Smith, Warner to return to uncertain welcome

SYDNEY — Steve Smith and David Warner on Friday ended their 12-month ban for their role in Australian cricket's ball-tampering scandal.

But how soon and how warmly they will be welcomed back in an Australian team that has reshaped itself in their absence remains unclear.

Former captain Smith and vice-captain Warner are expected to be named to the Australian squad for the World Cup, which begins in England in late May. Their recall will inevitably result in players being left out who have played in their absence. Also absent has been young batsman Cameron Bancroft who served a nine-month ban.

Smith and Warner briefly met with Australian players in Dubai earlier this month. Cricket Australia chief Kevin Roberts called the meeting a "positive step" toward the reintegration of the suspended trio. But he said "a meeting in Dubai doesn't mean everything is fixed."

"What we're focused on is doing everything we can to support Dave, Steve, Cameron and all the other players in support staff with this reintegration to build harmony rather than to disrupt the harmony that is building," Roberts said at the Melbourne Press Club. "At the same time, let's be open about it. At any workplace you don't have to be best mates with everyone you work with."

Australian media reports on Friday revealed the breadth of the fracture between Warner and his teammates immediately after the ball-tampering scandal during last year's test series in South Africa.

The Sydney Morning Herald, quoting numerous sources, said star bowlers Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Pat Cummins and Nathan Lyons considered refusing to play in the fourth test of last year's series against South Africa if Warner were selected.

The so-called "Sandpapergate" scandal sent cricket into turmoil in Australia, where fans and ex-players struggled to understand how a team that claimed to hold the moral high ground in the sport could suddenly fall in a clumsy cheating scheme.

Smith, who was the top-ranked batsman in test cricket, and Warner accepted their 12-month bans for their parts in the plot. Opening batsman Bancroft, the player caught by TV cameras using sandpaper to change the condition of the match ball during the third test against South Africa in Cape Town, has already completed a nine-month ban.

All three players gave tearful news conferences after being sent home from South Africa. The bans meant they couldn't play for their national or provincial teams, but were eligible for grade cricket in their home cities and for domestic competitions abroad. For the most part, they stayed out of the public gaze.

The sanctions cost Smith and Warner multiple millions in earnings and endorsements, but both have said that's less important than the chance of returning to represent Australia.

There was fallout on the administrative side, too. The chairman and the long-time chief executive of Cricket Australia stepping down, the high-performance manager had his contract terminated early, and coach Darren Lehmann quit despite being cleared of any involvement in the scandal.

Former test captain Mark Taylor in recent weeks has called into question the investigation that followed the scandal, saying there was never any mention of how far back the ball-tampering efforts went or if other players were involved.

Roberts responded on Thursday, calling the investigation "absolutely fit for purpose."

"We're not going to jump at shadows or speculation, we'll deal with the facts," Roberts said. "All the evidence suggests that was the first time a foreign object such as that (sandpaper) had been used.

"We don't have any suggestions from the ICC, match officials, broadcaster footage, players or player agents, CA staff, cricket fans - no one has made any allegations of any other inappropriate goings on."

Most of the sentiment now seems to be in favor of Smith and Warner returning following the harshest sanctions ever meted out to international cricketers for ball tampering.

Whether teammates are as forgiving is yet to be seen.


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