Samir Chopra February 11, 2010

Legalise it - The case for ball-tampering

At a time when cricket has increasingly become a batsman dominated game, when the single biggest threat to Test cricket is not the IPL or T20 but the roads that are routinely produced by groundsmen the world over, what precisely is the case against

I tend to classify my political views into two categories: those where I can understand my opponent's point-of-view and am willing to entertain it seriously, and those where no matter how hard I try, my brain doesn't seem to understand why anyone would hold a contrary view. Matters of economic management tend to fall into the first category and lifestyle choices fall into the second.

Similarly, when it comes to cricket. An example of a view where I don't understand the case for the opposition is the business of legalising ball tampering. I would ask someone to explain to me why ball-tampering is still illegal, but since I don't get it, I'll stick to expressing my bewilderment. At a time when cricket has increasingly become a batsman dominated game, when the single biggest threat to Test cricket is not the IPL or T20 but the roads that are routinely produced by groundsmen the world over, what precisely is the case against ball-tampering?

The great Wasim Akram, arguably the finest exponent of the arts of swing in recent years, has argued that it is pointless. But with all due respect to Akram, there is very little chance he would have come out in favor of ball-tampering. Given the steady stream of allegations against Pakistan bowlers over the years, it would have been highly problematic on his part to have come out in favor of ball-tampering; plenty of people would have regarded it as a tacit admission of guilt and simply said, "About time the Pakistanis 'fessed up. The Pakistanis must have been doing it in 1992 and Pakistani cricketers and journalists have been lying since then." No, not really a satisfactory state of affairs.

But Akram's comments then prompt a further question: if he doesn't think tampering is going to help bowlers swing the ball, then why not simply make tampering legal? Let bowlers do their worst; at the very least, we won't have any of these silly allegations made against fast bowlers. Indeed, Akram seems to have missed a trick on this one. It is the illegality of ball tampering which has criminalised so much behavior and led to so much rancor.

Other arguments are straightforwardly moralising: it is cheating, it is unfair, it sends the wrong message to youngsters. These "what will the children think" expressions of concern are touching. But they leave me cold, for they fall into the same old tired pattern of only proscribing that behavior in cricket which favors batsmen.

To proscribe an activity is to seek to discourage some behavior and concomitantly send out a message about what behavior is considered permissible in a society. Keeping ball-tampering illegal does neither. Bowlers and fielders continue to strive for advantage in a world stacked in favor of batsmen and the moralists in the game continue to throw around the "cheat" slur. Cricket remains locked in a mode where it persists in making some behavior illegal almost as if to ensure that a certain discourse continues to take place amongst its followers.

This sanctimony helps no one; it inflates batting averages, stacks the field unfairly against bowlers, and contributes, most irritatingly, to a vocabulary full of the word "cheat". When I see an area of conversation that is full of morally-inflected slurs thrown around at behavior that is common, I know something is amiss. (Like the conversation surrounding "drugs", where hypocrites like to think those that smoke marijuana are "doing drugs" while they pour themselves a glass of fine Pinot Noir).

Cricket should get over the batsman-favoring morality it is so in love with (witness the shock and horror over Mankading, which plenty of fans think is unsporting). Every single moral debate in cricket has something to do with making the world safer for batsmen: restrict bouncers, increase over-rates, condemn Mankading, keep ball-tampering illegal, don't appeal if you think the batsman is not out, and so on.

One of my favorite cartoons, reprinted in the World Cricket Digest many, many years ago, shows a trembling vizier confronting a beturbaned maharajah, while a loincloth-clad servant waits. The vizier says "Your majesty, I risk your displeasure, and death by a thousand lashes, but the laws of cricket do not permit your servant to take your run-up while you bowl."

Cricket has a bad habit of treating bowlers like the maharajah's minions. It's about time they were treated like first-class citizens, able to shake up the comfort of the privileged class made up of willow-wielders.

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here

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