February 11, 2010

The hows and whys of ball-tampering

Just about every cricketer has tried to alter the condition of the ball; the batsman-friendly nature of the game is to blame

The recent ball-biting incident, perhaps the most bizarre instance of ball-tampering, has created quite a furore in international cricket. It was extremely silly of Shahid Afridi to believe he could get away with an outlandish act like that, considering the number of cameras covering the game. He was caught red-handed and slapped with a two-match ban, which some think is a rap on the knuckles for someone with a bit of a history. Remember how he danced on the pitch during a break in the Faisalabad Test against England in 2005?

So what is it that incites a bowler to meddle with the ball? Certainly not just a flash of unscrupulousness. Even men of character like Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid have been reprimanded for ball-tampering.

Cricket, right from its inception, has by and large been a batsman's game. To add to the bowler's woes, rules have been mended down the years to further the interests of batsmen. Bats have become better, grounds smaller and tracks flatter. Right from discouraging Bodyline bowling (by not allowing more than two fielders between the square-leg umpire and the wicketkeeper), limiting the number of bouncers, increasing fielding restrictions from 15 to 20 overs (which includes a batting Powerplay as well), changing the ball after the 34th over, cricket has been overwhelmingly batsman-friendly.

Some might argue all this has actually increased their market value, because good bowlers are worth their weight in gold now. The recent IPL auctions seemed to bear that out: Shane Bond, Wayne Parnell and Kemar Roach went for big money. Be that as it may, these days quality bowling doesn't always translate into performance on the field, thanks to the way the odds are stacked heavily against bowlers, especially in the shorter formats; most bowlers, regardless of talent, go for plenty. Taking a beating in the park may not be denting their bank accounts but it definitely is bruising their ego and self-respect.

I remember being introduced to ball-tampering during my debut first-class season, over a decade ago. Our bowlers were getting alarming movement in the air and off the surface. The ball was rather new (and a new SG ball doesn't move that much), the track was a typical Kotla track (a batting beauty) and it was the third morning (so no day-one moisture).

I wasn't playing the game but sitting on the sidelines admiring the quality of bowling on display. When I went in to field as a substitute I realised that our bowlers had tinkered with the ball. One side was still shiny, and even had the manufacturer's stamp, while the other side was completely scuffed up. Of course they had worked on it beyond imagination, using bottle caps or something equally sharp. I was surprised on two counts: that the umpires didn't notice the manipulation despite wickets falling at regular intervals (considering umpires get the ball at the fall of every wicket), and that the batting side remained unfazed and didn't complain. In those days, though, umpires didn't have so much power or at least they didn't exercise it as much.

Since then I have realised that ball-tampering does not happen randomly. It is more often than not part of the game plan. Some do it discreetly, while the rest, like Afridi, are either brave or foolish enough to do it blatantly.

Some say it is a craft and I have seen a few craftsmen at work in my time. The use of nails, especially thumbnails, comes in handy. One cricketer used to do it so subtly that you wouldn't know even if you were standing next to him while he did so. We even challenged him to do it while talking to the umpire once, and he pulled it off, like a pro.

I have realised that ball-tampering does not happen randomly. It is more often than not part of the game plan

Most teams and bowlers around the world lift the seam. It can be done so subtly that umpires and cameras will never catch the offender.

Then there are ways known only to a few people. A legend from a neighbouring country once said that it takes only a few overs to make the ball reverse-swing. He wouldn't tell us the tricks of the trade but didn't deny that he was an able practitioner of the craft.

I don't know of teams who aren't aware of the effectiveness of sugar-laden saliva. Rahul Dravid was reprimanded because he accidentally dropped a half-eaten sweet on the ball, but most players do so intentionally.

There was a case of Vaseline coming to the rescue in a domestic game. A few years ago there was a batch of SG Test balls that wouldn't shine regardless of the work you put in. Even mints were ineffective, so Vaseline became the last resort. It worked, but only just.

There are other, absolutely legitimate, ways of scuffing up the ball. Instead of bowling seam-up, fast bowlers can bowl cross-seam. While you can never be completely sure of landing the ball on the surface that's already scuffed up, this method is effective at the beginning, when you're deciding which side to shine. Throwing the ball one-bounce in from the outfield is another way of ensuring that the scuffed-up surface gets abraded more when it hits the ground. And unlike while bowling, you can ensure that it lands on the rough side every time.

It's basic human nature to look for ways to survive. I'm in no way making an effort to defend ball-tampering, merely drawing attention towards its causes. Since this game is at its best when the competition between the bat and ball is fair, we must ensure that it's attained without resorting to unfair practice.

For starters, you need to prepare tracks that have something in them for the bowlers. Then mend a few rules to make bowlers feel that their role is a bit more than just feeding balls to be hit. For example, in ODIs, fast bowlers used to bank on the ball getting old and producing reverse-swing towards the end of an innings. That opportunity has been taken away from them now that the ball gets changed after the 34th over. Why can't we do away with the mandatory ball changes?

One could also allow three fielders outside the circle in the first Powerplay, and be slightly lenient when it comes to wides, especially leg-side ones. Only balls that can't be hit should be adjudged wides, unlike at present where anything down the leg side is a wide. A no-ball is followed by a free-hit. When batsmen don't get penalised for mistiming a shot or getting beaten, why are we so severe on bowlers for overstepping the crease or for a slight error in line? Give bowlers some room for error, and perhaps allow them to use mints to shine the ball (which, in any case, most teams are already doing). Yet, at the same time, have sterner penalties for tampering the ball using teeth, bottle caps, spikes or non-permissible objects.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Beyond the Blues, an account of the 2007-08 Ranji Trophy season. His website is here

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