Fallout from the Australian ball-tampering scandal—when batsman Cameron Bancroft roughed the ball on some kind of sticky yellow tape—continues to reverberate through the cricket world, seemingly out of all proportion to the incident itself.

Despite only minor sanctions from the International Cricket Council (ICC), Cricket Australia banned captain Steve Smith for a year and misguided perpetrator Bancroft for nine months. On their return to Australia, both broke down in press conferences when asked what messages they had “for the kids.” In the wake of those interviews, coach Darren Lehmann—absolved by Cricket Australia’s internal inquiry—announced his resignation.

“No one even managed to cheat”

Why has this incident, relatively minor according to the canon of international cricket law, caused such a major ruckus? In an excellent article in the Guardian, Why did Smith and Bancroft have to front up, only to break down? Andy Bull noted that “No one died, no one doped, no one fixed, hell, no one even managed to cheat.” Adding to that list, no one has come up with a half-decent ‘-gate’ name for this seemingly overblown affair.

The answer—or the pointer to the answer—can be found below the line in Bull’s article. An Australian commenter observed, with far more balance and judgment than his national cricket team has lately managed, that the captain of Australia is the single most respected individual in the country and a weathervane for the nation as a whole. That weathervane is now spinning wildly.

Traditionally, there has been a tacit agreement between sportsmen (more so than sportswomen) and their fans that winning by any means was acceptable as long as no one got found out. When the current scandal broke during the third test with South Africa, Smith and Bancroft were quick to ‘fess up, seemingly in the naïve belief that their only sanction would be a hand-slap from the ICC.

Betrayal

What Smith, Bancroft and vice-captain David Warner—who has been cast as the evil mastermind of the whole scheme—truly misjudged was the reaction of their fans. From Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull down, the entire nation shuddered with a collective sense of violation and betrayal. These are powerful emotions, which quickly turned to outrage and manifested in the lengthy bans handed down by Cricket Australia.

From Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull down, the entire nation shuddered with a collective sense of violation and betrayal. These are powerful emotions, which quickly turned to outrage and manifested in the lengthy bans handed down by Cricket Australia.

This shows that the relationship between sports teams and fans has changed. The phrase “to represent one’s country” has been bandied about for a century but it largely boiled down to winning. Studied comments about the honour and burden of the task were regularly trotted out but just as regularly ignored. All that has changed. The tail is wagging the dog. Ball tampering, sledging and other sleights of hand that were previously considered to be ‘game craft’ are now unacceptable. A win is only a win if it’s achieved on a level playing field.

The how of winning

This new emphasis on ‘the how of winning’ is a healthy development in sports largely subservient to money. There is a growing distaste for football’s overpaid prima donnas and Formula One’s corporate drone pilots. It’s just not cricket, and, fittingly cricket is leading this shift. Recent test series between England and New Zealand have seen two sides totally committed to winning yet refusing to engage in the underhanded tactics the Australians used in South Africa.

There is a new level of emotional maturity afoot in fans’ feelings for their sports heroes. The only question is how many of them will fail to heed the change and commit the same blunder as Smith and Bancroft in sticky yellow tape-gate. There—I’ve named it.

Image: Steve Smith cover drive-0001 by David Molloy on Flickr. Cropped to 16:9.