Australia host SA with ‘sandpaper-gate’ wound yet to heal

The ghosts of Newlands still haunt Australia as the hosts prepare for their first Test series against South Africa nearly five years after the ball-tampering scandal rocked the cricket world.

Australian cricket has tried desperately to move on from the 2018 furore, pointing to new management and time served by the three players found culpable.

Yet questions as to what exactly happened at Newlands — before, during and after — have refused to fade away. Instead, they have come roaring back in recent weeks with the Proteas’ arrival and David Warner’s frustrations at the permanent leadership ban that still tethers him to ‘Sandpaper-gate’.

Between Cameron Bancroft being caught with a piece of sandpaper in the field and former captain Steve Smith weeping bitterly upon his return home in disgrace, much of Newlands remains a mystery.

Acting as judge, jury and executioner, it took only a few days for Cricket Australia (CA) to collect evidence, find guilt and issue heavy sanctions on Bancroft, Smith and Warner, while absolving their team mates and staff of blame.

The report into the investigation has not been made publicly available, with CA citing confidentiality, and the information vacuum has been filled by speculation and innuendo as the years rolled on.

Bancroft said in an interview with The Guardian last year that it was “self-explanatory” Australia’s bowlers knew of the tampering, drawing a firm denial from them.

Smith initially said it had been a “leadership group” decision to tamper with the ball but ultimately changed his story, saying he had no part in its planning and his fault lay in his failure to prevent it.

Adjudged to have played the leading role in the affair, Warner has kept his counsel but remains embittered by the leadership ban.

Two Australia players at Newlands, Usman Khawaja and former Test batsman Shaun Marsh, confirmed this week they were not interviewed by CA’s integrity unit in 2018, raising more questions about the probe.

The Australian team lining up at the Gabba on Saturday will likely feature six players from the 11 at Cape Town, including Smith, Warner and captain Pat Cummins.

Under former skipper Tim Paine, Australia ditched the ugly combativeness they once brought to the field and have risen to the top of world Test rankings in good spirit under Cummins.

“Time heals all wounds,” opener Khawaja told reporters in Brisbane on Thursday.

“We are a very different Australian cricket team from what we were back then.”

South Africa have also changed, with plenty of fresh faces under captain Dean Elgar, but they remain Australia’s nemesis and will bid for a fourth consecutive series win on Australian soil.

While the teams insist there is no bad blood from Newlands, each have a record of getting under the other’s skin.

There is also plenty at stake, with the teams occupying the top two rungs of the World Test Championship.

Elgar tipped a feisty series before landing in Australia, even if Newlands had, hopefully, been “put to bed”.

“We enjoy that confrontation as a group and we manage it pretty well,” he said.

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