February 5, 2010

The rebel who could be king, and a rule whose time may be up

Why Afridi may be the captain Pakistan needs, and why the case against ball-tampering may not be as strong as some of us think

Shahid Afridi has always brought the essence of roulette to cricket. Not just the gambling variety but the rather more deadly Russian version. Predicting what Afridi is likely to do on a cricket field is like putting money on one of the 37 numbers on a roulette wheel and hoping you get it right. Off the field, though, he is more the oddball, likely to put the gun to his head and pull the trigger with one bullet in the clip. He has added greatly to the game but has self-destructed beyond imagination; a flash of genius one moment and a descent towards stupidity the next. Nobody else would do a pirouette on the pitch with spikes on. Hardly anyone would score a century off 45 balls opening the batting against a potent adversary. And certainly nobody would bite a dirty cricket ball and hope to camouflage the act by saying he was smelling it!

I am not sure which was the more daft act: actually biting the ball (and testing his immunity!) or saying he did so to win his side a match (having realised that the "smelling the ball" approach was a touch flawed). It couldn't have got worse for Pakistan, with the trademark boardroom squabbles at full pitch, a pathetic performance on the field, and the hysteria over the IPL auction. Their real problems actually figure in that order; they'd be in reverse if you go by the time spent in debate over them.

In spite of all this I believe Afridi might well be the right man to lead Pakistan in limited-overs cricket, for he is most likely to understand others like him. There is something about him that engages you, there is a little playfulness to him and he seems willing to take a gamble. He might just nudge the Pakistanis away from rebellion and towards victory. Some believe that he is at the heart of most rebellions - precisely the reason why he must be given a stint as a leader. In most parts of the world an offence as dramatic and disturbing as biting a ball to alter its condition would ensure you never became captain. But such is the diversity in our little sport that I suspect in another part of the world it may not even be remembered for too long.

I believe Afridi might well be the right man to lead Pakistan in limited-overs cricket, for he is most likely to understand others like him. There is something about him that engages you, there is a little playfulness to him and he seems willing to take a gamble

But at least one good has come out of it. We now have a nice debate on the whole issue of ball-tampering. Predictably bowlers, who have always played the role of the exploited, sometimes with good reason, are all in favour of fiddling a bit with the ball. Batsmen (and at least one wicketkeeper) are up in arms. The law doesn't allow it but maybe the time has come to question whether the law is indeed just. Cricket allows you to "maintain" the state of the ball but not to "alter" it. You can therefore rub the ball on your flannels to ensure the shine stays longer, but you cannot rub it on the ground, for example, to ensure it goes faster. But in either case you are altering the natural condition of the ball.

By maintaining the shine a bowler prevents the ball from deterioration. And yet the worsening of the ball, and the ensuing implications, are at the very heart of our game. Either action seeks to make the two halves of the ball unequal, so why should one be allowed and the other outlawed? Is it because one helps conventional swing and the other encourages reverse swing, which has always been looked upon as the naughty child in the family? Or, let's face it, is it because batsmen don't like reverse swing?

Having said that, I must admit I am not a fan of ball-tampering, but I do believe that if it went to a just court, those in favour would have a decent case.

Angus Fraser, always interesting to read, equates it to a batsman who knows he is out but stands his ground. Like ball-tampering, not walking has traditionally been looked down upon; unlike ball-tampering, it is now accepted. So, here's a thought for everyone. Can you make walking mandatory? Put it in the laws of the game? And make standing your ground attract a fine? Would that make people walk all over again? What fun that would be.

I don't know if Afridi would ever walk, but he certainly would find a hysterical reason for staying on!

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer

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