Virat Kohli just stops short of calling Australia's Steve Smith a cheat – and he has a point

Scroll Staff

The can of worms has finally been opened. For six days across two Test matches of this India-Australia series, there was no real controversy. There was a dodgy DRS decision or two, some banter and sledging between the two teams and Ishant Sharma’s horrible imitation of Steve Smith’s idiosyncracies. But compared to India versus Australia series of the past, it was a damp sqib.

Until Tuesday.

In the second session of day four in Bengaluru, with Australia at a precarious 74/3 while chasing 188 to win, Umesh Yadav raps Smith on the pads with one that kept low. Umpire Nigel Llong has no hesitation raising his finger. Smith, Australia’s best batsman, looks over at his partner at the non-strikers’ end for advice. Peter Handscomb, unsure himself, appears to gesture to the Australian dressing room. Smith looks over to the dressing room himself, hoping for a signal.

Only, that’s not allowed.

According to the Decision Review System rules, the two batsmen at the crease “may consult with each other prior to deciding whether to request a player review”, but “signals from the dressing room must not be given”.

India captain Virat Kohli knew that and immediately protested by approaching the umpire and vigorously gesticulating in front of him. Llong asked Smith to leave the ground, and the Australia captain obeyed. Later, after India recorded a nail-biting 75-run win, Kohli laid into the Australians by claiming it wasn’t the first such instance in this sereis.

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“I saw that happening two times when I was batting out there,” Kohli said. “I pointed it out to the umpire as well, that it’s happened twice that I have seen their players looking upstairs for confirmation. That’s why the umpire was at him. When he turned back, the umpire knew exactly what was going on. We observed that and we told the match referee also.”

Kohli added that Australia have been doing this “for the last three days” and it has to stop.

“There is a line that you don’t cross on the cricket field – sledging and playing [like the opponents] is different. I don’t want to mention the word, but it falls into that bracket. I would never do something like that on the cricket field.”

Asked by a journalist if the word he was referring to was “cheating”, Kohli said, “I didn’t say that. You did.”

The last time India accused Australia of not playing in the spirit of the game was during the ill-contested 2007-’08 series down under, infamous for the Sydneygate, or Monkeygate, scandal. India-Australia matches have always had a heightened element of rancour ever since Sourav Ganguly made Steve Waugh wait for the toss during an ODI in 2001. But the happenings of the Sydney Test in January 2008 threatened to destroy India-Australia cricket relations.

It all began with some questionable umpiring decisions, and then blew up into a racism controversy between Harbhajan Singh and Andrew Symonds. “Only one team was playing with the spirit of the game, that’s all I can say,” current India head coach Anil Kumble, who played in that match, had said.

This particular incident, then, is perhaps not as grave as what happened at the Sydney Cricket Ground nearly 10 years ago. But it is bound to have a lasting effect on the series, in which two Test matches are still to be played, with the score tied at 1-1. India, after their win in Bengaluru, are going to be pumped up, while Australia aren’t going to sit quietly, especially after Kohli’s accusations.

The International Cricket Council is yet to comment on the matter and will have to wait for a report from the match referee before deciding to act on it. While the Indians are incensed, the general reaction from the Australian side seems to be that it was a momentary lapse from the Australian captain – that he should be rapped on the knuckles for it and let off with a warning.

Smith is perhaps benefitting from the fact that his public image is quite clean and he generally appears to be a nice guy, always smiling and showing none of the Aussie aggro of his predecessors, Michael Clarke and Ricky Ponting. Asked to give his version of the incident, Smith admitted that it was a “brainfade on my part” and that he “shouldn’t have done that”. But should his clean image absolve him of the fact that what he did was unsporting? Should he be let off just for admitting it?

The India captain wasn’t so unforgiving.

“If someone makes a mistake while batting, for me, that’s a brainfade,” said Kohli, when he was told what Smith said. “The way I left the ball in Pune, getting hit on the off stump – that was a brainfade. But if something is going on for three days, that is not a brainfade. It was getting repetitive and that’s why the umpires also knew that it might happen again.”

Kohli’s got a point. You can see from the video above that Handscomb gestured towards the Australia dressing room when Smith consulted him. If Kohli is right about this not being the first such instance, this means that the Australians have someone in the dressing room in front of a monitor looking at the footage and ready to signal to the on-field players whether to go for a referral or not.

Such a tactic is akin to South Africa’s infamous earpiece ploy during the 1999 World Cup, where coach Bob Woolmer attempted to use technological innovation to communicate with his captain Hansie Cronje during a match. South Africa’s opponents in that match were, as you guessed it, India.

If Smith and Australia have broken the rules, which evidence suggests they have at least once, they should be reprimanded – not with a warning but at least a fine, if not a ban. Whatever happens, this series has just livened up. Over to Ranchi.