March 8, 2010

Keep it simple

The more you legislate the game, the more anal it will become

Cricket pundits have a hard time accepting that there are things that cannot be legislated for. Even the "Spirit of the Game" is now codified, appearing, constitution-like, as a preamble to the laws. It is almost paranoid, this impulse to master the game via the laws, as though the beast will run amok and trample the millions of hapless fans who watch it with all its ambiguities.

Some weeks ago, when Shahid Afridi got graphic with five-and-a-half ounces of leather, the legislative urge sparked once again among commentators. Make ball-tampering legal, the call went. The crux of the argument was: It happens anyway, and if bowlers are allowed to maintain the ball, why not allow them to deteriorate it?

Part of the reason one feels sympathy for bowlers, of course, is to do with silly legislation. Batsmen have benefited from changes to the bouncer rule, the no-ball rule, the lbw rule, the free-hit, the fielding restrictions, and other administrative actions not in the laws, such as standardised balls and smaller boundaries. The ground in Gwalior, illuminated by Sachin Tendulkar the other day, was born tiny, but others aspire to its condition. Tampering in the face of this feels like a just form of union action.

I personally cannot rouse myself to moral indignation towards the issue. The most brilliant delivery I ever saw by a fast bowler in Test cricket was Wasim Akram to Rahul Dravid in Chennai in 1999. The ball was just past 20 overs old and Akram was making it sing like only Akram could. For this over he'd been conjuring ruthlessly late inswing from over the wicket, and he almost had Dravid lbw with one such. The final delivery started outside leg stump, and suggested that, like the previous ones, it would swing further that way. If you watch it in slow motion you will see the mighty Dravid shaping up for a glance. Belatedly, as if having collided with an air-wall, the ball changed course. It snaked across the pitch, hissed past Dravid's hurriedly readjusted bat, and administered the fatal sting to the top of off stump.

Later that afternoon, Sunil Gavaskar on commentary spotted Akram applying sunscreen to the ball. If that was the effect of sunscreen, I thought, it ought to be made compulsory.

But legalising ball tampering would be a folly. The proposal doesn't take into account two important points.

"Making a ball", to use the colloquial, is not an exact science, and swing itself is a somewhat mysterious process. Bowling teams look to change the ball when it fails to assist them, in the hope that the replacement will. If vandalism is permitted, they are effectively empowered to claim a replacement whenever they like by damaging the ball till the umpire deems it unfit for play. That is why there is inherent sense in permitting shining but not scratching. Shiva is way cooler than Vishnu, but preservation has its uses.

If vandalism is permitted, the fielding team is effectively empowered to claim a replacement whenever they like by damaging the ball till the umpire deems it unfit for play. That is why there is inherent sense in permitting shining but not scratching

The second point is that the consequence of permission is a whole new set of silly legislation. Should external objects be allowed? If it is legal to scar the ball, does it matter if it is with a fingernail or a switchblade? What acts are to be permitted? Seam-biting is less hygienic than seam-picking, but should it fall foul of the law for that reason? What kinds of creams are to be sanctioned? Minutiae of this kind will be impossible to monitor and will make cricket a more anal game.

Umpiring has gone down this road already. Some years ago we saw the advent of a referral system where the role of technology was radically increased. Far from improving certainty, it emerged that more and more decisions were taken with incomplete knowledge, and this has been only marginally rectified in the new review system. An inordinate amount of energy is wasted in determining whether a ball has struck the pads 1mm outside off stump or not, and then speculating if it would go on to hit the stumps or not. I know the process begins with a court-style appeal, but for it to be followed by a prolonged forensic investigation feels anal in a sport.

Particularly when you see the investigators bumbling with tools they cannot trust. Technology is asked to do things it isn't yet ready for. For a few years, barely a single low catch was given out because the television images, two-dimensional, always cast a doubt.

In trying to fix problems for which there are still no solutions, fresh problems are created. This is typical of cricket administration. If one-day cricket gets boring, the response, rather than play less frequently and on better pitches, is to form a committee that installs bowling Powerplays, batting Powerplays and Supersubs, making the game harder to follow and no better to watch. Routinely, it misses the wood for the trees. Nothing wastes as much time as establishing from replays the points of contact between the ball, the rope and the fielder (or his apparel), at the boundary, yet cricket perseveres with this practice rather than going by the plain sight of the ball crossing the line or not.

"Just keep it simple," someone needs to counsel overenthusiastic reformers. Cricket is bigger than the laws. That is not a weakness.

The idea of a law is not to make the game perfect but manageable. Neither prohibition nor permission will fix the issue of ball-tampering. But prohibition makes it easier to manage, so long as officials do not prosecute without evidence as Darrell Hair did in 2006. What fiddlers everywhere have to thank Afridi for, though, is de-stigmatising the act by reducing it to pure comedy.

Rahul Bhattacharya is the author of the cricket tour book Pundits from Pakistan. He writes a monthly column for Mint Lounge