TWELVE months ago Australian cricket was in crisis, rocked to the core by a cheating scandal that left former captain Steve Smith and his deputy David Warner among the most vilified men in sport.
But against the odds it has turned a corner, with the shattered national team in form again and winning back fans under new coach Justin Langer after a clean out of the executive ranks.
For the disgraced Smith and Warner, it has been a tumultuous and humbling year, marked by a torrent of vitriol, tearful apologies, community service and the slow process of winning back trust.
Friday will mark the end of their one-year bans from state and international cricket and they are set to be welcomed back with open arms.
The “sandpapergate” scandal in Cape Town, which also saw rookie opener Cameron Bancroft exiled for nine months for attempting to alter the ball, triggered far-reaching consequences for Australian cricket.
Then-coach Darren Lehmann quit and all the top brass from Cricket Australia left after a scathing review said their “arrogant and controlling” win-at-all-costs culture was partly to blame for players bending the rules.
The game in Australia has since undergone a host of cultural changes under Langer, who infamously called the team of old “spoilt brats” and vowed to “put smiles on faces rather than everyone throwing stones at each other”.
It has been a drawn-out process with the team suffering a series of humbling defeats without their top two batsmen before finally finding their feet again.
Despite the progress, some pundits believe questions remain about the tampering issue.
Former captains Mark Taylor and Ian Chappell and wicketkeeping great Ian Healy have all criticised the limited investigation by Cricket Australia, which focused only on Cape Town.
“There was no probe into finding out how long it [tampering] had been going on for,” Taylor, who was on the CA board at the time of the incident, told Channel Nine this week.
“There’s no doubt this ‘ball-management’ has been going on for a long time, and I dare say every country is either doing it or working out how to do it, but there’s a line somewhere between ball-management and ball-tampering.
“The grey area in all of this is how much of this ball-management in the past was tampering and went unnoticed.”
Smith was adamant in the aftermath of the scandal that tampering did not happen prior to Newlands.
Chappell added to the same broadcaster: “That probe was pretty specific and it almost sounded to me like they were after Warner anyhow.”
Warner was widely seen as the instigator of the plot to use sandpaper, with Bancroft carrying it out and Smith turning a blind eye.
As part of his penance as he prepares to return to the international arena, Warner has reportedly phoned all of his Australian team-mates to apologise.
“I think he has spoken to all of them, saying he was really sorry for his part and wants to come back into the team without any hard feelings,” his manager James Erskine told News Limited newspapers this week.
“I think you will find his attitude has changed.”
All appears to have been forgiven. Smith and Warner have begun the process of reintegration, welcomed back with “hugs and cuddles” at a Australian team meet-up in Dubai this month.
“It’s great to be back around the group, they’ve been really welcoming and almost like we’ve never left,” said Smith.
Langer, who was vocal in championing the duo’s return, called their reunion like “two brothers coming home”.
Smith and Warner are currently easing their way back at the Indian Premier League and are expected to make their international return when Australia opens its World Cup defence against Afghanistan in Bristol on June 1.
Bancroft was recently appointed captain of English county side Durham as he works to win a spot in the Test team for the upcoming Ashes series.