JOHANNESBURG: Australia coach Darren Lehmann and skipper Steve Smith faced the axe Tuesday with cricket chiefs holding crisis talks in South Africa to deal with an escalating cheating scandal.
Cricket Australia (CA) boss James Sutherland, under mounting pressure to come down hard on what Australian media has dubbed a “rotten” team culture, has arrived in Johannesburg and is expected to give a press conference later Tuesday.
Sutherland is holding talks with Cricket Australia’s head of integrity, Iain Roy, who is probing the ball-tampering scandal during the third Test match against South Africa on Saturday.
Reports say they could ban both Smith and vice-captain David Warner for 12 months and send them home in disgrace.
Smith has already been suspended for one Test and docked his entire match fee by the International Cricket Council for his role in a plot that saw teammate Cameron Bancroft use a piece of grit-encrusted sticky tape to change the condition of the ball.
It means Smith will miss the fourth and final Test in Johannesburg starting Friday.
Lehmann has remained silent, but Britain’s Daily Telegraph said he had decided to quit.
Lehmann took over the coaching reins in 2013 when predecessor Mickey Arthur was sacked, with Justin Langer considered a frontrunner as his replacement although Ricky Ponting will also be in the mix.
“We understand the strong interest everyone has in this situation and we are following due process to properly address all of the relevant issues involved,” Sunderland said in an email.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said Tuesday it had been “a shocking affront to Australia” and Cricket Australia must act “decisively and emphatically”.
Former Australian coach John Buchanan, who led the team from 1999 to 2007, said Smith must resign as captain and urged cricket chiefs to be fully transparent in their investigation.
“It is a very difficult time for members of Australian cricket; however, I believe there is a golden opportunity to reset the dial around player and staff behaviours, actions and decision-making,” he told reporters.
There has been a national outcry over Smith’s admission that the “leadership group” within the team decided to cheat.
That group of senior players usually includes fast bowlers Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc, but they are reportedly furious at being embroiled in the saga.
The ramifications of the scandal have been far-reaching with the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), the guardian of the laws of the game, calling for a “major shift in attitude” to preserve the game for future generations.
Former South African captain Graeme Smith has hit out at the ICC’s handling of the scandal, saying it had “missed an opportunity to really handle this properly and lead our game”.
“They haven’t done that. You have had two players, who have admitted guilt for cheating. I think that’s huge.”
Bancroft used a strip of yellow sticky tape he had covered with dirt granules to illegally scratch the rough side of the ball, thereby facilitating more swing for bowlers.
He was filmed not only rubbing the ball with the dirtied tape but concealing the evidence down the front of his trousers. The ICC fined him 75 percent of his match fee and slapped him with three demerit paints, but he escaped a suspension.
Former South Africa captain Fanie de Villiers has described how he tipped off the TV camera crew that caught Bancroft in the act after he noticed the ball behaving unusually for the conditions.
“We actually said to our cameramen: ‘Go out. Have a look, boys. They are using something.’ It’s impossible for the ball to get altered like that on a cricket wicket where we knew there is a grass covering on,” De Villiers told Australian radio station RSN927.
Smith insisted it was the first time his team had cheated in this manner, but former England captain Michael Vaughan claimed he is “pretty sure” Australia were ball-tampering during their 4-0 victory in the Ashes, which finished earlier this year.
“I look at the amount of tape some of the fielders have worn, particularly during the Ashes series at mid-on and mid-off. You don’t have to name names, they know who they are,” he told BBC Sport.