One ill-conceived, insidious plan and some potentially great careers lie in tatters. What wouldn’t Shakespeare give to write this tragedy!

More than a week after the ball-tampering controversy erupted in South Africa, a sense of disbelief about what compelled the Australian team, more pertinently Steve Smith, to take such a perilous step persists.

Smith was the world’s leading Test batsman, captain of his country’s team, and among the most powerful entities in the sport. Even if things were not quite going his way—or his team’s—in South Africa, the world was still his oyster. Why risk so much?

I’ll leave those more conversant with the scriptures, philosophy, ethics, culture and psychology to provide the metaphysical dimensions (the fall of man and all that) to this poser and restrict myself to a more prosaic explanation.

Stringing together what has been evidenced in the past year or so, what Smith and Co. (let’s not leave out the culpability of the rest of the team and the support staff) did seems to emanate from fear of failure, foolishness, arrogance: more likely, all three.

In a hard-fought Test series—among the finest in recent years—Australia, after winning the first Test convincingly, suddenly found themselves confronted with a resurgent South African team. They lost the second Test, and, seemingly, also their nerve.

With so much pride at stake, bloated egos pricked, and the third Test also not going their way, desperation appeared to overwhelm the Aussies. Winning at any cost is a sentiment widely lauded in sport, but it can sometimes lead a sportsperson or team over the edge.

The foolishness of the act is testimony to this. With 30 cameras patrolling the ground, there isn’t a single movement of any player that goes unnoticed. In a hostile series—with television broadcasters not favourably inclined either—this was inviting disaster.

Actually, what transpired in Cape Town could have been straight out of a comic caper. The entire sequence—Cameron Bancroft being caught on camera, the message from the dressing room to substitute Peter Handscomb to alert him, Bancroft’s panicky effort to hide the piece of tape in his underwear, then pulling out a piece of black flannel used for spectacles when confronted by umpires—was extraordinary in its silliness. Grotesque, but still funny.

It is the arrogance underlying the blatant disregard for rules and ethics that has riled the cricket world. As if hatching the conspiracy wasn’t conceited enough, Smith had the temerity to feign innocence when the umpires approached him.

“They were just standing in the middle of a cricket match blatantly lying to the officials. That is such a bad look and hugely disappointing,’’ wrote former Australian fast bowler Jason Gillespie in a signed piece in The Guardian on Sunday.

What makes it worse for Smith and the team management is that a rookie was made to do the dirty work. Bancroft is 25, and capable of making his choices, but the hierarchical power-play involved in this seems even more diabolical as time passes. An eight-Test-old newbie used as a fall guy for such a misdemeanour is revulsive.

Smith attributed the plan to the “leadership group" in the team, which is hyperbolic obfuscation. Ultimately, it is the captain who calls the shots. He admitted to this. But the manner in which the cheating was planned and executed does not convince anybody that it was the first time, much as Smith would like everyone to believe that it was.

Indeed, there is strong reason to join the dots from his famous “brain fade" explanation in the Bengaluru Test against India last season and infer that cheating is part of the dressing-room culture of the current side. This has hurt sensibilities in Australia, a great sporting nation, most.

Ball tampering is hardly new to the sport. Bowlers and fielding captains are always trying to push the envelope, as it were, and some very big names have been found guilty of sharp practices in the past. The International Cricket Council (ICC) itself, it must be emphasized, has been rather benign, almost wink-wink in approach. If umpires suspect tampering and change the ball (which, incidentally, didn’t happen in Cape Town), the opposing team is awarded five runs!

Punishments vary from percentages of match fees or, in some extreme situations like the present one, a 12-month ban for Smith and vice-captain David Warner. This inconsistency has perhaps emboldened players and captains to take calculated risks without too much compunction.

The Australians have always prided themselves on playing tough, but fair. They have held themselves up as great exemplars of competitive cricketers, and have been the envy of other cricket-playing nations and their players for it, despite regular complaints about sledging and bullying.

Sometimes, this attitude has stretched credulity and caused deep consternation: as when Greg Chappell asked brother Trevor to bowl an underarm delivery. Unsporting, by all accounts, yet still within the rules.

The aura of the Aussie cricketer as being bloody-minded but knowing where to draw the “line"—as several from the current team have bragged in recent times —which survived for over a century, has now been exposed as hypocritical and mala fide.

I don’t buy into the clamour that Smith, Warner and others should be banned for life. That would be an extreme step, given the basic nature of the offence, beyond prescribed ICC rules as they exist, and not in consonance with the belief that redemption after crime is integral to civilized society.

That the shame and stigma will remain forever is their biggest punishment.

Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.

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