Questions remain, but practical resolution found
Did Virat Kohli point out to the umpires that he had seen Australia seeking help from outside "for confirmation" on DRS reviews? If he did, how did the umpires respond? In effect, has there been a systemic manipulation of DRS protocols by Australia?
In the whole DRS controversy arising out of the Bengaluru Test, these are the most important questions that many a cricket fan would have wanted answered. The more you look for those answers, though, the more you realise they are unlikely to be answered.
When Kohli first raised the stink - it can be argued it began when he planted himself in the frame when the umpires were handling the Smith incident themselves - it seemed like a simple case. One of the captains was being untruthful. Either Steven Smith's side had been systemically breaching DRS protocols, or Kohli was accusing them falsely or at the least stating half facts. At that point, it seemed all the ICC needed to do was call up umpires Nigel Llong and Richard Illingworth - they knew match referee Chris Broad's views through his exclusive comments to an Australian newspaper - and check what had happened. Either Smith's side was guilty of violating the spirit of cricket or Kohli had violated the ICC code of conduct by seriously criticising an opposition in public and making inappropriate comments about them.
This is where it got complicated for those who had to act. The two boards involved kept putting pressure on the ICC to act even though they both had the right to initiate proceedings themselves. ESPNcricinfo understands the ICC considered what its match officials told it, it looked at the match footage and the evidence available, it looked at what Kohli said in the press conference, and it eventually decided it couldn't carry out any proceedings against anybody and make it stick in a court of law.
Any charge against any party here would have to be level 2 or upwards, which comes with a right to appeal, and the appeal comes with a proper hearing in front of a judicial commissioner with lawyers present. The ICC studied everything, and decided it had no evidence to suggest Australia intentionally and systemically breached DRS protocols as alleged. It also decided it was possible a judicial hearing might strike down a charge against Kohli because he had been smart in the words he chose.
This was conveyed to the boards before the ICC sent out a statement on Wednesday. That the ICC sent out a statement when there were no charges to be laid was an exception on its part, prompted by the heightened and polarising media coverage this incident was getting. The ICC CEO had a week's time in which to press charges, but here the world body had sent out a clear message only a day after the incident in an attempt to curb the outrage. Most of this outrage came through poor understanding of the protocols that Smith and his side were accused of breaching in the first place.
Smith had, in full view of the cameras, with no attempt to hide it, looked towards the dressing room, apparently to ask for assistance on whether to go for a review or not. He later admitted to a "brain fade" and apologised for it. His batting partner at that time, Peter Handscomb, tweeted later that he had asked Smith to look up because he didn't know the protocol. Handscomb was in his sixth Test, and, he said, he didn't have enough experience of the DRS.
What Smith was trying to do was wrong under the DRS protocol, and it was handled by the umpires under the same protocol. Earlier in the match Illingworth had refused to tell Ishant Sharma where the ball had pitched until India had decided on the review; similarly, now the umpires prevented Smith from communicating with the dressing room. Had he asked for a review, Smith would have been denied. That was the only way to deal with this indiscretion under the DRS playing conditions.
That Smith wasn't caught doing anything on the sly, and that he owned up to it, should suggest that the incident was dealt with properly. Unless of course this was not a one-off. This is where Kohli comes in. He got into the action even as Llong was walking towards Smith to prevent any communication with the dressing room. In the press conference, Kohli refused to buy Smith's account that this was a one-off, saying that he had seen Australia do this twice when he batted, and that this looking up for confirmation had gone on for three days.
Whether for lack of evidence or for lack of incident - we are not likely to be told - the ICC didn't see how it could act on Kohli's words. This doesn't confirm that nothing had happened prior to the Smith lbw, but that the ICC could not find any evidence of its having happened. To drop the matter was not a satisfactory resolution, but the most practical one. As far as on-field behaviour is concerned, the umpires - who perhaps didn't want to be killjoys in a passionate contest - might just get stricter in the upcoming Tests.
The fan, though, was bound to be perplexed. Why then was Faf du Plessis charged by the ICC CEO for ball-tampering even though the match officials had not noticed anything? A possible answer is that not only did the ICC have clear actionable evidence at hand in du Plessis' case, but also ball-tampering is governed by Law 42, which deals with "fair and unfair play". The only ICC code-of-conduct charge that could have been brought against Smith in this particular incident was that of violating the spirit of cricket but for that the party laying the charge would have had to establish intent, which was impossible to do here.
Why then did Kohli get away with his allegations when David Warner was fined for raising doubts over South Africa's handling of the ball in 2014? Warner is indeed a precedent, but there is also another precedent. The current India coach Anil Kumble was not charged when he said only one team was playing in the spirit of the game in the 2007-08 Sydney Test. That was a comment the ICC handled outside the code of conduct because it seemed a more practical approach in an already volatile atmosphere, which can be said of this series too. Still, this case will be brought up as a precedent every time the ICC penalises an international cricketer for serious public criticism of an opponent in the future.
Equally, Cricket Australia could have brought a charge against Kohli - its CEO James Sutherland found Kohli's claims "outrageous" after all - but perhaps Kohli had just chosen his words so shrewdly that even CA didn't see a case in this.
The BCCI CEO, Rahul Johri, though, did not seem to take into account all these practicalities. In a way, the onus of finding the truth always lay with India. From the moment its captain interfered in the handling of the Smith incident, all the running was done from India's side. Kohli made the accusations in public, which suggested he had the evidence to back them up. The Indian board then followed it up with a statement that it stood with its captain. And then, when peace seemed to have been agreed upon, it filed an official complaint with the ICC. It really did seem that the BCCI wanted to reveal the truth.
Except that it didn't. If it wanted to reveal systemic manipulation, it would have complained about the two other incidents that Kohli mentioned on the record; instead it went after Smith and Handscomb for that one incident. That the BCCI didn't complain about the other incidents suggests they could gather no evidence. It has been suggested that the BCCI flied the complaint before the deadline lapsed in order to keep their options open ahead of a planned ceasefire meeting. But in reality, the complaint, in the absence of tangible proof of a systematic plan to subvert the DRS system, had no legs.
For a parallel, you need only to look back to three years ago, when no action was taken against James Anderson in 2014 because India did not have any evidence against him in the case of the alleged altercation with Ravindra Jadeja at Trent Bridge. Or to 2008, when the racism charge against Harbhajan Singh could not be proved because of a lack of evidence.
The complaint was duly withdrawn within hours, and a truce was announced with the ICC playing the match referee. It is perhaps the most practical resolution given there is a Test to be played in a week, but no party involved has emerged in the good light, and we will never know who was wrong and who was wronged.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo