1977 December 1, 2012

The Vaseline affair

When a discarded strip of gauze threatened to derail a series

In cricketing and public relations terms, few tours have been as successful for England as when they went to India under Tony Greig in 1976-77 and won the series 3-1 and, largely thanks to Greig's ebullient character, triumphed off it as well. All this despite a row during the third Test in Madras, which in the modern era of all-invasive and endless television replays would have been blown up into an international incident.

By the time the teams headed to Madras in January 1977, England were already 2-0 up against an Indian team described by Wisden as looking "as weak as they have ever done in their 42 years in international cricket". India's batsmen failed to make any impression, only passing 200 once in the first three Tests (and then in an innings defeat when following on) and 300 once in the entire series.

In the series opener, in Delhi, John Lever, a fast-medium swing bowler from Essex, had taken 7 for 46 and 3 for 24 (aided by "a rogue ball which swung extravagantly") on his Test debut, as England won by an innings, marking him out as the man to watch. After another comprehensive England win in Calcutta - by ten wickets - the newspapers were turning on India and the players, especially the captain, Bishan Bedi, were feeling the pressure.

India's spinners were failing to stamp their advantage, and the pitch in Madras was, Wisden stated, "one of the fastest produced in India for years". Greig won the toss, batted, and England ground out 262 at a little over two runs an over. India, despite their three-man spin attack, managed around 14 overs an hour; it was turgid viewing. England's score, however, was to prove the highest of the match.

In reply, India slumped to 17 for 3 and then 115 for 7, eventually being bowled out for 164. But as their innings drew to a close Lever, who finished with 5 for 59, was reported by umpire Judah Reuben for ball-tampering.

In the fierce heat, England's quick bowlers had been troubled by sweat running into their eyes. "Boxers put Vaseline on their brows and it channels the sweat away from the eyes," explained Mike Selvey, who played his third and final Test at the end of the series. "Bernard [Thomas, the England physio] didn't have any Vaseline; he only had Vaseline-impregnated gauze. He stuck these to JK [Lever's] and Willis' foreheads but when they bowled, the things slipped down over their eyes so they threw them away."

"A more obvious remedy would have been a sweat-band like those used by long-haired tennis players," wrote Christopher Martin-Jenkins," but those were not in Thomas' bag of tricks." He went on to say that one of the reasons Lever discarded the strips was that the Vaseline, mixed with sweat, made the ball very hard to grip.

"True, with Vaseline ball keeps its shine, Lever, bowl true, if you have spine"
Banner on the fourth day of the Madras Test

Reuben picked up one of the strips and brought the matter to the attention of Greig, and Bedi, who was batting. At the tea break, by which time England were batting again, he reported it to the Indian board. Journalists, intrigued to know what the on-field discussions had been about, were quickly on the case.

Bedi was under pressure, with calls in the media for him to be sacked, and he went on the attack, telling a Reuters reporter it was "disgusting that England should stoop so low" and claiming he had noticed something was wrong with the ball when Lever had taken his seven-wicket haul in Delhi. He added he had warned the umpires to look for signs of grease on the ball.

"I'm staggered by what Bedi said," Greig told the Daily Mirror's Peter Laker. "I can only conclude that his disappointments in this series have clouded his judgement."

The Indian board fuelled the fires with a statement claiming the umpires "informed Greig that bowler Lever might have been resorting to unfair tactics".

What followed was, Martin-Jenkins wrote, "an elaborate farce". The Indian board sent pieces of gauze and the ball to a laboratory for analysis, while Ken Barrington, the England manager, repeatedly told reporters the story behind the Vaseline strips, flagged that the ball had not swung at all for Lever, and added for good measure that if England had wanted to apply grease to the ball they would have been a lot more subtle about it.

That view found favour, perhaps predictably, in the English media. In the Daily Express Pat Gibson decried "Bedi's hysterical accusations", saying: "Ask yourself, if a bowler was going to cheat by adding wax, oil or resin to the ball, would he wear it above his eyebrows?"

"If there had been an ICC in those days," Bedi told the Wisden Cricketer three decades later, "a lot of people in the England camp might have lost their jobs." In an interview for the same article, Lever was equally blunt. "[Bedi] was grabbing at straws and looking for a way out."

