October 27, 2013

Why the inconsistency in penalising tampering?

Faf du Plessis was fined for using a zipper to change the condition of the ball, while Afridi was banned for biting it. Why the double standard?

The South African cricketer Faf du Plessis wears trousers with zipper-lined pockets. The ICC does not favour such on-field attire and has decided to phase it out. Yet for reasons that have become the subject of much ado, du Plessis remains partial to them. Certainly these were the trousers in which he was clad during the Dubai Test, when he chose to scuff the ball up on said zipper. Television close-ups revealed him forcibly and repeatedly rubbing one side of the ball against the zipper's tab. His action has violated the rules of cricket and earned du Plessis a fine from the match referee. These are the facts, and they are not in dispute.

What is, however, in dispute - and this is where it gets interesting - is whether the official outcome of this case would have been any different had the player at the centre of the infraction not been South African but Pakistani. Of course there is no way to conduct this experiment, and we can never know for sure, but certain inferences can be drawn from historical comparisons.

The sentence meted out to du Plessis - a fine of 50% of his match fee with no other penalties - has drawn outrage in Pakistan. The punishment seems unduly lenient when compared to what some Asian players have had to put up with, and that has left everybody, including the PCB, fuming and frothing. The reference case on everyone's mind is Shahid Afridi's notorious ball-biting incident during Pakistan's tour of Australia in 2010, which earned him a ban from two international games.

The video footage of Afridi, though bad enough, was not as incriminating as du Plessis'. Afridi held the ball up to his mouth, cupped it in both hands, and closed his lips around it. When interrogated by the match referee, he admitted to sinking his teeth into the leather, although on television you never actually see that. All you see is him holding the ball up close to his mouth. Afridi could have argued that he was just giving the ball a good lick (which is perfectly legal). Yet he chose to admit his misdemeanour and come clean, accepting the two-match ban and apologising to the fans. No one in the Pakistan camp made any attempt to spin or defend the incident. Intikhab Alam, at the time the Pakistan coach, publicly said that Afridi's action was "unacceptable".

South Africa's handling of the du Plessis controversy has not been as forthcoming. The visual evidence showing one side of the ball getting vigorously scraped leaves no doubt about the intent to cheat, yet du Plessis' team-mates have defended him. AB de Villiers, in his press conference following the day's play, said his team had done nothing wrong, and even went on to add that du Plessis had done a "very good job" of shining the ball. This has to rank up there with the most blatantly ludicrous claims of innocence, almost at par with Bill Clinton claiming that he did not have an affair.

Du Plessis is not the first cricketer to benefit from the compassion of the ICC. During the Cape Town Test in early 2010, England seamer Stuart Broad was caught on camera digging his shoe spikes into the ball. His action caused a tear in the ball's surface, and he then tossed it to James Anderson, who picked at the spot. No official penalty resulted; in fact there was not even a warning or a reprimand. Discussing the incident in his newspaper column, former England captain Michael Vaughan wrote: "had this been a game involving Pakistan, and Shoaib Akhtar or Mohammad Asif had been pictured using their fingers on the ball, there would have been uproar".

Is there a subterranean discrimination operating in world cricket? Many people think this to be the case, but hardly anyone expresses it in mainstream discourse

Vaughan's sharp comment makes you wonder: is there a subterranean discrimination operating in world cricket? Many people think this to be the case, but hardly anyone expresses it in mainstream discourse. It is the proverbial elephant in the room. Only occasionally do we come across someone in a position of some authority, like Vaughan, who has the courage to point it out.

Beyond the discriminatory judgements from the ICC, there is also the question of the memes and larger narratives that emerge from such incidents. Pakistan cricket has been through the wringer in recent years, and each indignity has somehow carried the sentiment that not just the player or players at fault but Pakistan's cricket ethos, and perhaps even Pakistan's stature as a state and a nation, have been dishonoured. This is not just paranoia or undue sensitivity on the part of Pakistan's cricket establishment and fans; this is how the circumstances get described. For example, when Pakistan arrived in England for the Champions Trophy earlier this year, scribes raked up the spot-fixing scandal of 2010 and referred to it as having brought shame on Pakistan cricket.

Yet no one asks if du Plessis or de Villiers have brought shame on South African cricket. Nor, for that matter, has anyone asked if someone like Mike Atherton, with that dirt in his pocket, or Shane Warne, with his doping and sexting, have dishonoured England and Australia. The world of cricket is changing as ever-improving technology brings unprecedented levels of transparency and fairness, so there is no doubting that truth and justice will eventually prevail. Until then, however, it appears there is a certain quota of shame and punishment to be doled out in international cricket, and its distribution is rather uneven.

Saad Shafqat is a writer based in Karachi. His latest book is Breath of Death, a medical thriller