Port Elizabeth: Cricket South Africa has apologised to David Warner, his wife Candice and the Australian team after two of its executives were pictured at the second Test posing alongside spectators wearing Sonny Bill Williams’ masks.
The Australian camp was outraged when made aware that Clive Eksteen, CSA’s head of commercial and marketing, and Altaaf Kazi, the organisation’s head of communications, had stood smiling for a picture alongside three men in Williams' masks on the first day of play at St George’s Park.
The officials had also overturned a decision by the venue security, made at the request of Australian management, for the masks to be confiscated at the turnstiles.
Cricket Australia chairman David Peever, who was flying to South Africa, and chief executive James Sutherland held talks with their counterparts in the hours after Fairfax Media revealed the photograph on Saturday.
CSA later released a statement, indicating action would be taken against Eksteen, a former Test player for the Proteas, and Kazi.
"Cricket South Africa wishes to distance itself from the alleged action of certain officials in associating themselves with fans wearing masks representing the face of Sonny Bill Williams, which conduct is seemingly related to the Warner/De Kock incident during the opening day of the second Sunfoil Test match at St George’s Park," the statement said.
"While CSA respects the rights of its fans to represent their own points of view, CSA does not associate itself with these actions and urges all Protea supporters from refraining from being involved in distasteful or unwelcome actions that may impact the image of the sport and its supporters.
"CSA has taken immediate precautionary steps against the CSA officials allegedly involved in this incident and will follow the organisation’s normal internal processes in this regard."
It is understood the International Cricket Council would be unlikely to sanction Eksteen and Kazi itself, with disciplinary measures likely to be left to CSA. The pair were ordered back to CSA headquarters in Johannesburg on Saturday.
CSA president Chris Nenzani added: “On behalf of CSA I extend my sincere apologies to the board of Cricket Australia, its officials, team management, players and their families."
The masks were brought into the ground by some spectators as a way of trying to ridicule Warner, whose wife Candice had a well-known encounter with Williams in 2007, years before she met the Australian vice-captain.
It was a taunt about Warner’s wife from South African wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock that sparked an angry response from the opener in a stairwell in Durban, as the players walked towards the dressing rooms on the fourth day of the first Test last Sunday.
Relations between the two teams had already become strained following the acrimonious first Test in Durban last week and they threatened to deteriorate even further with the latest unsavoury episode.
The Australians had been aware that there were people planning to bring the masks into the venue due to pictures posted of them being made on social media on the eve of the match.
Eastern Cape has always had a sense of humour: fans getting Sonny Bill masks ready for day one of the second Test in Port Elizabeth. pic.twitter.com/jXU0cEBwfE— Dan Nicholl (@dannicholl) March 8, 2018
The tourists were eager to ensure they were not brought in on Friday, particularly because Candice Warner and the couple's two young daughters were in attendance at the ground.
The Australians asked that security refuse to allow the masks into the venue, not only for the sake of Warner's wife and their children but also in the spirit of the two teams moving beyond the angry scenes of the first Test.
Security complied with the request and stopped the spectators in question at the gate, however they were then allowed in after the intervention of CSA officials.
Contacted by Fairfax Media on Friday night, Kazi admitted CSA had made the decision to tell security to let the fans in with the masks.
Kazi said he and Eksteen, a former Proteas left-arm spinner who played seven Test matches in the 1990s, were then asked by the fans to pose for a picture with them.
"Initially security wouldn't let them in," Kazi said. "We found out because (the spectators) contacted us and we then went to security and got them in. They said 'let's take a photo with you guys'."
Kazi said the picture was not an indication that the CSA officials were supporting the baiting of Warner in such a fashion.
"They're fans," Kazi said. "They wanted to come with them. People come in dressed as all sorts of things. We let people in with Hashim Amla beards.
"We're very clear from a stadium perspective that we monitor the behaviour and language of fans."
Fairfax Media has seen songs sheets that the spectators who brought the masks in were distributing.
The revelation that CSA endorsed their entry into the venue with the masks, and the executives then posed for photos with the fans, is set to further strain relations between the sides. Cricket Australia chairman David Peever is due to arrive in Port Elizabeth on Saturday.
The news also comes as the ICC steps up an investigation into how footage of the Warner-de Kock altercation was originally leaked.
That issue is being taken very seriously by the world's governing body as the video was captured in a PMOA - a players and match officials area.
A report has been filed to the ICC, which has appointed anti-corruption manager Arrie de Beer to lead the investigation.