The next day was a rest day and when the match resumed the crowd made their feelings known, with hostility aimed towards Lever. It was not until the close of play, by which time India were staring at another loss, that the results of the tests were announced.

Most of the conclusions did little more than state the obvious. The tests showed the strips contained Vaseline and "traces" had been found on the ball, which was in line with Lever's assertion that he had discarded the strips because the grease made the ball hard to grip. The BCCI said it was unable to come to a conclusion whether the actions of the bowlers were deliberate or not and referred the matter, and in effect passed the buck, to the MCC in London. Two days later the response came from Lord's that the authorities were satisfied with the explanations given by Barrington and Greig.

Bedi went on record as saying he accepted the word of the England captain and the manager, and to the bewilderment of reporters denied he had said anything about previous matches or incidents. "Off the record [Barrington and Greig] chaffed and cursed along with all the players that what they considered to be a colossal red herring should have taken the glamour out of what they were about to achieve on the field," noted Martin-Jenkins.

"My board did not back me up," Bedi said, adding conspiratorially: "Lever was being made a scapegoat and it was done at the behest of somebody higher up."

For Lever, the pressure took a heavy toll. "It was a hard time for my parents. They had press camped outside their house. My dad had a heart attack… I'm sure it was linked. I felt [Bedi] really stuck the knife in on that trip."

On the fifth morning India went down with barely a whimper, bowled out for 83 in a little under an hour and a half to lose the match by 200 runs and with it give England a 3-0 lead in the five-Test series. Derek Underwood did most of the damage, with 4 for 28, Lever chipping in with two late wickets and polishing things off by sending Bhagwath Chandrasekhar's off stump cartwheeling. His celebrations were understandably muted.

What happened next?

  • India won the fourth Test but still lost the series 3-1
  • Lever finished the series with 26 wickets at 14.61. In 16 subsequent Tests, however, his 47 wickets cost 33.42 each
  • Bedi took 25 wickets in the series, and during the third Test, his own 51st, he became the first Indian to reach the landmark of 200 Test wickets.
  • It was Greig's last hurrah for England… within months he had been unveiled as the key man in Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket breakaway and went from hero to pariah. He was sacked as England captain and played his final Test that summer
  • The last day of the Madras Test was the first time the BBC broadcast live ball-by-ball commentary from India

MCC in India 1976-77, Christopher Martin-Jenkins (MacDonald & Janes 1977)
Flying Stumps and Metal Bats, Wisden Cricketer (Aurum 2008)

Martin Williamson is executive editor of ESPNcricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • John on December 3, 2012, 9:56 GMT

    @Vineesh Vedsen - I am astonished that you talk of proof when there is in fact no evidence whatsoever. There is a word for stories which are made up without evidence and that word is fiction. The implication that there was something wrong at Delhi was invented by Bedi at a press conference and no-one has ever come up with any tangible evidence that he was right - that is why he had to withdraw the accusation. It is not enough to say that wickets fell - that is what bowlers are for. And, the change from 40/0 to 45/3 happened with a replacement ball.

    Also, no-one has ever produced any evidence that Vaseline would help a bowler. On the contrary, as other comments have noted, (and my own experience - see post -1 December - 18:48) suggests that it would make a bowlers job impossible. If it was a help it would be easy for anyone to do it, yet I have never heard of a single instance in cricket (other than this series) where it has been an issue. The reason is simple - it doesn't work!

  • Kannan on December 3, 2012, 9:40 GMT

    Yeah, yeah, yeah. The English are saints. After all they have never admitted doing any wrong! The vaseline on the sweat and the dirt in the pocket - all got there by accident! By the way, the English have studied the uses of vaseline quite extensively, including the fact that Hot Spot doesn't show when vaseline is applied to the edges of a bat!

  • Dummy4 on December 3, 2012, 6:36 GMT

    @Roger: England ended at 154/7 at Bombay last day and were losing wickets like every few minutes, I was listening to the commentary. Karsan Ghavri who was otherwise a pace bowler who could also bowl spinners was turning his arm over as a spinner. He had grabbed 5-33. So another half an hour and England would have lost.They had already lost the Bangalore test by a margin of 140 runs where not many runs were made. India scored 253 and 259. England 195 and 177. Had it not been for the vaseline, England would have lost easily to India. Having been whipped 0-3 by WI at home, England could have hardly afforded another huge loss to India in this series. Even I have huge respect for Tony Greig, but that he was a shrewd manipulator, is not a hidden fact. Also he was the one recruited by Kerry Packer to split the cricketing world is also a well known fact.

  • Dummy4 on December 3, 2012, 5:35 GMT

    @John Price: The question is: What made Lever swing the ball so much in the hot Delhi environment. India started well and were 43/0 in good time. which was pretty usual with Sunny and Gaekwad and then all of a sudden 46/3. Again all through the first 3 test Lever proved himself to be a menace. Once he was caught, he ended quite helpless, and India had a good time from then on. Also Lever ended helplessly through out the series after that. This proves quite conclusively that Lever did something wrong in the first 3 tests that he got so much of swing.

  • Anthony on December 2, 2012, 22:54 GMT

    I remember this episode quite vividly and I am sure that Tony Greig being an honourable man and captain would not have allowed his team to resort to such tactics in order to win a test match. This report appears to show Bishen Bedi as a bad loser who also displayed bitterness in defeat in the process.

  • Warks on December 2, 2012, 21:57 GMT

    The final line about it being Greig's last hurrah isn't strictly true. He captained England (MCC) in the Centenary Test in March 1977 in Australia. The Packer deal didn't break until the Ashes tour in about June 1977 when Greig was stripped of the captaincy but still played the series. The fact he never played for England again is a disgrace - one of their best all-rounders. John Lever however was a flash in the pan.

  • Roger on December 2, 2012, 13:37 GMT

    @Trickster, The swing due to Indian cricket ball is a fabricated story that was never discussed when the vaseline affair broke out. It was probably an afterthought in defence of Lever's unusual swing. Indian cricket balls have been used in many test series, not just that one England series. There are no similar cases of ordinary bowlers getting great swing with Indian cricket ball. Even guys like Wasim Akram have struggled in Indian pitches with Indian ball. You need to compare again the scores of 4th and 5th test of that series with that of the first three for the difference in performance levels of the English bowling before and after vaseline incident.

  • Harvey on December 2, 2012, 11:41 GMT

    Ever wondered why there hasn't been a vaseline-related ball-tampering scandal in the 35 years since those desperate accusations were made by the captain of a team that couldn't play genuine pace bowling even in their own conditions? I suggest the reason is that in the wake of this "scandal," bowlers from all over the world experimented in the nets with balls that had been doctored with vaseline. They will have discovered that not only did it make no discernible difference to the amount of swing, but also made the ball more difficult to grip. Deliberately making a ball MORE slippery in subcontinental conditions? That would certainly have been a novel tactic!

  • John on December 2, 2012, 9:10 GMT

    @Vineesh Vedsen - Lever had bowled 5 overs with the original ball at Delhi without result before the ball was changed - the replacement ball swung from ball one and then the wickets started to fall. There is no rhyme or reason to the suggestion that the ball was doctored in that match. There is no evidence at all nor is it plausible in view of the order of events.

  • Dummy4 on December 2, 2012, 8:02 GMT

    Lets start with the background. India had just completed a WI series in WI in April. Though they had lost 1-2, the win was by scoring 406/4 at Port of Spain. England on the other hand had been thrashed 3-0 by WI in England. India was 43-0 when Lever came into bowl in the Delhi test and took 3 wickets in no time to undermine Indians. This continued through out the series, till he was caught with the vaseline in Madras. Then India beat England in Bangalore and were almost on verge of win in the final test at Bombay. Also the moment the vaseline affair was over, Vishy got a 79 in Bangalore and Sunny a 100 in Bombay. So lets not say loose things about that Indian team. It was BCCI's cowardness that no action was taken and Greig could make a mockery of Bedi wherever he went. Bedi also lost his contract. Also before writing anything bad about Bedi's captaincy after Ganguly and Dhoni, Bedi is almost next in line with highest Indian wins outside India. We also know where Lever ended.

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