Champions Trophy 2013 June 15, 2013

Lots of rumour, but no hard evidence

The words of a former England captain turned commentator have sparked a controversy around the Champions Trophy hosts but, as yet, there is no hard evidence

If there is proof that England have been ball tampering then nobody is complaining. Not the ICC, not the umpires, not the match officials, nor any of the captains of the other seven competing nations.

There is no umpires' report hidden in a safe at Lord's alleging that England have been ball tampering. According to ICC sources, no such suspicions have been verbally broached in any official capacity. Not from umpires Kumar Dharmasena or Marias Erasmus to the match referee, Javagal Srinath, after England bowled out Australia cheaply at Edgbaston, nor from umpires Aleem Dar or Billy Bowden when Srinath was again the match referee as Sri Lanka gave England's bowlers a battering at The Oval.

As yet there is Exhibit A: no ball with a razor-sharp seam, or a raised quarter seam or with scratches the depth of a rift valley. None of the 29 TV cameras have provided footage of players shiftily spitting sugary saliva onto their hands. The finest cricket photographers in the world have yet to be seen waving the image that will make them their fortune.

No sandpaper has been found in players' pockets or hotel laundries. Even Michael Atherton, once pilloried after being caught up in a dirt-in-the-pocket affair while England captain, has not been seen delivering a little sachet of finest Lancastrian clay to the England dressing room.

No umpire has seen fit to impose a five-run penalty upon England for ball tampering, a decision which would state categorically that they had reason to believe there was cheating going on. There again, Darrell Hair did that and the firestorm which followed ended Hair's career and led to years of ICC politicking. The five-run penalty is a rule that no umpire dares levy.

The extended sleeve with a convenient thumb hole that Alastair Cook has used to entirely legally polish the ball is a jolly good idea and shows how seriously England take their ball management. Perhaps one day all cricket shirts will be made this way.

What we are variously left with is an outspoken and knowledgeable former England captain who is adamant he knows something dodgy when he sees it, a lot of well-meaning suspicion, which is fine and proper, and a craving to see England condemned without evidence, which is not.

And we will probably not see the 12th man deliver any more sweets to Ravi Bopara just in case people follow the example of Dirk Nannes, the Australian bowler, on BBC radio, and speculate about the reasons for his sweet tooth.

What we are also witnessing is an unofficial ICC clampdown on England's habit of throwing the ball into the stumps on the bounce to deliberately roughen up the ball. The technique is entirely legal - and it is adopted by England not just because it can hasten the arrival of reverse swing but because, if compared to a high arc, it gets the ball to the stumps faster. You can hardly legislate against that.

But teams were still advised before the tournament that it would be frowned upon. Umpires are often seen telling fielding sides to keep the ball up, but in doing so they are arguably stepping outside their responsibilities.

So first we had the MCC Laws, then we had the MCC Laws plus ICC regulations specific to the tournament as the balance of power shifted, now we have the Laws and the specific regulations and secret pre-tournament warnings that are never made public. Such secrecy is an insult to those who watch the game.

Ashley Giles, England's one-day coach, made a telling point in assembling England's case for the defence. England's international outfields are much dryer since the ECB invested heavily in drainage systems to reduce lost play to a minimum. Until the rain of recent days, the weather has been colder and dryer than normal, making grass growth less lush. Squares, awash with old wickets anyway because of England's heavy first-class programme, are also cut down low for practice wickets.

The result is conditions perfect for encouraging reverse swing - if you know how to get the ball prepared and then have the ability to bowl with it.

Get one side legally dry, and polish the other for all it is worth and all this eventually makes it easier to get a ball into the condition for it to reverse swing. The secret is recognising when the ball is in optimum condition.

But the ball is not a Dukes, which is often used in England, and which the England attack can hoop around corners, but a Kookaburra, which is normally less responsive.

The Kookaburra - the brand used in all ODIs - also does not generally lose its form so easily. The ball in question was effectively replaced after 12 overs due to one being used at each end since the new October 2012 regulations. The chances of that happening for entirely innocent reasons without something going on somewhere are tiny.

When umpire Dar checked the ball in the Sri Lanka match, he hid it under a big blue towel so none of the cameras could see what was happening. Cricket has always given the public information it deserves on a need-to-know basis, but such checks need to be made publicly

The ICC continues to insist that the ball that was changed during England's tie against Sri Lanka was misshapen, but there is confusion over whether the ball could still fit through the gauge. One England official said 'yes', so justifying Cook's anger that the ball had been changed; another England official later said 'no', which thereby supported the view that the ball was misshapen and dampened down gossip about ball tampering.

When umpire Dar checked the ball in the Sri Lanka match, he hid it under a big blue towel so none of the cameras could see what was happening. Cricket has always given the public information it deserves on a need-to-know basis, but such checks need to be made publicly.

Even if the ball didn't go through the gauge, it would not quite prove everything. One respected umpire used to carry around a gauge designed for women's cricket, where the ball is smaller. Whenever he suspected there was ball tampering going on, he would change the ball on the grounds that it had become misshapen and would not go through the gauge.

Bob Willis played enough Tests for England, and knew enough about the fast bowler's art, for his views to be taken seriously. He has been supported on Twitter, that digital receptacle of instant opinion, by David Lloyd, who as a former England coach and a one-time county umpire, also knows that the boundaries on what constitutes ball tampering have been pushed since the mists of time.

But Willis is also the chief provocateur in Sky TV's commentary team - and knows he is expected to be. Sky might be the rights-holding broadcaster but the ECB, as is fitting, makes no attempt to restrict their free speech. Last year, he pronounced that Saeed Ajmal chucked it, ignoring scientific studies carried out on behalf of ICC, and which were later revealed in detail by ESPNcricinfo, that concluded he did not. This year he "knows" England are ball tampering.

Some people are contending that George Bailey, Australia's captain, clearly alluded to ball tampering after their defeat against England at Edgbaston. .

The ICC's official transcript quotes Bailey thus:

Questioner: "Were you surprised how quickly England were reversing the ball?

Bailey: "Very, yeah. It was good skill that. What I sort of felt was it went like from swinging conventionally to swinging reverse within an over or two. No doubt they have worked on it a little bit. We saw they bowled some cross-seams and maybe bowling a little bit of spin early plays a part in that as well. I think they're schooled at it, but I think it's something we need to look at and try and exploit if that's going to be the conditions because it just made their bowling plan so simple for the quick ones."

Now Bailey is a very affable man, but to interpret his comments as an accusation of unacceptable ball tampering is to stretch it beyond acceptable limits. Like the rest, he admires England's superior skills at reverse swing and he naturally wonders if it is 100% legitimate. He probably also wonders, like all teams, if Australia could learn something.

And that is what we have: a lot of people wondering. And, as yet, no evidence in sight.

David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo