Few will be surprised that it has been left to Hashim Amla to bring some perspective to a series that is now dominated by a ball-tampering saga, which has had grave consequences on the careers of three Australian cricketers. The schadenfreude running through the South African fan base is at an all-time high, more-so because of some of the other side-shows which have included Darren Lehmann calling sections of the crowd “a disgrace“, but Amla has provided a measured reminder that the battle is not actually a battle.
“It’s not war. It’s ridiculous to think that playing cricket is like war because, if you know the realities of war, you can’t equate the two,” Amla said. “Yes it’s a tough battle of skill, but you’ve got to have respect for each other.”
While players on both sides have been involved in verbal stoushes, and Australia have made no bones about their intention to use some of South Africa’s mistakes to sledge them on the field – Vernon Philander’s “hacked” Twitter account came up as an example – Amla is talking the silent approach.
“I don’t say much. I try to afford as much respect as possible. I don’t try and demean anybody,” Amla said. “For me it is a skills-based sport and I try and support my team-mates as much as possible. What’s happening in their camp, I don’t want to comment too much. They have their issues to deal with.”
Chief among those issues are the integrity questions surrounding the Australian side, especially on social media, with its dressing-room culture being put under the spotlight by former players. South Africa are too close to the situation to comment, but Faf du Plessis would not be drawn into whether his team felt cheated in the immediate aftermath of the Newlands Test.
Similarly, Amla only went as far as to calling the incident a “sad moment” for the game. “We were surprised. That was it. There was so much that happened afterwards, but at that particular moment, we were like, okay… We know there are a lot of cameras around. For that to happen, it’s a sad moment for international cricket.”
“We know how hard cricket is, so when things like this go on we do feel sympathetic to a person who has made a mistake and paid a price for it.”
He also suggested the fall-out could cause global cricket in its entirety to relook at itself and the way individuals and teams adhere to the code of conduct. “It probably gives every team in the world a reality check: ‘What kind of cricket do you want to play?’ It’s probably given the ICC a lot more headaches, and the opportunity now is for the governing bodies to show us, ‘Hey, where is this line? We don’t know what’s going on,” Amla said. “I’ve always believed we have played our cricket as best we can with a few errors here and there, but that’s the stuff that you learn from and move on.”
South Africa’s own errors may be part of the reason they are hesitant to condemn Cameron Bancroft’s actions. In the last five years, South Africa have been found guilty of ball tampering three times, with Faf du Plessis the offender on two of those occasions.
Amla was the player who chose to front up to the media in Melbourne 16 months ago, when visuals of du Plessis emerged, shining the ball with a mint in his mouth. With the whole South African team behind him, Amla insisted “Faf has done absolutely nothing wrong”, and went on to explain how players often took to the field with something in their mouths. He also called the claims against du Plessis “sour sweets for people in their heads that we’ve played really good cricket and the timing of it is that it’s a bit weird too”.
South Africa were 2-0 up at that stage in the series and four days later, du Plessis was found guilty of ball-tampering and fined 100% of his match fee. Du Plessis faced no further sanction from Cricket South Africa, and was in fact backed by then CEO Haroon Lorgat, who called on the ICC to clarify what constituted a “foreign substance” in terms of the code of conduct. Du Plessis appealed the verdict and failed.
Amla was also the captain when Vernon Philander was caught on television cameras in Sri Lanka scratching the ball with his finger and thumb and fined 75% of his match. He was not part of the XI in Dubai, when du Plessis was caught rubbing the ball on his zipper in 2013 because Amla had returned home on paternity leave.
With that track record, South Africa can sympathise with the position Smith, David Warner and Bancroft find themselves in.
“We know how hard cricket is, so when things like this go on we do feel sympathetic to a person who has made a mistake and paid a price for it,” Amla said. “There’s no holier-than-thou attitude that anybody comes with because we know that everybody makes mistakes in their lives. You hope you learn from the mistakes and move on. We have sympathy for the guys who are under the pump now.”