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