By Nomvelo Chalumbira and Nick Mulvenney
JOHANNESBURG/SYDNEY (Reuters) - Darren Lehmann is to step down as Australia coach following this week's test match against South Africa after taking ultimate responsibility for the culture of a team embroiled in a ball-tampering scandal that has rocked cricket.
Lehmann, who had previously said he would not resign, made his decision in part due to the abuse his family received after three Australia players conspired to scuff up the ball with sandpaper during the third test against South Africa.
Cricket Australia cleared Lehmann of wrongdoing following an investigation that led to the sacking of captain Steve Smith and vice-captain David Warner who were both banned from playing for 12 months. Batsman Cameron Bancroft was suspended for nine months.
In an emotional media briefing on Thursday, Lehmann, who had also come under fire for what has been described as a toxic culture within the team, said his decision was voluntary.
"Ultimately I'm responsible for the culture of the team. I've been thinking about my position for a while, despite telling media yesterday that I'm not resigning," he told reporters in Johannesburg.
"My family and I got a lot of abuse over the last week. Speaking to my family, it's the right time to step away."
Cricket Australia CEO James Sutherland thanked Lehmann for his contribution.
"Darren Lehmann has provided fantastic service and been part of a successful team that won a World Cup and a couple of Ashes. His work ethic has been terrific and he genuinely cares for and loves his players," Sutherland said, before stating he had no thoughts of giving up his own position.
"I'm not resigning and what's happened over the last few days has only strengthened my resolve."
Smith broke down in tears of remorse as the three disgraced cricketers at the center of the Cape Town scandal made apologetic returns to Australia.
Smith 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 apologized for his misjudgment.
Bancroft spoke of his shame on his arrival in Perth and Warner told reporters in Sydney that he would only speak once he had "cleared his head" in a few days, having earlier expressed remorse on his Instagram account.
'FAILURE OF LEADERSHIP'
"To all of my team mates, to fans of cricket all over the world and to Australians who are angry and disappointed, I'm sorry," Smith said 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," he added.
"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."
Smith received support from South Africa captain Faf du Plessis, who has twice been found guilty of ball-tampering.
"Obviously the penalty is quite hard on him, but I do have quite a bit of compassion for what he’s going through. It’s not nice. You don’t want to see any cricketer or person go through that amount of pain," Du Plessis said.
Bancroft confessed to lying about using sticky tape rather than sandpaper to rough up the ball during a news conference immediately after the incident on Saturday.
"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."
There was more bad news for Bancroft when English county Somerset announced they had canceled his contract.
"I have spoken numerous times to Cameron since last Saturday, he has spoken very maturely. He shared his deep regret and apologized to everyone associated to the club," Somerset director of cricket Andy Hurry said.
After four days of almost universal condemnation for the trio in Australia, the severity of the punishments brought some support.
Former Australia leg-spinner Shane Warne, while condemning the cheating, said the hype whipped up by anti-Australian feeling around the cricketing world had led to overly harsh punishments.
"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," he said.
One of those was former Australia and current Pakistan coach Mickey Arthur, who said the scandal was an inevitable result of an unwillingness to improve the culture in the country's entire cricket set-up.
"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," Arthur said.
The incident has also triggered an International Cricket Council (ICC) review of the players' code of conduct to curb on-field misdemeanours.
Better behavior will be expected when Smith's replacement Tim Paine leads out the team in the fourth test in Johannesburg on Friday, looking to level the series at 2-2 but most importantly start restoring the good name of Australian cricket.
(Additional reporting by Nick Said; Editing by Toby Davis and Ed Osmond)