SYDNEY, March 29 (Reuters) - Devastated former test captain Steve Smith broke down in tears of remorse as the three disgraced cricketers at the centre of the Cape Town ball-tampering scandal made apologetic returns to Australia on Thursday.
Former Australia captain Smith was unable to complete his news conference at Sydney Airport and was ushered out of the room after a short display of raw emotion during which he repeatedly apologised for his misjudgement.
Batsman Cameron Bancroft spoke of his shame on his arrival in Perth and former vice captain David Warner, scheduled to land in Sydney later in the evening, took to social media to apologise for his role in the cheating.
Smith and Warner, already stripped of their positions, were handed 12-month bans and Bancroft a nine-month suspension by Cricket Australia on Wednesday for conspiring to scuff up the ball with sandpaper during the third test against South Africa.
“To all of my team mates, to fans of cricket all over the world and to Australians who are angry and disappointed, I‘m sorry,” Smith told reporters in a prepared statement.
“It was a failure of leadership, of my leadership, I’ll do anything I can to make up for my mistake and the damage it has caused,” he added, breaking down for the first time.
“Cricket is the greatest game in the world. It’s been my life and I hope it can be again. I‘m sorry and I‘m absolutely devastated.”
Warner, who was identified as the instigator of the attempt to cheat by the Cricket Australia probe, broke his silence via Instagram, apologising and taking responsibility for his “part” in the scandal.
“I understand the distress this has caused the sport and its fans,” the opening batsman wrote. “It’s a stain on the game we all love and I have loved since I was a boy.”
Bancroft confessed to having lied about using sticky tape rather than sandpaper to scuff the ball in Cape Town in the news conference immediately after the incident last Saturday.
“I lied. I lied about the sandpaper,” the 25-year-old told reporters. “I panicked in that situation and I‘m very sorry. I feel like I’ve let everyone down in Australia.”
After four days of almost universal condemnation for the trio in Australia, the severity of the punishments brought some support.
Spin-bowling great Shane Warne, while condemning the cheating, said the hysteria whipped up by anti-Australian feeling around the cricketing world had led to overly harsh punishments.
“The hysteria has gone world wide, and everyone that dislikes the way the Australian cricket team has played ... has been given the opportunity to lay the boots in,” he said.
One of those was former Australia and current Pakistan coach Mickey Arthur, who wrote that the scandal was an inevitable result of an unwillingness to improve the culture in the country’s entire cricket set-up.
“An incident like this had to happen for the necessary cultural shift to take place. Australian cricket has been in an ivory tower for too long,” he said.
The incident has also triggered an International Cricket Council (ICC) review of the players’ code of conduct to curb on-field misdemeanours.
“What happened down there has certainly created additional urgency that something needs to be done as quickly as possible,” chief executive David Richardson said on Thursday.
Better behaviour will be expected when Smith’s replacement Tim Paine leads out the team in the fourth test in Johannesburg on Friday, looking to even up the series at 2-2 but most importantly start restoring the good name of Australian cricket.
The trio have seven days to appeal their bans and a press release from the Australian players’ union indicated that they believed there were grounds, noting “a number of glaring and clear anomalies” in the process.
The financial repercussions continued for the players, with all three losing sponsorship deals, and for Cricket Australia, who lost a major partner when Magellan Financial Group Ltd binned a three-year team naming rights deal after seven months.
Smith and Warner had already suffered a heavy financial penalties from the incident, losing $1.85 million each through a ban from this year’s Indian Premier League.
That was clearly not foremost on the mind of Smith on Thursday, though, as he contemplated the impact of his “huge error of judgement” on his father Peter.
“To see the way my old man’s been,” he sobbed. “It hurts... it‘s... I just want to say I‘m sorry for the pain I’ve brought to Australia and the fans, I‘m devastated and I‘m truly sorry.” (Reporting by Nick Mulvenney; Editing by Toby Davis)