Expecting 'flak,' Aussies return to scene of cricket scandal
It's maybe the final acid test of the rehabilitation of David Warner and Steve Smith as they return to the country where they played central roles in one of the most scandalous episodes in cricket.
Warner, Smith and Australia are back in South Africa for the first time since the ball-tampering drama of two years ago that led to 12-month bans for Warner and Smith, lost Smith the captaincy, and threw their team into turmoil.
The two batsmen, two of Australia's best, returned to international cricket nearly a year ago following the bans by their national board. But this week gives South Africa fans their first chance to personally “welcome” them back.
“There’s no doubt we’re going to cop a bit of flak from the South African crowds,” Australia allrounder Mitchell Marsh said. “I think it’s really important we cop it with a smile on our face. We know what’s happening.”
Indeed, Australia, and Warner and Smith in particular, are going to have to grin and bear it.
A three-match Twenty20 series gets underway on Friday at the Wanderers Stadium in Johannesburg, notoriously home to a vocal and hostile crowd, and where Australia's ill-fated 2018 tour ended.
Australia and South Africa will also play three one-day internationals.
That test series two years ago was littered by unsavory incidents even before Warner convinced teammate Cameron Bancroft to illegally tamper with the ball to try and get an advantage in the third test in Cape Town. Smith, as captain, knew about the plan and allowed it to go ahead.
Bancroft is not on this tour but Warner and Smith will almost certainly be targeted by boos and taunting. South African officials hope nothing worse.
“Our guys are expecting that,” Australia captain Aaron Finch said. “Regardless of what I think, the crowd are going to act however they please so I don’t think it’s going to make much difference to us.”
Warner, a combustible character with previous disciplinary issues, will especially be under scrutiny. He was at the center of the ill-feeling in 2018 even before the ball tampering. He and South Africa wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock — South Africa's captain for this series — had a heated confrontation on the dressing room stairs in the first test and had to be pulled apart by teammates. It stemmed from Warner's on-field sledging, or taunting, of de Kock, who responded.
Warner, because of that, was targeted by the South African crowds in the second test. And he had a verbal altercation with a supporter on the edge of the field in the third game. The series exploded into controversy with the Warner-led plan to tamper with the ball using a piece of sandpaper later in that third test, but there was all-out animosity between the teams well before.
Cricket-wise, this series is the chance for both to begin fine-tuning ahead of the Twenty20 World Cup in Australia in October and November. That's not where the focus has been.
Justin Langer, who took over as Australia coach in the aftermath of the ball-tampering scandal, said he has established a more respectful ethos in the team. What the 2018 scandal also revealed was that teams appeared to be sick of Australia, for years the dominant force in cricket, dishing out the sledging but complaining when it came back at them.
The Australia team has done much soul-searching since.
"We’ve talked a lot about this in the team, changing culture," Langer said. “It’s a great game and you want to see good battles between skills, between the batters and the bowlers. And we want to see it played in great spirit.
"From an Australian cricket point of view, I think we’ve shown that we’re ready to embrace that. We’ve done it for 18 months now and there’s absolutely no reason why that won’t continue.”
Will the South African fans embrace it, too?
“I would plead with South African fans to respect our opponents and don't go overboard with these things,” interim Cricket South Africa CEO Jacques Faul told Australian media.
But Mike Haysman, an Australian and former player who lives in South Africa and commentates on cricket, expects hostility.
"Warner will cop it. South African supporters are like that. The bottom line is David made his bed and he's got to lie in it," Haysman told Australia's Wide World of Sports.
Haysman said some fans will "treat the whole thing in good humor" but there will "definitely be people who'll go low."
Warner lost the war of words in 2018. But he arrives in South Africa with his bat doing all the talking after a highly successful comeback amid plenty of derision from other crowds. He was chosen as Australia's best player of 2019.
“David loves that banter that comes from the crowd and it sort of gets him into the game,” Finch said.
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