August 28, 2008

License to fudge

Ball-tampering is almost as old as cricket. Maybe it's time it was legalised
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Everyone knows tampering goes on; the players themselves aren't too concerned about it © AFP
 

It is not unknown for sportspersons, or celebrities for that matter, to discover honesty after the limelight has moved off them, and especially when they stand to profit from such honesty. Marcus Trescothick's confession that he used mints as a polishing agent shouldn't cast him among cricket's deadliest sinners, nor should it taint any England win it may or may not have aided, but it will have served a purpose beyond selling a few more copies of his autobiography if it prompts a meaningful discussion about ball-tampering.

The responses to Trescothick's revelations have been revealing by themselves. The story was broken by an English newspaper, but none of the English broadsheets deemed the matter significant enough to follow up or comment on. The Australian newspapers pounced on it with obvious relish. The Australian, the nationalist broadsheet, led with a headline that left no room for equivocation: "England cheated to win Ashes."

But the reaction from players was instructive. It only came to light later that Trescothick was referring to the 2001 Ashes, but even when it was thought to be the 2005 one, Michael Clarke, who was cleaned up a few times by reverse-swinging balls in that series, brushed aside the matter with a curt "that's in the past". Michael Kasprowicz, whose wicket, caught-behind, led to Australia's heartbreaking loss at Edgbaston even joked about the whole thing. There were no other responses from the Australian team. It said something.

A couple of things, in fact. One, it was no big deal. Two, it wasn't a surprise.

Now, anyone who's been around in county cricket, as Kasprowicz has, will tell you that mint-sucking has gone on for years. There isn't anything particularly diabolical about it either. Having been pushed to the wall, bowlers have sought to devise their own survival tactics; some form of ball tampering has always existed.

The truth however is that it takes a great amount of skill to use a tampered ball well. The Pakistani bowlers - Imran Khan, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis - who made reverse-swing such a deadly art, were all-time greats. And with or without mints, England's Ashes-winning pace attack of 2005, has arguably been the best seen in this decade for variety and potency. The 2001 Ashes, the series in which Trescothick has admitted to using the mints, England lost 4-1.

Slippery ground begins to appear, however, with differing perceptions. Quite naturally, Pakistani fans have been both delighted and outraged by Trescothick's confession, because for years Pakistani bowlers have carried the stigma of cheating, and it has most particularly applied in England. In 2006, The Oval Test was abandoned after Darrell Hair charged the Pakistanis with ball tampering. Substitute Trescothick's name with Shahid Afridi and imagine the reactions. And it is hardly a secret that the English camp had encouraged Hair to keep an eye on the Pakistanis, and for good measure a pair of binoculars or two were trained on the field from the English balcony. It's the double standards that grate.

Cricket's laws are not explicit about saliva induced by an external agent, but they are quite clear about the application of external substances. Rahul Dravid was fined 50% of his match fee in 2004 after cameras caught him applying a lozenge to the ball. Clive Lloyd, the match referee, made it clear that Dravid only escaped a more severe penalty because of his untarnished record till then. To use an ambiguous technicality for absolution in TrescothickĀ¹s case would be mischievously disingenuous.

 
 
Quite naturally, Pakistani fans have been both delighted and outraged by Trescothick's confession, because for years Pakistani bowlers have carried the stigma of cheating, and it has most particularly applied in England
 

The truth is that cricket has always had a fuzzy morality. Batsmen can nick and stand their ground, but Clarke was roasted for lingering on after edging to slip in a Test against India earlier this year - as if he was any more out than a batsman who feathers a catch to the keeper. Batsmen can even deliberately obstruct the path of a throw while running; but fielders are castigated for claiming catches on the bounce. So it would seem that ball tampering is fine, and that there is even a roguish charm to it as long as you aren't caught. And on the evidence of the less-than-condemnatory reaction to the Trescothick disclosure it would also seem that hastening the deterioration of the ball is a far greater crime than preserving the shine by artificial means.

I know where I stand. Bob Woolmer, who coached Pakistan with a degree of success, recommended in the aftermath of Ovalgate that bowlers be allowed "to use anything that naturally appears on the cricket field". "They could rub the ball on the ground, pick the seam, scratch it with their nails - anything that allows the ball to move off the seam to make it less of a batsman's game."

The way it stands, law 42.3 is ambiguous and open to exploitation. Now that Trescothick has openly confessed to what most people already knew - Nathan Bracken spoke about, before retracting, accusations of England sugar-coating the ball during the 2005 Ashes - will mints and lozenges be mentioned specifically in the law?

The best way to deal with the matter is for the law-makers to ask themselves what's in the best interests of cricket. If all that it takes a bit of "making", as the Pakistanis call it, to get the game swinging, the choice is simple and clear.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • venkatesh on August 29, 2008, 8:41 GMT

    I agree with Sambit, that the time has come to legalise ball tampering when one uses lozenge spit etc. Look, Marcus made the point just to sell his story ; further let us be practical, how on earth can the officials find out if the players resort to such tactics,during play,everytime it is apost mortem after the damage has been done ; for long now cricket has been a batsman's game so let us even it up a little by giving a small adyantage to the bowler. at least now both sides can resort to this measure so it is fair and square for a start.

  • Warrick on August 29, 2008, 2:26 GMT

    Ball tampering is cheating.

