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Cameron Bancroft—A Victim of the Human Psyche?

When the Australian national cricket team takes on England in the ODI series in June, they will do so without two of their biggest players, Steve Smith and David Warner. They owe this bereavement to the ball-tampering scandal of March 2018 that rocked the cricketing world and brought the Australian team under heavy fire. Much of the discussion, however, was centred on the captain and vice-captain and less was said about the actual perpetrator of the deed, 25-year-old opener Cameron Bancroft.

In a test match against South Africa in March, Cameron Bancroft used a piece of sandpaper to roughen up the ball on the instructions of vice-captain David Warner, with captain Steven Smith choosing to turn a blind eye towards the whole thing. The position Bancroft was put in was an interesting one. Regardless of anything else, the basic fact is that Cameron Bancroft did, in fact, do the actual ball-tampering. Even if he was told to do so, choosing to indulge in the act was ultimately his decision. As such, it would seem that he ought to be the person to whom the bulk of the blame be assigned, and the fact that it was not his idea to do so shouldn’t really change this. The punishments meted, however, seem to contradict this idea. While Smith and Warner were handed out year-long bans, Bancroft will be out of cricket for three months fewer than that.

Looking at the issue entirely in black and white from the sidelines, Bancroft easily falls into the black—he ought to have refused the directions issued. He had the option to report his seniors to superiors and not give in to them. His situation, though, was slightly more complicated than that. Being a new player in the team, it would not have been easy for him to turn on the senior-most players. Not obeying a senior player’s instructions could have been disastrous for his career. To many, Bancroft was a mere pawn in the entire scheme, a young player led astray by more devious superiors. The dilemma he possibly faced in the situation raises an important question about whether our obedience to authority beats our moral conscience. Respecting the hierarchy is a value instilled, to some degree, by society.

An experiment by a Yale University psychologist, Stanley Milgram, provides some insight into this. In this experiment, Milgram staged a setting that put in the hands of test subjects a lever that they were led to believe administered electric shock to a person strapped into an apparatus in the next room. The person-in-charge, who would play the part of the authority figure, ordered them to administer increasingly higher voltages to the person in the other room. Inflicting such pain would have gone against the consciences of the participants. However, all of them displayed a willingness to administer the shocks. 65% of them were ready, although reluctantly, to subject the other person to voltage levels that would have been fatal.

The experiment leads to the conclusion that our minds have been ingrained with the idea that orders from people in authority have to be obeyed without question. While such attitudes, to some degree, are essential to keep a lot of systems running, there are huge inherent dangers that come with it. It is this belief that helped Nazi Germany perpetuate the horrors against the Jews in the time of the World War. The argument used by German military officials at the end of World War II was that they were simply following orders and were thus not be held accountable for their actions. This plea is known as superior orders or, following the trial of the Germans, the Nuremberg defence.

None of this argues for the innocence of Cameron Bancroft. Mistakes were made, laws were broken, and the consequences must be faced up to. But this has to be said for the 25-year old cricketer—he fell to not just to own personal flaws but to the driving force of the human psyche itself. It also has to be noted that the Nuremberg defence did not actually hold up. In the post-war trials of the Nazi officials, most of the defendants were declared guilty and sentenced to death. As for Milgram’s experiment itself, it has come under criticism for faulty methodology, making it that much harder to try and shift the responsibility of one’s actions onto someone else.