On this day three years ago the entire sporting world collapsed on Steve Smith’s shoulders. In a Test Match against South Africa on 24 March 2018, he, along with Cameron Bancroft and David Warner were involved in the sandpaper scandal that would shake cricket to its core, but it was captain Smith who took the brunt of the blame.
After lunch on that fateful day, in what was already a heated series due to the exchanges between Warner and Quinton De Kock, Bancroft was caught tampering with the ball with a small piece of yellow sandpaper, even if he tried to pass it off as a bit of tape when questioned in the press conference that followed.
It is difficult to remember a time in recent years where the sporting world has unified together in the condemnation of cheating quite like this. Even the Australian Prime Minister at the time, Malcom Turnbull, said it was a “shocking disappointment” as a team who were praised so heavily having just won the Ashes now faced the full consequences of their actions.
Then-captain Smith was rightly seen as the figurehead of this entire cheating scandal. He and Warner were both banned from cricket for 12 months as he was hammered from all angles for his knowledge of ‘Sandpapergate’. His teary press conference at Sydney airport was perhaps the defining image of this entire scandal for Smith.
Here, in front of the world’s media, was a man who had gone from hero to zero. His emotions spilled out in front of us and, while his tears were mocked at a time, his words of remorse seemed genuine. “I know I will regret this for the rest of my life. I am absolutely gutted. I'm sorry and I'm absolutely devastated,” Smith said. "To my knowledge this has never happened before. This is the first time I've seen this happen and I can assure you it will never happen again.”
Despite his ban, and his staying out of the spotlight for a year, cricket fans don’t forget things like that. As he made his return to the Australian squad as part of the tour of England for the 2019 Ashes series, the reception he got was brutal. Sandpaper was waved at him wherever he went, crowds would boo him at every turn, and Jofra Archer was intent on roughing him up on the pitch. At Lords, every brutal bouncer to his body was cheered, until he eventually had to go off injured. It was a hostile environment to try to play cricket in.
Smith, as we saw in the excellent documentary series ‘The Test’ on Amazon Prime, never complained about this treatment, and was intent on letting his cricket do the talking. He hit back-to-back centuries at Edgbaston, before smashing a crucial 211 at Old Trafford in a win which ensured that Australia retained the Ashes.
By that fourth Test in Manchester, following the brutal treatment he had received both on and off the field, he was applauded by the entire stadium as he raised his bat for the second time. Smith had not only proved himself to be the best batsman in the world, becoming the first player to register 10 successive scores of 50 or more against a single opponent in Test history, but he’d also showed a mental resilience and toughness that made him so irritatingly impressive.
He took his punishment and came through the other side of the episode having regained the respect of cricket fans worldwide, and since then he has just kept on performing with the bat. England will look to regain the Ashes when they travel down under in December this year, but Smith will have another big say in who gets their hands on that famous little urn.
He will never be completely forgiven for his role in a scandal that tarnished the reputation of cricket just as it had seemed to have recovered from the Pakistan spot-fixing of 2010, but what we can do is simply stand and admire a wonderful batsman who has come back from the brink to dominate Test cricket once again.
Steve Smith. His name may now be forever tarnished, but his status as a brilliant batsman can never be questioned.