By Alison Bevege
SYDNEY (Reuters) - A cheating scandal that has ripped through the core of Australia's most venerated pastime, cricket, prompted church leaders to provide guidance over the Easter weekend on how to emerge from the moral tailspin.
Addressing Sunday's congregation at Sydney's St. Andrew's Cathedral, Anglican Archbishop Glenn Davies said the redemption of Easter gives hope of forgiveness to all who face moral failure - even disgraced sportsmen.
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Australian cricket was shaken to the core when three national players were discovered to have conspired to scuff the ball with sandpaper during the third test match against South Africa last month.
Roughing up one side of a ball can help it to swing through the air, making it more difficult for the opposing batsman to play.
An investigation 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.
"When we all look at our own selves, we recognize we've all been there, we've had our own failures," Davies said. "Perhaps not quite as public as Steve Smith's and the other two, but failures nonetheless. If it's hard enough to confront and stand up to a press gallery and admit you’re wrong, what would it be like to stand before the living God and admit that you were wrong?"
The inclusion of the ball-tampering in Easter sermons underscores how deep the scandal has run in a sports-loving country that prides itself on fair play. Past cricket giants such as master batsman Sir Donald Bradman are revered for their conduct as much as for their victories.
"None of us have been personally damaged by what Steve Smith and David Warner have done but they represent Australia so we feel it's personal," Everton Hills Wesleyan Methodist Church pastor Nathan Bell told Reuters. "Forgiveness is difficult as not everyone wants to give it."
Bell discussed the cricketing scandal at the conclusion of his Wednesday service in the state of Queensland, leading the congregation in a prayer for Smith and the team.
Smith broke down in tears and begged the nation for forgiveness during a press conference at Sydney airport on Friday after being sent home from South Africa in disgrace.
Ashen-faced and distraught, Warner issued an abject apology for his role in the ball-tampering scandal when he arrived home on Saturday.
Both Smith and Warner have admitted collusion in the plan for junior player Cameron Bancroft to use a piece of yellow tape to rough up the ball in the international test match in Cape Town.
There was an immediate outpouring of anger after Bancroft's actions were caught on camera, with Australians flooding social media with questions on how to explain the scandal to their children.
A poll by Australian cable television network Sky News found that more than 52 percent of Australians thought suspending players for a season was the most appropriate punishment for ball tampering, while nearly a third supported a lifetime ban.
Major corporate sponsors, including Magellan Funds Management, tore up lucrative contracts with sporting body Cricket Australia and the individual players. Other sponsors, such as the country's flagship airline Qantas, gave the players and the administration a tongue lashing.
Church leaders however urged forgiveness.
"It seemed like a natural thing to do," Reverend Dr David Reichardt from the Normanhurst Uniting Church in Sydney told Reuters. "Forgiveness means eventually full restoration. I certainly hope the cricket authorities will come to view this in a more kindly light."
Uniting Church President Stuart McMillan said concerned parents could use the cricketing scandal as a teachable moment in forgiveness and the humanity of heroes.
"Their character is seen in owning their mistakes, and accepting their punishment," McMillan said in his Easter message on Good Friday, which was sent by video link to 2500 Uniting churches across Australia.
"Our character as a nation is not to be found in cricketing greatness; rather in humility, forgiveness and hope. The Easter story reminds us that a fresh start is always possible for all of us."
(Reporting by Alison Bevege; Editing by Jane Wardell, Kim Coghill and Raju Gopalakrishnan)