August 28, 2008

License to fudge

Ball-tampering is almost as old as cricket. Maybe it's time it was legalised


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

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