In a series that has a significant bearing on the World Test Championship, while every team thinks it has walked away with a relatively blemish-free story to tell, the Australian summer has had quite a few holes. The conclusion of the Sydney Test once again brought David Warner and Australian cricket back into the unsavoury spotlight.

The third and final Test against South Africa in Sydney, which the visitors escaped with a rare draw after copping a follow-on falling short by 21 runs, saw Australia come tantalisingly close to sealing the first spot in the final of the second World Test championship cycle.

The 2-0 series victory meant that Australia had beaten South Africa for the first time on their own soil in 14 years. And the draw meant South Africa’s first in 47 Tests since 2017. But what should have been excitement, celebration and consolation turned into a spectator sport of rage and ridicule after David Warner was awarded the Man of the Series at the post match presentation.

Warner was the subject of heated discussion ahead this Australia summer even before the three Test series against South Africa when he brought up the issue of the lifetime captaincy ban imposed on him as a result of the ‘sandpapergate’ saga of 2008. Claiming he was not a “criminal” and that he has had to endure a lot of hardship alongside his family, the issue that the game had been brought into disrepute as a result of actions not just on the field but also, as a result of solicitation and conspiracy amongst other members in the team caught together for the first time in known and documented cricket history, was sidestepped altogether.

Cricket Australia, for their part, overturned the appeal procedure, giving Warner a chance to stake a claim to Australia’s captaincy, which is not surprising given that there has been a leadership crisis not just after the scandal but even when Steve Smith was the captain. Ironically this was blowing up as Smith was a stand-in skipper for Pat Cummins during the West Indies Test series.

However, what Warner had not reckoned was that the appointment of an independent panel would bring with it a public hearing into the matter to ascertain the facts of the case in a bid to decide whether the punishment meted out was justified.

This was unprecedented as well as potentially eye opening into what actually transpired, the ‘sandpaper gate’ being not only the worst kept secret in the Australian dressing room but also, a scandal of global sporting proportions. It led to wild speculation and conjecture which put on the line the reputation of other players.

This included the bowlers and their suspected involvement or knowledge in what had already been confirmed as a collusion between players by Cricket Australia’s own actions in the immediate aftermath. It also brings into question once again the reputation of Cricket Australia, worsened by these matters over the summer.

It was not surprising that Warner not only backtracked on his appeal but also, went on to state that his family had suffered enough and he did not want to put them or his team mates through a public trial and scrutiny. Begging the question: what more did he have to tell that could potentially hurt, that was not publicly shared?

There might have been a few sighs of relief as well as there has also been much rumour mongering about the Cricket Australia board and how heads might roll at the top given how Cricket Australia had not painted itself well at the time of the scandal. The cover up looked more like a botch up, and, subsequently in the handling of other matters including that of the Tim Paine scandal, administrative layoffs, then turning their nose up on the ICC over the hosting of the ICC Twenty20 World Cup amongst others in more recent times.

While Warner might have welcomed, in that light, his epic double century in the second Test in Melbourne that put South Africa on the mat and brought much relief to him. His drought of runs had put word on the street that Warner’s time with Australian cricket might be reaching a threshold of sorts. What he had not banked on was an award and acknowledgement that would bring his way more brickbats than applause from the cricket world at large.

The Sydney Test had already copped much criticism. After rain and bad light brought to the fore issues of day and night Tests, the use of light metres and continuation of play under floodlights as well as the use of pink balls, it had also spoiled Australian cricket’s record to make it five wins out of five Tests at home this summer. After South Africa were at the receiving end of embarrassment as the Boxing Day Test match wrapped up in under two days and the Melbourne double ton of Warner played a big part as South Africa ceded the series 2-0 disparagingly, a draw would not under normal circumstances attract this kind of censure. But it did.

In a rare turn of events, while the Man of the Match award was given to Usman Khawaja, who was left high and dry after his own drought of runs ended in an innings of 195 runs which might have been a welcome double hundred for him had Cummins not declared the innings at that point, Warner walked away with the Man of the Series award.

The Angst? Warner did score the 200 runs in that one innings in oppressive heat in Melbourne to outplay South Africa. It did close the door on the visitors’ hopes. But it could be argued in the same breath that the door had not been open too wide anyway for the beleaguered South African team trying to find its feet.

Besides, apart from that one innings, Warner had barely a dozen runs to his name, showing duds for the rest of the innings in the series. In contrast, other names were put up for being more consistent such as Travis Head. And part of putting South Africa out of the picture was the role the bowlers played in ensuring South Africa never got going, apart from the final day in Sydney when they managed to keep their head above water to deny Australia their wickets for a win and a whitewash that would have handed Australia their spot in the final of the World Test championship.

Pat Cummins, the Australian skipper, himself could have been a contender on that list, having taken 12 wickets at a phenomenal average of 16.19.

The captain himself addressed the fiasco when speaking to reporters afterwards, “He (Warner) said it himself – “oh, that’s surprising.” I heard him say it was (close) between a few different players and Davey got it in the end. Whenever someone plays, it’s not the first thing they put on their mantle, player of the series, so it is what it is.”

