As India saw out the final moments of a remarkable Test draw with Australia in Sydney on Monday, former Indian batsman Virender Sehwag posted a video on Twitter. Clipped from stump camera footage, it showed an Australian fielder walking to the empty batting crease and scraping his foot across the pitch, before an Indian batsman entered to resume play.
“Tried all tricks including Steve Smith trying to remove [Rishabh] Pant’s batting guard marks from the crease,” Sehwag wrote. His 20 million followers blew it up, and the disdain was reflected by media outlets and cricket people especially across India and England.
Scrubbing out someone’s guard was not against any laws, but it fell into that other category with many names: sharp practice, gamesmanship, shithousery. Coming from Smith, who had previously cheated by ball-tampering, made it seem far worse. On a tense final day, during which other Australians would embarrass themselves with their sledging, it seemed like part of a team-wide malaise.
With the issue framed as it was, the response made sense. The post said that Smith was removing a batting mark, so people assumed he was. The problem is, that central concept is complete nonsense. Even those defending Smith did not address why.
To look at concrete details rather than personalities, batsmen typically use one of three guards. They line up their bat with either leg stump, middle stump, or two legs – halfway in between. Occasionally a player might take an off-stump guard to combat a particular method of attack, but that’s rare.
Accordingly, the three conventional guards get scratched into the ground time and again through a match. The SCG had seen 22 players bat through 33 innings before Pant arrived on the last day. Each of them marked guard repeatedly during their stay.
By the last day of any Test, the marks have been dug into trenches. Anyone walking to the crease can clearly see them. Players still take guard again, because that’s part of feeling settled and ready to face the bowling. But the marks themselves are clear.
Then there is the matter of what a fifth-day pitch is made of. Unwatered throughout, baking in the sun, the batting ends have been so well trodden that not a blade of grass remains. The turf has turned to bare hard clay. The marks from earlier days are set.
At this point, it is literally impossible for a player to remove the principal batting marks with four scrapes of a boot. It would require calling the ground staff for some excavation tools. Perhaps you could remove a mark on a soft English pitch on day one. Not an Australian pitch on day five.
Even on the Exhibit A video, if you watch the part of the screen that matters, you can see the deep-grooved guards before Smith scrapes his foot, and you can see them still in place after he leaves. Smith’s scrape is along the line of centre, so if anything he emphasised it.
When Pant walks back into frame after Smith has left, he immediately places the toe of his bat down on the existing marks. First on the leg guard, then two legs, then middle. He knows exactly where they are.
Which raises the other point that makes the kerfuffle ridiculous. The video comes from the drinks break, when players mill around. Any Test batsman will take a fresh guard after a break, no matter how clear the marks are, no matter how long they’ve been playing. It is part of the process of switching back on. Even if a player did succeed in removing a mark, it would make no difference to another player who would just mark it again.
As to why Smith was standing there, who knows? He thinks in his own way. It would make sense for him to stand as a left-hander so he could think about what Pant would be facing. Then he turned right-handed and marked guard on centre before leaving.
Some objectors have said that the batting crease belongs to the batsman, so Smith was trespassing. That is not the case, because bowlers use the same area when the ends swap. Neither owns it. Really, the pitch belongs to the umpires, who warn off any player straying too far down. Or presumably, any amateur palaeontologist on the popping crease.
All of the above is the kind of detail that is not captured in a 30-second internet clip with inflammatory framing. Immediately, the response was partisan unpleasantness. Scandal is exciting, so people piled in. Sehwag is making a career from it in an Indian political market where bellicose plastic patriotism is a selling point.
English pundits in an Ashes year were as enthusiastic. David Lloyd rattled off adjectives – pathetic, childish, immature, thick, dumb, sad – before putting his name to a ghostwritten hatchet job. Michael Vaughan had a pop before walking back his comments. These are all former cricketers who know what happens in the middle. Whether they should have known better or already did is something for them to consider.
Smith’s history of cheating will always invite scrutiny. It will see him accused more readily than others. It means that his behaviour will always have to exceed standards rather than meet them. That is the fair consequence of his choices. But accusations still need enough substance to stand up. Otherwise it is nothing but kicking dirt: raising some dust, making some noise, changing nothing.