Steve Smith fronts the media after arriving back in Australia from South Africa. Picture: Brendan Esposito
Steve Smith fronts the media after arriving back in Australia from South Africa. Picture: Brendan Esposito

‘Blown up’: Steve Smith’s shock ally

SOUTH African superstar AB de Villiers says he feels sorry for banned Australian batsman Steve Smith.

The Proteas batsman has opened up on the ball-tampering scandal that tore the Australian cricket team apart during their 3-1 series loss.

De Villiers featured in one of the heated series' most-debated flashpoints when Aussie spinner Nathan Lyon appeared to drop the ball on him as he lay on the ground after being run out.

However, with the dust still settling on the controversial series, de Villiers says he feels Smith has been treated harshly and believes the entire ball-tampering fiasco was overblown.

Smith and vice-captain David Warner accepted 12-month bans over the plot to tamper with the ball using concealed sandpaper. Confessed ball-tamperer Cameron Bancroft also accepted a nine-month ban for executing the plan Warner cooked up, according to the Cricket Australia integrity unit's report into the scandal.

The scandal became one of cricket's greatest controversies. The unforgettable series was described as the worst match referee Jeff Crowe had ever seen in his 14 years as a cricket official.

On top of the ball tampering and Lyon's ball-drop, the series also featured Warner's furious dressing-room argument with Quinton De Kock, Kagiso Rabada's shoulder brush with Smith and the South African crowd's use of Sonny Bill Williams masks to get under Warner's skin.

De Villiers says the whole thing was "blown up massively".

It's why he still feels sorry for Smith.

Steve Smith broke down during his press conference back in Sydney.
Steve Smith broke down during his press conference back in Sydney.

"Yes it is a serious matter but it was taken to a level where it really hurt them individually and I felt sorry for them," de Villiers told The Guardian of the banned trio.

"Especially Smith, who stood up thinking he was doing the right thing by his players. The way he was punished was harsh.

"Wrong is wrong. Guys try to find a way to get the ball to reverse but you have to stay in the laws. Sandpaper (he chuckles)?  Sheesh, I don't know. I have it in my bag but that's for cleaning my bat."

He said he had no complaints about the heated atmosphere in which the series was played and believed that was exactly how Test cricket should be played.

"It was rough," he said.

"But it was the best series I have been a part of. There were scandals that weren't called for but cricket-wise, the way we dominated was, well, I haven't been part of a team that has done that to them.

"It was seriously tough cricket but that's how Tests should be played. There was all this talk about 'the line' and you don't want to get too personal. But letting a player know there is a series on the line and he is about to lose it for his country, that is part of the game. That's what we did.

"I felt they got quite personal. Although we had an instance in Durban where one of our players [De Kock] did too ... that's a long story. But overall, I loved the toughness of the cricket played. It's just the rest that was uncalled for."


Nathan Lyon was fined for this ball drop.
Nathan Lyon was fined for this ball drop.

He also revealed Lyon sent him a text message apologising over the send-off he was given following his run-out in the first Test at Kingsmead.

De Villiers said Lyon's drop wasn't a good look for the sport, but added he didn't take any offence because he didn't  Lyon was a "nasty guy".

It comes after the ICC's announcement on Thursday it wants to change the rules to allow greater sanctions to be taken against future cases of ball tampering.

International Cricket Council chief executive Dave Richardson said football-style red and yellow cards would be among the measures considered as it sought to bring back a "culture of respect" to the game.

At ICC meetings in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata this week, the leaders of top playing nations demanded harsher punishment and more powers for umpires to act against cheating and misconduct.

"There was clear direction received that we want to move toward stricter and heavier sanctions for ball tampering and all other offences that are indicative of a lack of respect," Richardson told a press conference.

Ex-Indian Test star Anil Kumble is to lead a player legends committee to recommend the sanctions.


AB de Villiers was a wall against the Aussie attack.
AB de Villiers was a wall against the Aussie attack.

The ICC chief said the new punishments would be decided in June and July. Richardson said the punishments would also cover "other offences that are indicative of a lack of respect for your opponent, for the game, the umpires".

"We want penalties in place that are a proper deterrent. Fines are not proving to be the answer," he said.

The ICC was criticised after it banned Australia skipper Smith for only one Test over his role in the ball-tampering scandal in South Africa last month.

After a wave of public anger, Cricket Australia later banned Smith and his deputy Warner for 12 months. Bancroft was given a nine-month suspension.

"Quite honestly we were worried about poor player behaviour before that," Richardson said.

"There have just been too many incidents of sledging, ugly abusive language and dissent."

He said letting umpires send off and book players would "be part of the discussion".

"When it comes to time wasting and things like that, we want the umpires to take more on-field actions."

Richardson said he was not convinced that red and yellow cards would be as easy to implement as in other sports.

Since last year, umpires have been able to send off players for violence and other extreme behaviour, but this has not yet been used.

The Marylebone Cricket Club, guardians of the game rules, have been among the influential groups calling for red cards.

- with AFP