Footage of Steve Smith taking guard while fielding on day five of the New Year’s Test was understandably bemusing, and warranted an explanation.
Nathan Lyon had been bowling to Indian batsman Rishabh Pant throughout the morning, and Smith was clearly imitating the left-hander’s stance to visualise the lengths his teammate should be targeting.
It’s a routine he’s performed countless times before — as teammates, journalists and spectators attested to.
“It’s something I do in games to visualise where we are bowling, how the batter is playing our bowlers, and then out of habit I always mark centre,” Smith told News Corp this week.
But in the eyes of many cricket pundits, Smith’s explanation didn’t cut it.
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A tsunami of accusations flooded social media, with countless sandpaper gifs sporadically appearing Twitter and Facebook.
Critics have seemingly been waiting for a Smith slip-up since he returned from 12 months in exile after the ball tampering scandal, and the grainy footage was enough to justify a pile-on.
As veteran cricket report Peter Lalor wrote in The Australian this morning: “Were people waiting on their balconies with baseball bats? It felt like that.”
The sandpaper saga ensured Smith’s reputation would always be under scrutiny, and the backlash from “scuffgate” has been relentless — particularly from England.
Former England paceman Darren Gough labelled it “plain cheating”, while Ashes icon Michael Vaughan called it “very very poor”.
English broadcaster David Lloyd called Smith “childish” and questioned whether he had “two brain cells to rub together.”
Countless voices from the Old Dart joined the condemnation — some even questioned whether Smith deserved to recently be anointed Test Cricketer of the Decade by the ICC.
Smith, Australia coach Justin Langer and captain Tim Paine all maintained there was nothing sinister about the batting maestro’s behaviour — but that didn’t wash with everyone.
It’s no surprise much of the criticism came from England. Even after Langer and Paine leapt to Smith’s defence, the Poms were sticking to their guns, adding another layer to Australia’s fiercest cricket rivalry.
The Sun’s cricket writer John Etheridge tweeted: “Not a serious transgression imho but ‘he can’t help himself’ is no justification. Batting crease is batsman’s domain. (Jonathan) Trott didn’t mark his guard when the opposition were batting. And bowlers are kicked out attack if they encroach regularly on batsman’s area.
“It’s not cheating or probably not even trying to upset Pant, but he just shouldn’t be there. Batsmen wouldn’t scratch a bowler’s landing area, would they? And ‘quirky’ or ‘it’s just the way Smith is’ don’t excuse it.”
Former Test cricketer Derek Pringle posted: “Irrespective of SS’s explanation or India’s lack of complaint, the crease is not his when he is fielding. He should keep his scrapes to himself until he has bat in hand.”
Sports reporter Chris Stocks posted: “People might look more favourably on the Australian team if they stopped bleating on about team ‘culture’ all the time. The constant self-validation is tedious.”
The Times’ Elizabeth Ammon tweeted: “I think he’s just on the ocd spectrum. Probably didn’t even think about it. But stay off the crease mate!”
Those remarks all came after Langer slammed the “ludicrous” backlash to what he believes was an innocent act.
Vaughan doesn’t believe Smith cheated, but said he was guilty of being “silly”. The England legend — who Langer called because he thought his criticism was “out of line” — wasn’t backing down, even after the chat and being clipped by Aussie great Mark Waugh.
These rebuttals pinpoint the most valid issue with Smith’s actions — he shouldn’t be taking guard in the middle of the opposition’s innings.
Smith’s quirks are well-renowned, but scraping at the batsmen’s guard is a habit which can be easily suppressed.
But suggestions Smith was maliciously attempting to remove Pant’s guard, or that the footage was proof of “plain cheating”, rubbed Australia the wrong way.
“I literally cannot believe some of the rubbish I have read about Steve Smith,” Langer told reporters on Wednesday.
“Anyone who knows Steve Smith, he’s a bit quirky, and he does some weird … we’ve all laughed about it for the last couple of years.
“What Steve Smith does at the crease, he does it probably most games, he’s just thinking about the game.
“Anyone who suggests for one millisecond he was trying to do something untoward, they’re way out of line.”
Paine had his predecessor’s back, saying: “That’s something I’ve seen Steve do that many times. He was not trying to change guard or anything like that.
“He’s quite upset about it. That’s something Steve’s done a lot … he just loves batting so much. There’s no way in the world he was trying to change Pant’s guard at all.”
The fourth Test between Australia and India will commence at the Gabba on Friday with the series delicately poised at 1-1.