Test great Shane Warne has condemned Australia's ball-tampering trio for engaging in "premeditated cheating" but believes the hysteria surrounding the controversy has resulted in excessive penalties handed down by Cricket Australia (CA).
Steve Smith and David Warner have been banned by CA for a year for their involvement in the Cape Town ball-tampering scandal, while Cameron Bancroft received a nine-month ban.
Warner will never again be considered for any leadership position, while Smith and Bancroft must wait 12 months after serving their ban before they can be considered for a leadership role.
Warne, who is well placed to comment given his own legendary career was marred by controversies involving an illegal bookmaker and a banned diuretic, suggested a more appropriate punishment would have been "to miss the fourth Test match, a huge fine, and be sacked as captain and vice-captain".
"To hear that the Australian cricket team had been involved in premeditated cheating is something that is embarrassing," Warne wrote for News Ltd.
"But the jump to hysteria is something that has elevated the offence beyond what they actually did, and maybe we're at a point where the punishment just might not fit the crime.
"The hysteria has gone worldwide … But what are the players guilty of? Cheating via ball tampering and bringing the game into disrepute.
"Their opposing captain in this series, South Africa's Faf du Plessis, has been charged with ball-tampering twice, and opening bowler Vernon Philander once.
"Then there’s the idea of premeditated cheating. But are there levels of ball tampering, or is it just ball tampering? Is putting a mint in your pocket so you can shine a ball on the field premeditated cheating, or just ball tampering? What about putting sunscreen on the ball? You either ball tamper or you don't.
"For that reason, I don't think the punishment is fitting the crime."
Warne also defended CA's finding that head coach Darren Lehmann had no knowledge of the ball-tampering plot, with the 48-year-old essentially absolved of any guilt following the investigation, despite scepticism from many players past and present.
The CA investigation cited Smith, Warner and Bancroft as being the only people who were aware of the incident, and Warne suggested any covering up from a governing body standpoint would be nonsensical.
"Darren Lehmann has been cleared of knowing what went on too, which has surprised plenty, but that's all part of the hysteria," the 145-Test veteran added.
"It's easy to say 'as if Boof didn't know'. But all we can go is what we've been told. This is too big a deal, too big a story, there is too much at stake for the game and (CA chief executive) James Sutherland to lose, not (to) tell the truth.
"We are all struggling to believe what he said, that it was just the three players who knew what was happening, that the coach had to know.
"We all saw him on the walkie talkie. But you have to take James at his word."
Qantas tour of South Africa
South Africa squad: Faf du Plessis (c), Hashim Amla, Temba Bavuma, Theunis de Bruyn, Dean Elgar, Heinrich Klaasen, Quinton de Kock, Keshav Maharaj, Aiden Markram, Morne Morkel, Chris Morris, Wiaan Mulder, Lungi Ngidi, Duanne Olivier, Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada, AB de Villiers.
Australia squad: Joe Burns, Pat Cummins, Peter Handscomb, Josh Hazlewood, Jon Holland, Usman Khawaja, Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Marsh, Shaun Marsh, Glenn Maxwell, Tim Paine, Matt Renshaw, Jhye Richardson, Chadd Sayers, Mitchell Starc.
Warm-up match: Australia beat South Africa A by five wickets. Report, highlights
First Test Australia won by 118 runs. Scorecard
Second Test South Africa won by six wickets. Scorecard
Third Test South Africa won by 322 runs. Scorecard
Fourth Test Wanderers, Johannesburg, March 30-April 3. Live coverage