South Africa’s coach Ottis Gibson hopes brazen ball-tampering will not take place in a team he is in charge of, but was careful not to moralise as the Australia players await their fate ahead of the fourth Test.
“Look, I would hope that it never happens under my watch,” Gibson said. “I’m not going to sit here and say that we’re whiter than white or anything, but we’ll try and play the game within the rules of the game. We know where the rules are, and the imaginary line that we talked about for the whole series, we feel like we know where that is and we’ll try not to cross the line.”
In the last five years, South Africa have been found guilty of ball-tampering three times, all before Gibson became involved last September, and he will be aware of their far-from-squeakly-clean reputation. Faf du Plessis was caught rubbing the ball on his zipper in the UAE in 2013 and then shining the ball with mint-infused saliva in Australia in November 2016; Vernon Philander was found to be digging his thumb into a ball in Sri Lanka in 2014. On two of the three occasions, the guilty player accepted his sanction but on the third, du Plessis’ Mintgate, he appealed (unsuccessfully) and asked for clarity over what constitutes a foreign substance being applied to the ball.
Several players, including Steven Smith, admitted to shining the ball in the same way and that is not the only method used to try and facilitate reverse swing. “Every team since the beginning of reverse swing, everybody tries to get the ball reversing,” Gibson said. “They skim it in, they bounce it in, they try and get it rough. The spinner gets his hand in the dirt and rubs it on the ball. Everybody has a way of getting the ball to go a little bit further. Because the ball will reverse naturally and then everybody has a way of trying to get it going a little bit further.”
As for why teams feel the need to accelerate the process of reverse swing when it is something that will inevitably happen, Gibson said that it may arise due to “maybe be a bit of desperation”.
In the Newlands Test, the same one in which Cameron Bancroft was caught using sticky tape to try to rub gains of sand on the ball, South Africa tried some accelerating methods of their own. They were spoken to about throwing the ball onto the pitch from the outfield, something which can speed up how quickly the leather gets scuffed up. Umpire Nigel Llong could be heard telling du Plessis and wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock, who was catching the ball on the bounce, that the practice “had to stop”. South Africa did not need further reprimanding and no action needed to be taken.
But in Australia’s case, by the time the umpires came to know about Bancroft’s actions in tampering with the ball, the rest of the world knew too. Bancroft was spotted on television cameras in the 43rd over of South Africa’s second innings, with the hosts 185 runs ahead and only two wickets down. The chance to win the series had not slipped away from Australia at that stage, but it seemed to be heading that way and Smith admitted that he felt the ball was not doing enough, which led to the tampering.
For Gibson, Australia have fallen on their own sword because they were blinded by a desire to dominate play. “The Aussies have said themselves that the brand of cricket they play is to win at all costs, and when you have that mindset… when you look at the Ashes, they were never really behind in many of the games. They won quite comfortably,” Gibson said. “Here they were behind a couple of times and perhaps that desperation came into it for them. It’s a shame that something like this had to happen for them to have a look at themselves. We just leave that to them and we’ll focus on winning the next game.”
The schadenfreude is subtle in the South African camp, but its there. They know Australia are in a position from which they may not be able to recover and so, a first home-series win against them since readmission is closer to becoming a reality.
South Africa won’t care whether that win comes against an Australian side that includes Smith or not, with a side that includes David Warner or not, or with a side that is mentally shot or not. That’s not my problem,” Gibson said. “We’re trying to win the series so from our point of view we hope that they’re very shattered.”
And then he tempered his views with praise for an opposition attack which, tampered ball or not, he still has admiration for. “I’m still a huge fan of their bowling attack – they’ve got three six-foot-six fast bowlers bowling 140,” Gibson said. “I thought Pat Cummins was excellent in the last Test match, 24 years old, kept coming in all the time, got crucial wickets in both innings and then I see him running around the boundary diving around. So I’m still watching their bowlers and thinking, ‘That’s a very good bowling attack they’ve got.'”
South Africa have a similarly strong pack and with the Wanderers set to offer some assistance to the quicks, the battle-lines remain drawn where they were when this contest began. It was supposed to be a clash of the quicks. It has descended into several other stoushes involving sledging and shoulders and shaming of a players’ wife and CSA suits getting suspended and some sections of the crowd being labelled “a disgrace” by Darren Lehmann, who now finds himself being called the same thing. It has been a series played in what the ICC may say was in a spirit very contrary to the game.
As it gears up for its final show, Gibson hopes things can calm down but, on the evidence of the last four weeks, reaching any kind of quiet is only to brace for the next storm.
“This one has had an edge to it that is different to the Ashes. At the end of the Ashes you sit down and have a drink together. Against India, it was a tough series but at the end of every game the guys came and had a drink,” Gibson said. “We haven’t had that opportunity yet with the Aussies, for whatever reason, because after every Test match there has been some sort of drama – someone had to go see the match ref, there was some conflict between the teams, stuff like that.
“Cricket is still, at the end of the day, a gentleman’s game. Hopefully in the next Test we’ll get some way back towards being a gentleman’s game and we can have a beer.”
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo’s South Africa correspondent
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