Shellshocked Australian cricketers pick up the pieces

by Colin BRYDEN with Rob SMITH in Sydney

Johannesburg (AFP) - Embattled Australia returned Friday to the business of playing cricket after a week of scandal, suspensions, confessions and torrents of tears.

The Australian team took to the field in Johannesburg for the final Test against South Africa of a series that will be forever tainted by the ball-tampering scandal.

Just six days earlier, Australian fielder Cameron Bancroft was caught by TV cameras trying to tamper with the ball using sandpaper, triggering a dramatic series of events that led to captain Steve Smith and two other players being banned and coach Darren Lehmann announcing he will stand down after this match.

Lehmann gathered his shell-shocked team in a huddle before action began at Wanderers Stadium, but admitted it was hard to concentrate.

"We're not a hundred percent mentally right but we're representing our country and we've got to get the ball rolling by playing the best cricket we possibly can," Lehmann said.

South African fans in Johannesburg could not resist poking fun at the Australians' woes. One banner in the crowd read: "Sandpaper Special, Only R10 (10 Rand)".

- Too severe? -

Australia, led by stand-in captain Tim Paine, took one South African wicket to leave the home side at 88 for one wicket at the lunch break. South Africa lead the series 2-1.

In Australia, a wave of sympathy for the disgraced Smith was gathering pace after he gave a heart-wrenching public apology.

Others questioned the severity of the bans handed out in the ball-tampering scandal -- one year each for Smith and vice-captain David Warner and nine months for opening batsman Bancroft.

Smith's tearful appearance in front of media helped trigger Lehmann's resignation but also prompted calls to rein in criticism which has verged on hysterical during an extraordinary week for Australian cricket.

"Dear Australia, that's enough now," ran a headline in British newspaper The Times. "This was ball-tampering, not murder."

The ball-tampering scandal has unleashed heavy criticism of a team long perceived as arrogant and out of touch -- Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has said the team have brought shame on the country.

Australia's leg-spin great Shane Warne wrote in Sydney's Daily Telegraph: "We are all so hurt and angry and maybe we weren't so sure how to react. We'd just never seen it before.

"But the jump to hysteria is something that has elevated the offence beyond what they actually did, and maybe we're at a point where the punishment just might not fit the crime."

Former Australia coach Mickey Arthur said he felt "desperately sorry" for Smith, whose career as the world's top batsman will now be put on hold.

"I know he eats, sleeps and drinks cricket," said Arthur, who now coaches Pakistan. "He loves cricket and everything he did. He loved the job, he was passionate about the job. I think he was a very good leader and an unbelievable cricketer."

- 'Glaring anomalies' -

The Australian Cricketers' Association voiced concern over the players' welfare, and argued that the sanctions were disproportionate compared to other sanctions for ball-tampering.

"There are a number of glaring and clear anomalies in the process to date which causes the ACA to query the severity and proportionality of the proposed sanctions," a statement said.

Vice-captain David Warner, a divisive figure who was charged with instructing Bancroft to tamper with the ball, is expected to face the media on Saturday.

CA also remains under pressure after sponsors have walked away over the damaging saga.

Losses include an estimated Aus$20 million (US$15 million) partnership with naming rights sponsor Magellan, which tore up its three-year contract after barely seven months.

Australia's next assignment after the South Africa series is a one-day international series in England starting in June.

Former Test opener Justin Langer is a strong favourite to become Lehmann's successor, although reports said Australia could name a separate coach for the ODI and Twenty20 teams.