But the Australian skipper might be wrong on the last account.

Contrary to his statement, Warner might actually cherish this accolade given that this Australian summer has not been the highlight for the 36 year old if headlines are anything to go by and given the lean patch the otherwise prolific bludgeoner of the ball is reputed for, that the talk of retirement was rife even within the corridors of the board was acknowledged by the man himself.

The innings in Melbourne might have vindicated his selection but even Warner admitted at the end of that match that “the tap on the shoulder might come anytime” and that he was looking to close out the year with the ICC Cricket World Cup 2023 in India for starters.

In more than one way, Warner needed this award as much as that innings in Melbourne because the ugly saga of sandpaper-gate made its way once more to the top of the Australian summer cricket agenda, ironically ahead of the series against South Africa.

It was in South Africa in March 2018 when Steve Smith, the then Australian captain, David Warner, the vice captain at the time, and Cameron Bancroft, the relative newbie with his guilty hand in his pocket that held the sandpaper used on the ball, were pulled up by Cricket Australia. This, after the ball tampering saga was caught on camera for the world to see by discerning eyes in the South African cricket fraternity who alerted the broadcasters to the fact.

The young cricketer, Bancroft, was handed a nine months ban but seems in hindsight to have suffered the most given that his cricket career has never really recovered thereafter. Steven Smith returned from the one year ban as did Warner with speculation around Smith and his potential captaincy return making the rounds when the two year captaincy ban came to a close, with Australia unable to come up with robust captains in the interim unlike the past.

However, Warner was not only handed a one year ban from international cricket like Smith but also, received a stronger punishment of a lifetime captaincy ban, taking the opportunity of ever captaining Australia out of the picture altogether.

What it suggested at the time was that not only was the skipper weak in being aware of the happenings but remained a mute spectator and also, that Warner had a much larger role than was even being speculated in public, vilified as the mastermind of the whole thing.

Warner had been on edge in that series and even had a dressing room/pavilion confrontation with Quinton de Kock in the previous match. Not helping the batsman’s previous bad boy reputation that saw him being sent home from England before the Ashes at one point was the mocking around his wife’s previous dating history.

Nothing though could have prepared the world for what precipitated at the Newlands ground after Australia had often taken the moral high ground on the issue of ball tampering, calling for stronger punishments from the International Cricket Council (ICC) on players from other teams found in violation.

What has not made Warner’s life easy or taken his neck off the chopping block was when in the immediate aftermath of Warner’s withdrawal of his appeal for his lifetime ban to be overturned, his manager, James Erskine, went on record to say that ball tampering was not only rampant in Australian cricket well before the Cape Town Test but that it even had the sanction of Cricket Australia.

In his words, he suggested that Warner was not the mastermind but the protector, one of two guys who put up their hands and decided that the whole team could not possibly be penalised in which case only a few could take the fall.

Even if this is an attempt to paint Warner as noble, it is still a diabolical suggestion to think the entire team was above board and arrogant enough to even contemplate the idea that they could not be scrapped altogether in lieu of rebuilding a new team. Far from being in collusion of an act that might have looked less demeaning to some, the incident took on demonic proportions because it was the first time in record that a team was caught on a concerted conspiracy to damage the game. While the “win at all costs” culture was vilified, this kind of thinking was still rife.

This should have led to more headlines, jaw dropping and a greater demand for the truth, from the public and also, from the ICC. But count of the towering silence of the governing body under pressure from influential boards for sustenance and on people’s short memory in light of an enticing prospect of a series.

If the insinuations are true, they are dire in nature though this cannot be proved one way or another. It only lends further credence to what many in the cricket fraternity at large and within the cricket community in Australia whose views have been made public via broadcast in numerous debates, believe.

It is that while one hand was caught in the pocket, the pulling up of the captain Steven Smith and his so called “softness” in admitting at the press conference that “there was a leadership group” involved which was conveniently converted into a confession after the fact, points to more to the story than what meets the eye. And Cricket Australia too must be held accountable, by the cricket loving public down under who pay hard money for the summer enjoyment whose benefits are reaped by the board and the players.

Was Warner made the fall guy for having too much of a reach, or was it a cover up which is what Warner is railing against? Is this the teaser to a more salacious storytelling post retirement and if so, what can Cricket Australia do or be seen doing to present a more credible version of the truth?

The speed with which Cricket Australia carried out the punishment and flew their players back home to avoid ICC (International Cricket Council) sanction as a way of claiming double jeopardy did not just let the public have an airing out of the issue which would have turned Australian cricket upside down, it also denied them the opportunity to put the house back in order, which means skeletons continue to hang in the closet.

With the wound not being allowed to heal or recover, the scab is opening up every so often to reveal Australian cricket’s dark underbelly. If Warner’s team is right, the deep rot within the system, in the corridors and in the dressing room, and it has undermined their standing in world cricket in the absence of an adequately robust bench strength and an even more robust selection panel and has further sullied the reputation of a team’s history that was only previously limited to being “bullies” while being dominant champions.