Steve Smith has been on my mind. Not the man who orchestrated Australia’s cheating in the Cape Town Test, but the man he was a week, a day, an hour before that. The best batsman in the world. Leader of a successful bunch of cricketers in a country where sport is a passion. A good guy, as former England captain Michael Vaughan called him.
He is still many of those things, but the ‘Before’ and ‘After’ images scarcely look like the same man. When he restarts his career, how and when will redemption arrive?
Drug cheats return to sport after serving out their ban, match-fixers get into the commentary box after sitting out for a while, those accused of manslaughter get into Parliament, so what is the future for a cricket captain who sinned?
“They’ll be taking Steve Smith’s face off the cereal packets. Removing his image from the poles and buildings as if to signal the regime change. He’s fallen,” wrote Peter Lalor in The Australian . Yes, the regime has fallen. But kings and Presidents and Prime Ministers have returned, even after leaving in disgrace.
I have no sympathy for what Smith did, nor do I believe the punishment has been excessive. Look what he has done to Australian cricket; the psychological scars will last. Sponsors are pulling out. Television channels are looking at alternatives to cricket.
And yet, and yet…
Smith was a hero once, and could be again. The picture of him being escorted at the airport like a dangerous criminal was sickening. The video of his press conference in Australia was devastating. The remorse missing from his original confession was conspicuous here. You have to be pretty hard-hearted not to be moved by the sight of a young sportsman breaking down, never mind if it was of his own making. He was gutted — and no one who saw that can unsee it now.
Things will never be the same for Smith again. He will have to work harder at selling a car or convincing someone to invest — money or time — in him.
Getting back onto the cereal packets and posters will take time. A batsman whose average is bettered only by Bradman (25 Tests or more) will have to mark his 365 days on a mental wall like a prisoner counting off his sentence. He has to keep himself fit, play some cricket, surround himself with people who care. It will be tough, but not impossible.
Redemption follows remorse. The ban, the loss of some 20 crore in personal earnings, the 100 hours of community service, each is a foothold on the long climb to forgiveness and respectability.
Smith will still be in his 20s when he rises from the dead; age and talent will still be on his side. Had he retired just before the Cape Town Test, he might have been spoken of as a batting great, a role model.
The role model is now a cautionary tale.
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