Bob Woolmer's column August 29, 2006

At the right place at the wrong time

Bob Woolmer
In the 38 years since I began my cricketing career with Kent, I have witnessed four major crises in world cricket and in one way or another, I have been a part of each of them

Bob Woolmer, the Pakistan coach, will be a regular contributor to Cricinfo.

Bob Woolmer suggests that a more flexible interpretation of the laws will help ensure that incidents like the one at The Oval do not recur © Getty Images

In the 38 years since I began my cricketing career with Kent, I have witnessed four major crises in world cricket and in one way or another, I have been a part of each of them. I often wonder whether I attract them or I just happen to be in the right place at the wrong time, regularly.

I was there during the Kerry Packer crisis and the inception of World Series cricket which not only polarised the game but also had a massive effect on how the game was played and marketed thereafter. I also took part in the first rebel tour of South Africa under the captaincy of Graham Gooch. Again, the tour split opinion among many but I believe it helped precipitate change in South Africa. The country went from the total intransigence on apartheid to democracy in ten years, which is very quick in political terms.

The match-fixing crisis was altogether more dangerous for cricket. I wasn't coach when Hansie Cronje was exposed but a lot of his dealings happened during my period as coach of South Africa, and I would like to reiterate, all completely without my knowledge apart from the well-documented incident in Mumbai in1996, during Mohinder Armanath's benefit match. The latest, of course, was the Darrell Hair affair at The Oval; it was dreadful for the game but I am sure it will also highlight issues such as how matches are umpired as well as enable a rethink on some laws of the game currently too inflexible in their interpretation.

The Oval incident, like the others, has been difficult for all concerned. There is no handbook on how to handle these issues and everyone has to play it off the cuff. Those watching, of course, have the benefit of hindsight but at the time, those involved have no such benefit.

As the hearings on the two incidents are still to happen I cannot say much. About the forfeiture I will say this, though. There was just a moment which might have changed the situation. At about 16:45 (BST) the Pakistan team started to go back onto the field. Inzamam-ul-Haq led his team out, only to see that Darrell Hair and Billy Doctrove were walking off; if in that moment Hair and Doctrove had seen the Pakistan team coming, I wonder if they might have turned round and stayed on the field. Obviously we will never know but in reviewing the video footage it was literally that close.

Much has been said about that decision and much also has been raked up about ball tampering. Barry Jarman alleged that he changed the ball in the 16th over of a match South Africa were playing against India in January 1997. He said he had done it without the knowledge of either captain, coach or the umpires. I do not recall any such incident and neither does Jonty Rhodes.

Would this moment have been averted if the umpires had seen the Pakistan team coming on to the field? © Getty Images
I do remember, though, cases of ball tampering from various points through my career. One was at Bournemouth when I was acting captain and David Constant came to the dressing room at tea time and said he was changing the ball as the original had had its seam picked. The culprit owned up and we got on with the game. In 1995, in New Zealand, Deon Nash was caught by the cameras scratching the ball. I went up to the match referee - Barry Jarman as coincidence would have it - and asked him if he had seen anything. He said he had and that he would deal with that. On that occasion I was asked by the captain to go and see the match referee. There were also occasions where umpires have show some concern about the ball but quietly warned the team or player(s) involved. I guess the point is that they have shown greater sensitivity in handling the incident.

My personal opinion on the whole issue is more liberal than some, especially on current laws regarding 'working' on the ball. I believe that the ball should be allowed to swing if at all possible. With covered pitches, heavy bats, smaller boundaries, flatter pitches in the subcontinent and umpires always giving the benefit of the doubt to batsmen, bowling has become harder work. I see no reason why bowlers should not be allowed to work on the ball, without external implements, but only fingers and the ground's surface to help make the ball swing. It has been part of cricket since it began so why not make it legal to do so now? Perhaps someone who feels strongly against it could let me know what the objection is.

Interestingly enough, we are now seeing the emergence of a new skill called 'converse swing'. This is when bowlers are able to swing it conventionally one delivery and yet with the same grip and ball shape, reverse it the next, thereby making it difficult for the batsmen to pick which way the ball was going. The Australians suffered at Old Trafford when Simon Jones exploited this brilliantly. We noticed it happen on this tour as well and theorists suggest that using sugar mixed with saliva (say sucking a boiled sweet or mint) encourages the shine on a ball and allows it to swing either way with only the slightest grip changes. The fact that there can be a new bowling innovation is tremendous for the game and I only hope new regulations to ban the sucking of sweets on the field are not introduced now.

For everyone involved in cricket, this last week has been exhausting and it is now time for cricket to take centre stage again, for all of us to promote the game and make it as entertaining as possible for those who support and watch it.

Bob Woolmer played 19 Tests for England and is the coach of the Pakistan team.