Updated

When it comes to sports, cheating isn’t all that unusual. But rarely is it caught by cameras and broadcast on a big screen in vivid detail for everyone to see.

Unfortunately for the Australian men’s cricket team, that’s exactly what happened when cameras showed Cameron Bancroft rubbing a cricket ball with what has now been confirmed as a piece of sandpaper. To make matters worse, Bancroft, a fielder, then unsuccessfully attempted to hide the sandpaper by shoving it down the front of his pants. The cameras caught all of that, too, and replayed it in slow motion.

You don’t have to know much about cricket to understand why this might be done. Like baseball, the game involves delivering a ball at high speed in such a way as to make it difficult or impossible for a batsman to hit or hit well.

Tampering with the ball, like tampering with a baseball, can give cricket bowlers a significant advantage. Specifically, scuffing the surface on one side of the ball changes the way it moves through the air when bowled, according to SB Nation. Theoretically, this can allow the bowler to achieve more “reverse swing,” or a late-breaking movement — like a knuckleball in baseball — that makes the ball hard to locate and tough to hit, according to the New Daily. Unlike in baseball, the same ball is used many times, for 80 “overs” before it can be replaced, with some exceptions. An over is a set of six pitches. 

The world’s cricket press, including the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, is calling it cheating. Some have dubbed the scandal “Sandpapergate.” Two players on the Australian national cricket team who were involved have admitted to breaking the rules.

A total of three players — team captain Steve Smith, vice captain David Warner and Bancroft — were identified as having prior knowledge of the tampering plans, cricket officials determined after an investigation, James Sutherland, chief executive officer of Cricket Australia, said in a news conference.

Smith and Warner were suspended from playing for Australia for 12 months, according to a statement from Cricket Australia, the sport’s national governing body. Bancroft received a nine-month suspension, the statement said.

The statement also refuted players’ claims that a piece of yellow sticky tape covered in grit from the field was used to tamper with the ball, ESPNcricinfo reported.

The incident has embroiled the cricket-loving country in scandal and broken the hearts of die-hard fans. After all, as Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said, cricket is “synonymous with fair play.” That notion is the source of the phrase, “It’s not cricket.”

It all started during a lunch break on the third day of a test match, the five-day version of the sport. Australia was losing to South Africa. Smith and other senior players devised a plan to rough up one side of the ball’s surface to give the bowler (the equivalent of a pitcher in baseball) greater control over the movement of the ball.

Smith noticed the South Africans had struggled with reverse swing, so the players made the decision to attempt to artificially produce the desired effect, SB Nation reported.

However, more recent reports say the Australians actually hoped to damage the ball to a point that umpires would replace it with a different one. In cricket the ball’s condition can change from natural causes, like being hit into boards or gutters too often. When the ball is deemed “out of shape,” umpires will ask for a different ball to replace the one that is no longer playable, according to news.com.au.

The Australian news site reported that the players thought “getting a different ball in their hands might provide a boost because there was a chance the new ball would swing more.”

During a news conference addressing the scandal, both Bancroft and Smith admitted their plan did not work.

“Obviously it didn’t work,” Smith said. “The umpires didn’t see it change the way the ball was behaving or how it looked or anything like that.”

Australia was “deluded,” cricket analyst Simon Hughes told the BBC. “It is almost impossible to get away with any of this in international cricket now,” he said. “There are 30 cameras watching you, and umpires regularly inspecting the ball. There’s always been skulduggery in cricket, but it’s always had this status as a sport where people behave well and respect each other.”

Smith has been called one of the best players in cricket. He’s a national hero — or was until now.

“I’m not proud of what’s happened,” Smith said during the news conference. “It’s not within the spirit of the game. My integrity, the team’s integrity, the leadership group’s integrity’s come into question and rightfully so.”


Australian cricket player Steve Smith is escorted by police officers to a departure area at Tambo International airport in Johannesburg on March 28. (Themba Hadebe/AP)

During the same news conference, Bancroft said he was “in the vicinity” when the plan was being discussed and was nervous about the presence of so many cameras.

“Once I was sighted on the screens and having done that, I panicked quite a lot, and that obviously resulted in me shoving it down my trousers,” he said.

Adding insult to injury, Australia lost the ill-fated match to South Africa by 322 runs, the Guardian reported.

While tampering with the cricket ball has happened before, the tiny piece of sandpaper has managed to shake Australia to its core, destroying the reputations of once-revered athletes and tainting the country’s beloved sport.

“I want to apologize to all Australians that these events have taken place, particularly to all the kids who love cricket and idolize the players,” Sutherland said in a news conference.

The scandal has sparked widespread fury and disappointment, even eliciting a response from Turnbull, the prime minister.

According to cricket.com.au, he told reporters that the whole country “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.”

“It seemed completely beyond belief that the Australian cricket team had been involved in cheating,” Turnbull said. “After all, our cricketers are role models, and cricket is synonymous with fair play. How can our team be engaged in cheating like this? It beggars belief.”

Michael Clarke, former captain of the Australian team, was one of many who could not believe the scandal happened, tweeting that he wished it was a “bad dream.”

He was joined on Twitter by former cricketers Shane Warne and Mitchell Johnson.

Warne penned a lengthy tweet calling on Smith and the team’s coach, Darren Lehmann, to take action to “clean this mess up.”

Johnson’s reaction was much more concise. “Shocked & disappointed,” he tweeted.

Fans were outraged, tweeting photos of Bancroft slipping the sandpaper out of his pocket and decrying the team’s performance in South Africa as “utterly disgraceful.”

Some even went as far as targeting the players’ wives and girlfriends on their social media accounts, according to nine.com.au.

Others, however, decided to draw attention to the humorous nature of the incident, tweeting sandpaper-related jokes.

Even companies such as Air New Zealand got in on the fun.

The airline posted an emoji-filled video to its Facebook page teasing Smith, the New Zealand Herald reported.

In the video, Smith is called a “naughty boy,” and it’s suggested that he take a trip to New Zealand where temperatures are chillier to “escape the heat back home.”

While the jokes have made light of the scandal, many believe that the simple act of rubbing a ball with a piece of sandpaper could have a long-lasting impact on Australia’s cricket legacy.

“I’ve made it clear that we’re regrettable,” Smith said during the news conference. “Hopefully we’ll learn something from it. I’m embarrassed. I know the boys in the shed are embarrassed, as well.”