might have missed one of the biggest stories in cricket a few months ago. Back in March, Steve Smith, the Australian Test cricket captain (and still, to this day, the top-ranked Test batsman in the world) was banned from all international and domestic cricket for one year after an investigation into ball tampering by Cricket Australia.

A moment of madness

It was a truly shocking moment, and I for one will never forget the sight of Cameron Bancroft – caught red-handed by the TV cameras in super slo-mo – tucking a small piece of sandpaper into his trousers during the Third Test against South Africa. The whole of this sorry performance could (at a stretch) have been put down to the youthful inexperience of the young Bancroft, had it not been for the later admission from team captain Steve Smith that it had been a joint decision by the Australian ‘leadership group’ to tamper with the ball in an attempt to swing the match in their direction. Cue widespread condemnation, with everyone from former players to the Australian Prime Minister stepping up to the crease to have their say.

The need for perspective

Fast forward four months or so (yes, it was only four months ago!) and Steve Smith is back playing cricket – albeit a very low profile match in Canada. I’ll come to how I see the rights and wrongs of that return in a moment, but here are some quick thoughts on that initial incident itself. The first and most overwhelming emotion for me is sadness – for the good name of the game itself, of course, but more so for the sporting reputation of a young player like Bancroft and a remarkable talent like Smith. Both, clearly, should have known better, but the respective role they each played in the whole affair is testament to how easy it is for players to lose perspective when they need it most.

My second emotion however is just incredulity – mainly at how on earth they thought that they could get away with using a (bright yellow) piece of sandpaper to tamper with the ball mid-game, in the full glare of the TV cameras. There’s a big lesson there I think – not least around the need for professional sportspeople to remember who they are from time to time and to not imagine that they are above the law or bigger than the game itself. Cricket is an old and venerable institution and will shake itself down and recover after this sorry episode – but I’m not sure if Smith and Bancroft ever will completely.

Returning too soon?

Which brings me to that return for Steve Smith in Canada. He hit a tidy 61 for the Toronto Nationals in their Global T20 Canada league game in Toronto against the Vancouver Knights, and it all seemed as if he had never been away. It was a great opportunity for the crowd to get a sight of one of the sport’s top performers in action, and of course also generated the kind of media scrum that the people behind the Canadian T20 league could usually only dream of. As a fan, that all leaves me feeling a bit uncomfortable to be honest, as it still feels too soon after the events of March for Smith’s rehabilitation to begin.

But then at the same time I also understand that Smith, for all the mistakes he made in that South Africa Test, is a professional – and also that he is only human. As a player and a professional, he clearly needs to keep his hand in, while as a human being he deserves the opportunity for redemption.

For me, the most important outcome from all of this has to be that the hard lessons of the ball tampering scandal have been learned and acted upon – and that all of the talented young cricketers who were involved are given another chance to make sure that the rest of their careers are now defined by how they play, and not by one mistake.