Ah, you beautiful, ugly sport.
Step back for a moment and ponder about the ridiculousness of it all. The simple, almost comic act of rubbing sandpaper on a leather ball in a game has led us to this: a captain of an international sports team escorted by security as boos rang around him, a stony-faced, broken man, who had just managed to make it at the top, reflecting on a fatal mistake and finally, a gifted talent overcome with grief and hurt at his own guilt, breaking down with the kind of profound sadness that should never be seen in a sport.
As Steven Peter Devereux Smith showed an expectant world at the Sydney Airport on Thursday, cricket can be a wonderful partner, but a cruel mistress. The sport can build you up, take you to the top, put you on a pedestal and even compare you to the greatest that ever existed…and ruthlessly pull out your blanket, throw out your life’s aspirations, grab your throat and mock you.
The vagaries of public sentiment
Stranger still, has been the manner in which public sentiment has swayed, one way and the other. When those pictures of Bancroft putting an unknown yellow something into his underpants first appeared on our screens, they seemed comical, almost laughably foolish. The kind of skit you’d see on a late-night comedy show. But the mood started turning very quickly to the point where it became unforgiving. They were cheats. They were criminals. They had destroyed what the game stood for (what exactly is this noble ideal, by the way? No one can probably answer). Demands arose for retribution to be swift and speedy. Someone, after all, needed to be seen doing something.
Funnily enough, now that the pound of flesh has been extracted, the tide has turned. Now there is outrage over the former Australian captain being made an example of. He didn’t deserve this, now they are saying, ‘He deserves better’.
Perhaps, these kind folk could have displayed that wonderful sense of perspective before hauling the young (he’s 28, for heaven’s sake) talented man over the coals, putting him out to dry, only so that they could feel some warped, perverse sense of justice?
The dangerous pedestal
We, the general public, are unfailingly, at times even inhumanly, tough on mistakes.
Maybe that is exactly why Steven Smith finds himself where he is today. More than the inept, stupid piece of ball tampering that he turned a blind eye to, he had be punished for - horror of horrors – having the temerity to make a mistake.
How dare he? Is not Steven Smith a legend of the game? Isn’t he a star? The general rules of humanity don’t apply to him, right? Of course, “to err is to be human” but that’s reserved for us. Not for them!
We love our icons to the extent that we put them on a dangerous pedestal of immortality. That is where a lot of love for sport as a concept and as pastime comes from –a world where seemingly the mundane and the normal don’t apply, but one which all of us normal folks can enjoy and partake of. The spectacular and the wonderful, the bright and the beautiful… a tiny slice of heaven which we can enter whenever we want.
Thou shalt not succumb
And of course, in that heaven, the normal rules don’t apply. Those who bestride that wondrous world are infallible, perfect, flawless. They aren’t “normal” like us and hence they do not have the privilege we have, to make mistakes.
Unknowingly, that is the bond, the contract created between the performers and the audience. And hence when the performers break that bond, that magical illusion, we rebel, we outrage and we revolt. Our heaven is being destroyed, our beauty tarnished, our super-world being made mundane. And, hence those who have transgressed must be punished for playing with our hearts. Who cares if they just made a “mistake”? They are not allowed in this dreamland.
Those who do inhabit the world of sports though are not too different from us. Yes, they may enjoy god-gifted skills and superior athleticism, but they too face many of the same problems: the pressure to perform, the pressure to exceed expectations, the same shattering self-doubts and like many of us, the same temptations.
Steven Smith succumbed. And retribution followed.
Forgiveness and redemption
He is not the first one. To see him teary-eyed, a broken man, a shell of the person he was just a few days back, may provide some perverse satisfaction to those who preferred to get on the train of righteousness. But cricket, and the wider sports world, has a history of forgiving graver crimes committed by those who have walked its hallowed corridors.
The late Hansie Cronje, who tearily confessed to turning cricket into a rehearsed piece of theatre, received a life-ban for his actions. But back in his native South Africa, once the initial shock had worn away, he remained a national icon who was much mourned after his untimely and tragic demise. A young talented tearaway by the name of Mohammed Amir bowled deliberate no-balls after being coerced by his captain – but managed to make a comeback to a mostly sympathetic world after five years.
These are but just two examples in a long list which teaches us that what salvation is to religion, redemption is to sport.
Steven Smith may be broken-hearted, defeated and disgraced, but hopefully he will come back. As time goes by, the defining image of him may not be his impassive face at the post Day-3 press conference in Cape Town, but of his anguished choked apologies at an airport in Sydney. The sympathy will remain for a man who gave everything he had earned through blood, sweat and toil, in a stupid, regrettable brain-fade.
And hopefully, we will then see the second coming of Steven Smith, rising from the ashes like a phoenix, determined to script a new narrative.