Steve Smith and David Warner may have redeemed themselves this World Cup, but their sternest Test awaits them at the Ashes next month
Much was expected of the two on their comeback from the sordid ball tampering saga last year, and while Australia may not have gone on to the finals, the two would have felt that they had done enough to get their team into the semi-finals
Australia began 2018 season with the Ashes sitting comfortably in their trophy cabinet, but the feel-good factor of success was short-lived as three of its players were named culprits in a ball-tampering scandal. Steve Smith, David Warner, and Cameron Bancroft were slapped with bans after deemed guilty of altering the condition of the ball in the Cape Town Test against South Africa in March of last year.
Bancroft, relatively a newbie in the squad, found himself in the middle of a burgeoning controversy after he revealed in the post-day press conference that he had attempted to fiddle around with the ball. This action was also caught on TV where he was seen rubbing the ball with sand paper (He had said it was yellow tape then). He later admitted to the wrongdoing, saying he would "have to live with the damage to my reputation".
The retribution was swift and hard, with Australia Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull urging Cricket Australia to take some tough calls. Smith and Warner were stood down from their captaincy, Bancroft was suspended, and the trio was sent back home.
Smith and Warner were banned by CA for 12 months, a call that saw them being banned by the BCCI from playing the Indian Premier League. No leadership positions would come to them and they cut emotional figures when they apologized to the public. The scandal also saw CA sacking high-performance manager, Pat Howard, and senior executive Ben Amarfio, and saw CEO James Sutherland, chairman David Peever and long-time board member Mark Taylor resign.
Since then, Australia's performance hit a new low. They lost the remaining two Tests by 322 and 492 runs respectively. This was followed by the team losing 18 of the 26 matches across all formats. With a new captain in Tim Paine, the side managed to stitch together only a couple of wins and hard-earned draws.
The incident made sure that Australian cricket would never be the same.
A year passed and the ban was lifted. But people still had their doubts on how Smith and Warner would be accepted back in the fold. Captain Aaron Finch had said that the "integration" process had been completed, and the disgraced duo would now be on the plane to England for the ICC World Cup 2019.
Much was expected out of the two as senior players, and while Australia may not have gone on to the finals, the two would have felt that they had done enough.
Warner was the man who had hit a purple patch since the IPL. He turned up for the Sunrisers Hyderabad and belted 692 runs from 12 matches at a career-best IPL average of 69.20. He followed it up by dishing out 649 runs from 10 games, ending as the highest Australian run-scorer in the on-going World Cup.
Smith may not have decimated bowling attacks with daddy hundreds, but the former captain chipped in with valuable contributions in both the IPL and the World Cup. He batted in the middle order for Rajasthan Royals scoring 319 runs from 12 games and 379 runs from 10 games in the World Cup.
And throughout these comebacks, they have been jeered, sneered and booed at.
Australia had not put a foot wrong this World Cup until they ran into a red-hot England side who seem to have embraced an attacking brand of cricket. They were trounced by Eoin Morgan and Co. on July 11 by eight wickets and exited the tournament as semi-finalists.
The crowd in England didn't make it any easier for the two as they were booed constantly. Virat Kohli, the Indian skipper, who is often seen as the pantomime villain in Australia came to Smith's rescue in England when the Indian crowd booed the Aussie player while he was fielding.
But despite churning out runs in big numbers, it won't be easy when Smith and Warner return to England in August to play the Ashes. The tournament is played for glory and the English audience, who may clap for a ball well caught or a cracking cover drive, will most definitely play mind games with the two.
The Ashes has seen men go home broken, quite literally. It has seen players go from villains to heroes and the vice-versa. The tournament has made and broken the careers of countless cricketers, and now, the two men who thought they have redeemed themselves will have to gear up for their sternest Test yet.