The aftermath of Ovalgate October 1, 2006

More than an inconvenient truth

When Darrell Hair and Billy Doctrove decreed Pakistan guilty of ball tampering on the afternoon of August 20, 2006, they were venturing into uncharted international territory

Sunday bloody Sunday: the moment that sparked a furore © Getty Images

When Darrell Hair and Billy Doctrove decreed Pakistan guilty of ball-tampering on the afternoon of August 20, they were venturing into uncharted international territory. All previous cases of ball-tampering involved specific players, and fortunately though it wasn't needed, video evidence was on hand to clinch the case.

Here, no individual was spotted, no specific incident cited and nothing captured on celluloid; instead the state of a 56-over old ball and some bodacious reverse-swing were enough, in the eyes of the umpires, to ascertain guilt. They were bold, for they went where no international umpire had gone before, and they were correct too as Law 42.3 on ball-tampering allowed them to go that far.

On the afternoon of September 28, Ranjan Madugalle, chief ICC match referee, found Pakistan not guilty of tampering. He found instead that he was "not satisfied on the balance of probabilities that there is sufficiently cogent evidence that the fielding team had taken action likely to interfere with the condition of the ball. In my judgment, the marks are as consistent with normal wear and tear of a match ball after 56 overs as they are with deliberate human intervention."

In his press conference later, Madugalle repeated twice, "I believe for any case to be proven there must be concrete evidence." In any aspect of life that isn't cricket, this is a perfectly reasonable statement. In cricket, however, it provides a terrific pickle for the law doesn't even make any mention of evidence anywhere. Effectively, Madugalle is saying that the ball itself and the umpires' assertion that tampering has occurred (though they haven't seen anyone do it) is not concrete enough as evidence. The umpires, then, were not only wrong but the law, by implication, was wonky. Where stands Law 42.3 now?

Ball-tampering is one of cricket's big decisions. It is more than an unseen thin nick, a catch too close to call, a leg-before when the ball might have missed leg. It is a grave allegation for it implies cheating. In that, it is similar to chucking and in some ways, chucking offers a useful parallel. It too raises emotions above and beyond those of a dodgy LBW; it was at the centre of cricket's other famous walk-off led by Arjuna Ranatunga. Eventually, so heated did it become that the ICC had to take the issue, effectively, off the field, into the realm of videos and biomechanists.

Can something similar work with ball-tampering? Unlike chucking, tampering is always a deliberate act. Chucking can be intentional, but in some cases it has also proven to be a biological glitch and thus any subsequent action needs to be more considered. With tampering, punishment should, ideally, be swifter. But this unique case makes that problematic for if no one is cited and the umpires are still convinced tampering has occurred, how many will take action hoping that concrete evidence might back them up?

Ultimately, what constitutes concrete evidence? Mention has been made of forensic tests on the ball and if it sounds far-fetched, it shouldn't in light of this case; from the beginning, even among cricketers, ex-cricketers and coaches, there was no consensus on what had happened to the ball. An ex-international umpire even appeared in the hearing to support Pakistan's case. Video evidence brings its own problems and anyway allows excitable broadcasters an unhealthy Orwellian role as watchers. Should the law perhaps make it necessary for an umpire to spot at least one individual or one act of tampering before taking action, as Dickie Bird said immediately after the hearing? Perhaps the unnecessarily incendiary five-run penalty should be scrapped and instead the ball simply changed with investigations to follow after the match.

A bloated body of opinion, from the early days of this episode, called for the law to be scrapped altogether. Angus Fraser and Bob Woolmer, among many, lent their weight to the cause; by allowing a controlled level of tampering, they said, cricket's nouveau imbalance between bat and ball could be redressed somewhat. Cricinfo's own Andrew Miller lucidly put forth a similar argument and all were worthy and contained merit.

Madugalle's findings now also leave the ICC little choice but to do something about the law. Somewhere between what Fraser and Woolmer argue and what Madugalle found lies the answer.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo