Australian cricketers Cameron Bancroft (left) and Steve Smith at a press conference in Cape Town on the day cameras caught Bancroft tampering with the ball.  (AFP)
Australian cricketers Cameron Bancroft (left) and Steve Smith at a press conference in Cape Town on the day cameras caught Bancroft tampering with the ball. (AFP)

Leadership lessons from sandpaper gate

  • Smith’s failure to intervene is, in fact, a leadership failure on his part—his looking the other way was, in effect, tacit approval
  • Leadership plays an important role in not only laying down the rules but ensuring that they are followed

The Australian cricket team created a sensation early last year when their captain Steve Smith admitted to ball-tampering during the third match of the four-Test series against South Africa in Cape Town. Young batsman Cameron Bancroft was caught rubbing sandpaper on the cricket ball, and, when Smith was asked about this at a press briefing at the end of the day’s play, he acknowledged the incident.

Smith claimed the “leadership group" came up with the plan; he did not reveal their names. He went on to admit it was a “big mistake" but refused to step down from the captaincy. Perhaps he failed to grasp the furore it would cause back home in Australia. When the news filtered Down Under the following day, there was a massive blowback in a country where cricket is massively popular and cricketing stars are seen as representatives of the nation.

The trio’s South Africa tour was cut short and they were sent home unceremoniously. All three held emotional press conferences and their contrition was evident in front of the cameras. After a Cricket Australia inquisition into the sordid saga, Smith and vice-captain David Warner were handed year-long bans from all international and domestic cricket while Bancroft was suspended for nine months.

Bancroft, who was one of the youngest members in the side, has since revealed that he was asked by Warner to tamper with the ball and did it because he wanted to fit in. “Dave (Warner) suggested to me to carry the action out on the ball given the situation we were in, in the game, and I didn’t know any better. I didn’t know any better because I just wanted to fit in and feel valued, really—as simple as that. The decision was based around my values, what I valued at the time and I valued fitting in.... You hope that fitting in earns you respect, and, with that, I guess, there came a pretty big cost for the mistake."

Modern workplaces are changing rapidly. Newcomers are expected to learn on the job, often on their own, and quickly. Bancroft found himself in a situation where he couldn’t win either way, but he could have been smarter in his decision-making.

Ravi Krishnan, who served as the managing director of global sports management firm IMG’s South Asia operations for 13 years, believes it is important to set out the ground rules for new employees at a workplace for everyone’s benefit.

“When anyone joins a business organization, they should be issued guidelines, rules, protocols that are clearly articulated so that there is no confusion in terms of expectations. When you add to that ‘corporate culture’, you have the ‘environment’ in which everyone should operate. Culture is both quantitative and qualitative and therefore is something that definitely should be passed on from established members to newcomers," Krishnan says.

“Ultimately, as both Voltaire (and Spider-Man) said, ‘with great power comes great responsibility’," he adds.

Starting at a new place can often be a challenging experience, and it becomes the responsibility of seniors at the workplace to ease the integration. And Krishnan says it is vital that senior members in a team do not abuse their powers.

“One of the rules I liked at IMG was that when ‘entertaining’, the most senior employee always had to pay the bill. This was to prevent abuse of power situation where a senior employee could pressure a junior employee to put certain things on their expenses. Whilst this was a rule, it also speaks of a culture of non-exploitation of staff by management," Krishnan adds.

Smith has since said he had the opportunity to stop what happened but chose to look the other way. “For me, in the room, I walked past something and had the opportunity to stop it and I didn’t do it and that was my leadership failure. There was the potential for something to happen and that went on and happened out on the field and I had the opportunity to stop it at that point, rather than say, ‘I don’t want to know anything about it’, and that was my failure of leadership and I’ve taken responsibility for that," he said.

Smith’s failure to intervene is, in fact, a leadership failure on his part—his looking the other way was, in effect, tacit approval.

“What happened with the Australian team was a complete breakdown with respect to following the rules juxtaposed with a permissive culture," says Krishnan, who currently leads Stepathlon, a wellness firm, as chairman and CEO. “Leadership plays an important role in not only laying down the rules but ensuring that they are followed. Leading by example is the best way to do this. Any deviation from it can permeate bad practices in an organization in a cancerous manner," Krishnan concludes.

Fielding Leadership is a series that draws lessons from sporting events for managers.

Close