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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Himayun on February 14, 2010, 13:02 GMT

    The article is fine and dandy. Most drivers speed on the highways but Pakistanis showed the finger to the cops! Being a Pakistani American I feel disgusted by Pakistani captain's behavior. There is a culture in Pakistan that the high and mighty do not follow the laws. The higher they are the more "free" they are to do whatever they want.

    Most of the Pakistanis are behind Shahid Afridi's actions and he would definitely be rewarded with the captaincy. Afridi would and should have been banned for life after his multiple acts of disgrace. We are not talking about a kid but a cold calculate, hardened habitual abuser of the laws.

  • SheeeraZ on February 13, 2010, 22:41 GMT

    I knw how to do reverse swing when i was 10...in pakistan the first thing being learned about bowling is how to bowl a reverse swinger....the art is simple..shine the ball from one side n let the other side suffed up....this is the only way u can swing ball on cemented pitches...we were never been told how to bowl an out swinger coz it never swings on cemented pitches...now its quite easy to understand that if the pitch is not assisting u must need the conditions around you to work for u n with lush green out feilds around the world these days not even the conditions are helpfull for balls more over the 34 over mendatory ball change and the power plays have realy swing the game in batsmen's favour.....u need more balance between bat and ball or else the bowling will become a less desired thing to do for young kids.

  • Smithie on February 13, 2010, 22:03 GMT

    Interesting how the crucifying of Daryl Hair for upholding the laws of cricket on ball tampering is conveniently ignored in all the furore since Afidi's dental disintegration incident. Funny how Sth Africa, NZ, West Indies and Australia are never mentioned in ball tampering dispatches only the Pommes and the Sub Continentals. Is playing by the rules really THAT difficult? However it is perhaps understandable to bend them in an attempt to rebalance the talent gap in both cricketing and pitch preparing skills!

  • The_Wog on February 13, 2010, 8:54 GMT

    As usual when a subcontinental player is caught ball tampering we tut-tut and then justify the action and call for the Laws to be changed. I don't recall seeing the media scrum saying "Change the silly rule" when Atherton was caught with a "pocketful of stardust."

    Meanwhile, Tendulkar (a player with a lengthy history with the Referees, and who was very VERY economical with the truth during the Maakigate hearings) has suddenly become a "man of character" just because he's made a lot of runs for India. Dravid's wasn't an accident - he was caught with the cough lolly and then told a string of bizarre lies about the incident. He's a cheat and and liar. He also only displayed one character trait after the Sydney Test - hypocrisy - given the abhorrent behaviour of his team for 5 straight days appeared to have completely escaped his notice.

    Most biased article since the last thing Roebuck wrote.

  • VivR on February 13, 2010, 4:08 GMT

    You forgot - John Lever; when he toured India in 1976/77, he was using "Vaseline" for hsi "headache" .. naive Indians players and upires at that time didn't what Vaseline was. And, those who knew, kept their mouth shut.

  • simssoul on February 12, 2010, 23:46 GMT

    woow nice article, but you really do not get the picture of Afridi eating the ball. It was planned, not to cheat, but it was the captaincy saga going on. Shaoib Malik Group vs Muhammad Yousuf. and do not let me explain who was the one that Afridi was eating the ball.He knew he would get a ban, he knew, Shaiob Malik would be the captain, he knew the tussles. you dont need to be a rocket scientist to know what going behind the dressing room, but yet no one see the reason beihnd the stupidity there is politics at its highest in Pakistan cricket team.Shioab Akthar is gone, now it Shoaib Malik Turn.Younis Khan Dropping the catch in the final, Kamral Akmal dropping everything, This team need some unity.they only try to play as a unit against India. Other is a holiday for them.

  • Anneeq on February 12, 2010, 23:40 GMT

    Tampering of any sort isnt new. The batsmen are always tampering with the pitch quit blatantly scraping their shoes at the crease and prodding the pitch with their bat, why is that allowed but people like Afridi get suspended? I dont like how batsmen get away with that, any deliberate tampering of the pitch should be banned to me, by the bowler AND the batsman. Bats should also stay as they are, non of this carbon fibre nonsense, non of these widened bats either.

    Bowlers should also only be allowed to rough one side of the ball on CLOTHING and nothing else the rules have to be precise, not vague like 'the physical state of the ball is not allowed to be altered.' Thats an out dated law and rubbing the ball on clothing is considered normal practice now.

  • katochnr on February 12, 2010, 18:30 GMT

    the way you've put it, they should look into ways of working on balls .. but i guess it will never happen .. batsmen will become more powerful and they might as well put a bowling machine

  • NEUTRAL_FAN on February 12, 2010, 2:46 GMT

    Scream it from the roof tops! Liven up the pitches for goodness sake! Whether it be pace and bounce or vicious turn (not the SLOW TURN that exaggerated Murali's fall from grace, note I said exaggerated ). Back in the day, sixes weren't hit as often and thus they were more exciting (thats why Viv was so great). The idiotic business men who pretended to be cricket fans, thought...hey lets make it so even more 6's can be hit and batsmen hang around longer to hit them. Hence, flatten the tracks even for test matches (so where's the TEST for the batsman) and increase the powerplays. Yes its interesting with strategic powerplay options but why 20! overs of powerplay? So that teams can win games when fielding only 1 good bowler and some sluggers? Hats off to Bond, Steyn, Murali and Asif for having great records in this past batsman biased era. For that alone they should get at least honorable mentions as all time greats.

  • AjayB on February 12, 2010, 1:27 GMT


    Your writing has class. And a lot of common sense. Keep it up.


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