SYDNEY • Devastated former Test captain Steve Smith broke down in tears of remorse as the three disgraced cricketers at the centre of the Cape Town ball-tampering scandal made apologetic returns to Australia yesterday.
He was unable to complete his news conference at Sydney Airport and was ushered out of the room after a short display of raw emotion during which he repeatedly apologised for his misjudgment.
Batsman Cameron Bancroft spoke of his shame in Perth and former vice-captain David Warner, scheduled to land in Sydney later yesterday, took to social media to apologise for his role in the cheating.
Smith and Warner, already stripped of their positions, were handed 12-month bans and Bancroft a nine-month suspension by Cricket Australia (CA) on Wednesday for conspiring to scuff up the ball with sandpaper during the third Test against South Africa.
"To all of my teammates, to fans of cricket all over the world and to Australians who are angry and disappointed, I'm sorry," Smith told reporters in a prepared statement.
"It was a failure of leadership, of my leadership, I'll do anything I can to make up for my mistake and the damage it has caused.
"Cricket is the greatest game in the world. It's been my life and I hope it can be again. I'm sorry and I'm absolutely devastated."
Warner, identified by a CA probe as the instigator of the attempt to cheat, apologised and took responsibility for his "part" in the scandal on Instagram.
"I understand the distress this has caused the sport and its fans," the opening batsman wrote. "It's a stain on the game we all love and I have loved since I was a boy."
Bancroft confessed to having lied about using sticky tape to scuff the ball in the news conference immediately after last Saturday's incident.
"I lied. I lied about the sandpaper," the 25-year-old told reporters. "I panicked in that situation and I'm very sorry. I feel like I've let everyone down in Australia."
Better behaviour will be expected when Smith's replacement Tim Paine leads out the team in the fourth Test in Johannesburg today, looking to even up the series at 2-2.
It will be Darren Lehmann's last Test as head coach of the Australian cricket team after he said yesterday that he would be stepping down due to abuse that he and his family received over the scandal.
"Speaking to my family, it's the right time to step away," a tearful Lehmann told a press conference in Johannesburg.
The 48-year-old, who was due to leave the job after next year's Ashes series in England, is quitting despite being cleared of any role in the scandal. But he conceded that he should take some blame for the aggressive culture that has developed in the Australian team since he replaced Mickey Arthur in 2013.
Arthur yesterday slammed his former charges as "boorish and arrogant" and accused them and CA of being unwilling to improve the culture within the game.
"An incident like this had to happen for the necessary cultural shift to take place. Australian cricket has been in an ivory tower for too long," he wrote in his column for PlayersVoice.
But, after four days of almost universal condemnation for the trio in Australia, the severity of the punishments brought some support.
Spin bowling great Shane Warne, while condemning the cheating, said the hysteria whipped up by anti-Australian feeling had led to overly harsh punishments. He said: "The hysteria has gone worldwide, and everyone that dislikes the way the Australian cricket team has played... has been given the opportunity to lay the boots in."
South Africa captain Faf du Plessis also called Smith's 12-month ban harsh. "I have compassion for what he's going through," said du Plessis, who has twice been found guilty of ball tampering himself, but was only fined. "I think he's one of the good guys and he's just been caught in a bad place."
Despite some sympathy, the International Cricket Council (ICC) will review its punishment for ball tampering in light of the scandal.
Under its code of conduct, the ICC was unable to impose more than a full-match fine and a one-Test ban on Smith, unlike CA's more stringent penalty.
The trio have seven days to appeal against their bans and a press statement from the Australian players' union indicated that they believed there were grounds, noting "a number of glaring and clear anomalies" in the process.
The financial repercussions continued for the players, with all three losing sponsorship deals, and for Cricket Australia, which lost a major partner when Magellan Financial Group ended a three-year naming rights deal after seven months.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS