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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • bad on March 9, 2010, 18:47 GMT

    Rahul Bhattachariya, according to you SHAHID AFRIDI has done graphics right? TWENTY YEARS AGO, Manoj Prabhakar did the same and for the last 3 weeks that video was on youtube, watched by millions and now removed because, it has been removed due to terms of use violation ! Any comments on that? Was it more graphic or less graphic or whether it is legal or illegal? I am not saying what Afridi did is right. But, I am only asking why is it that when ball tampering or any wrong doing is done by Indian, British, SA or other team players they don't get publicized as much as Pakistani players, why?. I don't think you or your bloggers have an answer to this question and MR. BHATTACHARIYA you will NOT publish my comments either. Because, this is how the media works against Pakistani players.

  • Cric on March 9, 2010, 15:38 GMT

    I agree with Rahul that 'permitting ball tempering' is not as easy as it sounds. Captains will start carrying hammers to the ground and shape the ball into a square to make it completely unpredictable. What is needed is the repeal of over-protection of batsmen. The most hideous law is that the LBW cannot be given if the batsman was struck outside of off stump. LBW should be given as long as the ball was headed to the stumps - regardless of where it pitched.

  • Hassan on March 9, 2010, 14:46 GMT

    Instead of allowing ball tampering, they should allow unlimited bouncers to fast bowlers and batsmen should not be allowed to wear a helmet. If ball tampering is to be indeed allowed, then I suggest pitch-tampering be considered as well, so a spinner can spin the bowl well.

  • Dummy4 on March 9, 2010, 5:43 GMT

    @devil510. If ball tampering is legalised, I'd rather need a good Blacksmith than a good bowler in my team :). If Ball tampering is allowed, batsman would say we need STEEL bats..then bowlers would need something else...when will it stop..It's like opening Pandora's Box.

  • Rajaram on March 9, 2010, 0:10 GMT

    Ball -tampering should NEVER be legalised.Instead,the erring cricketer AND the Captain AND the Team as a whole should be banned for a couple of matches.Particulary the Team. Only then will ball-tampering stop. The non-tampering cricketers are equally responsible - you think the dressing room is a Silence Zone? Add the Team's Cricket Board to the "aiding and abetting" and you'll have zero ball tampering.

  • Philip on March 8, 2010, 22:48 GMT

    "Ball tampering is an art that can only be perfected by a select few", tongue in cheek of course. We see wickets prepared for batsmen and wickets prepared for the bowlers. There are times when even 7 days of cricket may not bring a result and the flip side, we see matches overs in three days too. So lets not bring pitches in to the arguement, unless of course you want to have a bog standard pitch that will always give you a result. This will then mean that the winning of the toss will invariably have a huge say in the result. But, lets get back to ball tampering. It is not cricket and hence should not be allowed. Even applying of perspiration should not be allowed as that is an a foreign source. Polishing it on one side is of course is allowed it has been there for ages. Give the bowlers a bit more tolerance or even allow an extra fielder on the leg side behind the wicket? Please no more advantages for the batsmen. Do Not Legalise Ball Tampering. Philip Gnana,New Malden, Surrey

  • gurpreet on March 8, 2010, 22:27 GMT

    I am sorry but this is not good Batting friendly pitches are not a problem.

    that's the biggest problem if bowlers don't get swing or pace or spin of the pitch why not we let ten years old kids bowl because i really don't think it makes differnce if 12 or 21 year old bowls on batting batting friendly pitches

    Spectators come to see 50 overs full game not side bundling within 30 overs really a good spectator will never mind if a side bundles out in 30 overs thta just shows the batsmen who are so called champions how good really they are it shows them the truth rather than making them look like gods on small ground better bats and unsupported pitches for bowlers

    Just Two RULES: 1) Boundry lines should be standardize between 78 meters - 85 meters . Nobody wants to see a mis-hit as a Six. this one does make bit of sense i do agree with this one

    as for lbw rule that one does not make sense either at all

    and ball tampering should be legalised let the bowlers breath

  • Morgan on March 8, 2010, 22:13 GMT

    LOL ball tampering legal..... sure lets just all get out our nail filers during the drinks break, or stomp on the ball with springs to get a new ball because we want one..

    There are too many ramifications in this, even if you see the benefits, there are by far way to many ways one could abuse this legalisation...

  • Faisal on March 8, 2010, 19:55 GMT

    Absolutely ridiculous logic of Mr. Rahul. Ball tampering is an art, which side to be roughed and how much to be roughed, and what has to be done next with the shiner side while releasing the ball. So just ball tampering doesn't makes it easy to swing. Its one of the tools which helps in bringing the swing but only masters can do this not everyone. Scratching the ball doesn't means to be breaking the quarter of the ball, its just to make it a rough side, so that swing can be created later in the game. And No one should say that crowd loves to see lots of batting in the game. It is always a two way process which is liked most by the public. Mr. Rahul you should look at the brighter side of the game instead of making the cricket only on the shoulders of BATTING.

  • Dileep on March 8, 2010, 18:26 GMT

    Its really stupid, even to consider this thought of "legalising" ball tampering. One fellow bites the ball in front of 100s of cameras (including the ones with the spectators he he) and then lets out a statement that ALL TEAMS DOES THIS and then the next thing is experts considering the topic of legalising this mistake. Waste of time, waste of money!!

    Technology is available to use. Keep an eye on anyone who is handling the ball.... land strict punishments to anyone who alters the condition. 5 match suspension 200% fine or anything. No exceptions... Enforce the law and see it for yourself. You will not have to waste ure energy discussion whether to legalise this crime!

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