    As for bats, how about Ricky Ponting's magic carbon sticker weighing less than one gramm that was outlawed by the MCC as bat improvement? Stupid laws not applied evenly is a disaster.

    Did someone say Darrel Hair forced Pakistan to forfeit a test match??? What planet are they from. Apparently he said "in the umpires opinion the ball has been tampered with", debited Pakistan a 5-run penalty (woop de doo!), changed the ball and said "let's get on with it." That Pakistan did not retake the field in the alloted time caused the umpires to again apply the rules and call it a forfeit. Now changed to a draw.

    This is a stupid article. Why did everyone decide underarm bowling, allowed by the law at the time it was used, should be made illegal?

  • Ruschil on August 29, 2008, 2:22 GMT

    Sambit, if one was to follow your lead, there might come a day where one might legalise arson, rape & murder as well, just cause so many do it.

    Some sense of perspective please!!

    Trescothick employs a cheap tactic to launch his book, hence ball tampering is no big deal. The Aussies do not provide too many sound-bytes for the media, so it is passable. S.Africans penetrate the ball with their spikes, because "they were waiting for the crowd to settle down". However Sarfraz Nawaz, Imran, Aquib Javed, Wasim & Waqar resort to illegal tactics. Sachin & Dravid are scoundrels hiding behind a garb of righteousness.

    And of course the entire world will cry foul about the sub-continent evolving into the power-house of cricket.

    I would love to see cricket being part of the Olympics, but i highly doubt if such double-standards can actually live up to the Olympic spirit. Hail Marcus Trescothick!!

  • Chandra on August 29, 2008, 0:52 GMT

    Firstly, Rahul Dravid was not caught by camera. He himself reported to the umpire that he had applied spit by mistake, and he was not spared though. What are you thinking? Secondly, if you suggest legalising this, what illegal activity will you recommend for legalising next? Instead of suggesting checks and balances for playing cricket in a fair and true spirit of the game, you are setting a very bad example by suggesting that illegal activities should be condoned and made the rule rather than exception. What's wrong with you?

  • Rajneeshusa on August 29, 2008, 0:21 GMT

    Sambit - i strongly disagree!

    Just becuase, we can not punish the cheats and just beucase they claim everyone is doing it...does not mean, we should legalize it. Imagine someone being selected becuase they have extra storng nails and is the best seam picker in the country? Its not about cricket being a batsman oriented game, its not about bat tampering, its not about using saliva in a losing cause, its not about australians not complaing about ashes2001 and its not about about the ICC either.I think its about a pathetic excuse that "everyone does it". How on earth can you say that? I can sure imagine several extremely well poised historical test matches or world cup matches, where one side is ball tampering and the other is not. Would it have made a difference if everyone knew everyone is 'supposed' to ball tamper? Would it have saved the career of a struggling bowler, let a batsman complete a rescue act for his team, make records or change the course of matches...Cheating must stop

  • Jonathan on August 29, 2008, 0:11 GMT

    Excuse me, but all this talk of changing the balance between bat and ball by allowing the breaking of rules is missing the obvious. There are more results in Test cricket these days. More runs are scored and more wickets are taken per day now compared to 20 years ago.

    Good bowlers are not missing out because of the batsmen's dominance. McGrath, Pollock, Warne & Murali have strike rates and averages equal or better to the other great bowlers of the past. We don't need to change the balance by legalising chucking or ball tampering.

  • StJohn on August 28, 2008, 23:24 GMT

    The late Bob Woolmer's comments, which seem to have been adopted and accepted in this article, appear apt and sensible. But however you frame a law, you will always get unusual situations that are not covered and which seem inconsistent, anomalous or peculiar: you cannot legislate for every eventuality. So you would probably still find scenarios such as sucking a sweet and then rubbing that sweet directly onto the ball would be illegal, but sucking a sweet and applying the sweet-enhanced saliva onto the ball would probably be legal. Also, are we really saying that players should be allowed to grind the ball vigorously into the ground or dirt just because it naturally apears on the cricket field? Sounds a little unedifying. And what about if there is a stone lying around on the field? Could you use that on the ball? Could you rub the ball against the tree at the Kent county ground? But you couldn't, say, use an implement you brought onto the field? The law's probably best left alone.

  • Brian on August 28, 2008, 21:59 GMT

    Why does anyone with a brain keep publishing articles from this bloke. How can anyone seriously condon cheating. Unless it's an attempt to justify what his national team has been doing for a long time.

  • Asif on August 28, 2008, 21:53 GMT

    I don't think ball tampering should be allowed Sambit! Simple as that! If you want to play, play fair! I do agree about the double standards bit though!

  • Peter on August 28, 2008, 21:49 GMT

    You noted Australian's reaction to this revelation said two things. It said three - the third being that the Australian cricketers don't dwell on the past and whinge when they lose. Whilst the Australins might have thought it was no big deal and water under the bridge, not too many other sides would have been quite so generous. History shows they gave the Poms their biggest hiding in 100 years only 18 months later. They moved on and improved. That aside, your article was excellent as usual. The only problem I see is how you frame a law to allow a degree of tampering with the ball. If mints are OK, what about a can of lacquer and petroleum jelly? If scratching is OK, what about a bottle top? If a bottle top is OK, why not a drill!

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