IT HAS been a bad week for Australian cricket. Seven days ago, its Test team were playing a highly competitive, though bad-tempered, series against South Africa and performing creditably. In their captain, Steve Smith, they had one of the all-time great batsmen, while his deputy, David Warner, was a reliably intimidating presence at the top of the order. A young batsman, Cameron Bancroft, was also showing promise on his first overseas tour. Then, an ill-advised attempt at ball tampering was spotted by TV cameras. Cue fury around the cricket playing world, and ire from Australia's prime minister. By the end of the week the Australian governing body, Cricket Australia (CA), had stripped Mr Smith and Mr Warner of their roles and banned them from playing professional domestic and international cricket for a year. Mr Bancroft has had his embryonic career halted for nine months.

But what kind of advantage were the Australians trying to gain? When bowling at the South Africans during the Third Test at Cape Town, the Australian players were searching for "reverse" swing. When a cricket ball is new, the fielding side will attempt to keep one side of the ball pristine and shiny, while allowing the other side to be roughed up by the pitch. This changes its aerodynamics, with the shiny side moving through the air more quickly. Bowlers use the ball's tendency to swing in air to bamboozle batsman.

However, over the course of a long day, the ball’s propensity to swing disappears as it is gradually bashed out of shape. This is where reverse swing comes in. By creating significant amounts of turbulence, the most skilful bowlers have found that when an old ball deteriorates, they can make the rough side behave in the same way as the original shiny side, and make the ball swing in the opposite direction. This is confounding for batsmen, especially as reverse swing tends to occur late in the ball's trajectory, giving them little time to respond. The Australians were looking for elusive reverse swing in the Cape Town game, when, following instructions from Mr Warner, Mr Bancroft rubbed the rough side of the ball with a piece of sandpaper hidden in his pocket. Mr Smith was aware of the plan. The coach, Darren Lehmann, seemingly, was not. Nor were any of the bowlers.

The laws of cricket prevent players from deliberately changing the condition of the ball. In practice, this happens all the time. Players polish the shiny side on their trousers assiduously, for example. They also throw the rough side of the ball onto the pitch to scuff it up. Umpires and fans generally turn a blind eye to all of this. Players are less likely to get away with more blatant behaviour, such as biting the ball (really), scratching it with a fingernail or, in the case of Mr Bancroft, bringing a foreign object onto the field of play in order to damage it. The International Cricket Council (ICC), the sport's governing body, has a four-point sliding scale of misdemeanours. The most minor include wearing the wrong kit; the most serious include physically assaulting other players, the umpires or fans. Mr Smith and Mr Bancroft were each deemed to be guilty of level two offences. Mr Smith was banned for one match and docked his fee; Mr Bancroft lost 75% of his.

These punishments are in line with those previously handed out by the ICC. But they failed to temper the public anger, particularly in Australia. The prestige and of the role of Test captain in that country is unparalleled; there is no position of equivalent national importance in America or Britain. The rather casual way in which Mr Smith admitted to the strategy in a press conference, together with the appropriation of the team’s most junior player, Mr Bancroft, to carry out the deed ensured that his tenure as captain had to end. Mr Warner was blamed as the architect of the plan. Consequently, Cricket Australia went further than the ICC and banned Mr Smith and Mr Warner for a year and Mr Bancroft for nine months. (Although, rather conveniently, Australia's schedule over the next year includes relatively few important fixtures.)

If there is an upside to the episode, it is that international outcry has been a powerful reminder of how many people care deeply about cricket, a sport that struggles for attention, and which is fundamentally unsuited to an age of immediate gratification. And even though this was a pretty hapless attempt at cheating, it is likely to make other teams think twice about messing with the ball in future. As Mr Smith has discovered, the price of looking for swing can be swingeing.