October 29, 2013

What's the fuss about ball-tampering anyway?

Maybe it's time to take away the layers of morality and shrillness around it and treat it like the low-grade offence it is

Years ago, a former Pakistani cricketer tells the story, one ingenious Pakistani mind wondered whether sandpaper could be stitched onto cricket trousers. It could be camouflaged white somehow, so that, as you rubbed the ball onto the thigh, ostensibly to shine it, you were actually roughing up one side. As far as I'm aware the idea never went past being an idea, remaining a stray musing.

The story came to mind as Zippergate - pardon this pun - unzipped itself to the world, mostly because it is difficult to believe that ball-tampering can be anything other than deliberate. If David Boon really believes Faf du Plessis did not mean to do what the world clearly saw him do, then he's probably one of those poor souls who believes the word "gullible" is not in the dictionary.

The more you look at the footage, the clearer the intent. Inspecting ball and trousers so closely, rubbing the ball so vigorously against the zipper: These are not the unthinking actions of a careless cricketer. Instead, like the sandpapered trousers, they are a reminder of the ingenuity that goes into "preparing" balls. It is not unlike the stories of stray coins finding their way into the pockets of genius fast bowlers, and now, in retrospect, zippers seem like such an obvious aid it is unimaginable that they haven't been used before.

In light of previous punishments, mostly to Pakistani players like Shahid Afridi and Shoaib Akhtar, but also to, say, Sachin Tendulkar, it isn't unfair to ask how du Plessis got off lightly. South Africa were smarter in their defence and Boon bought into it: Afridi, for one, admitted that he bit the ball deliberately to tamper it. Du Plessis just admitted the ball's condition had been changed but not that he deliberately tampered it. These are differences in interpretations, Boon's against that of Ranjan Madugalle (who banned Afridi), and also of Clive Lloyd, who fined Rahul Dravid 50% of his match fee in 2004 after finding him guilty of applying a cough lozenge to the ball. It is also not misplaced to question why these interpretations should differ, especially as Boon seems to have missed additional footage of another player possibly scratching the ball, footage that would have rigorously questioned the conclusion that du Plessis' was not part of a "deliberate and/or prolonged attempt to unfairly manipulate the ball".

But it feels more important to move on from debating the quantum of punishments and instead to try imagining a future that suppresses entirely the morality and shrillness around tampering. South Africa's approach, in trying to dress it up as something accidental that they would never deliberately do, shows that not only is it still not okay to tamper the ball, but, more importantly perhaps, it is not thought or perceived to be okay to be seen tampering the ball. It would be an assumption to extrapolate from here and conclude that he who doesn't tamper is simply he who doesn't get caught. It's as likely as not that other sides still do it when they can - at all levels of the professional game - but it'd be nice to imagine a future where players didn't have to pretend they did it by accident.

An empty stadium in Dubai, away from much of cricket's glare, in a low-intensity two-Test series between two sides with little friction; it felt like the ideal lab in which to de-demonise ball-tampering. That is not quite the same as calling for legalisation. That is a useful pursuit philosophically but is far too troublesome in reality. What do you allow as tools to tamper? Just fingernails, or are foreign objects all right? Should there be a limit to how much you gouge off with a long nail? When can you start doing it? Should you have designated gougers and scratchers? What is natural? Sand? Mud?

It is, instead, a call for a spiritual decriminalisation; that is, it remains a legal transgression, but let's be pretty chilled about it and tolerate it as a low-grade misdemeanour, that is often an unavoidable by-product of competitive sport. Punish players - preferably with a sense of scale and uniformity - and move on.

It feels more important to move on from debating the quantum of punishments and instead to try imagining a future that suppresses entirely the morality and shrillness around tampering

Far more intriguing about Zippergate is how it came to light. It was apparently a TV commentator who, having spotted something on the field and then noted reverse swing, asked the broadcaster to keep an eye on the bowlers and du Plessis, the designated shiner, specifically. He was the only commentator who saw it, initially suspecting fingernail scratching, but the cameras got something better. Once images had been captured, they were shown several times on the request of at least two commentators and it was only then that the footage was shown to TV umpire Paul Reiffel, who decided to alert the on-field umpires, who took swift and unfussy action.

That a broadcaster has taken the lead in spotting tampering has happened before, but it pushes their role in cricket into further grey, and eminently interesting, areas. TV, through the DRS, already has a say in how a match is shaped and even decided, when it didn't necessarily sign up for the role in the first place. This case is a further step there, raising in the process a central question about who broadcasters answer to ultimately. Is it the television viewer? The fan in the stand? The boards they pay money to in the hope of making money off? A broader sense of justice? Cricket itself?

As a final thought, it is comforting to know cricket isn't alone. A day before du Plessis, Jon Lester of the Boston Red Sox found himself at the centre of a pitch-doctoring controversy (not what should happen to modern-day cricket surfaces, of course, but baseball's term for ball-tampering) during game one of the World Series. Lester (eventually cleared) appeared to have a foreign substance on the inside of his glove, which he then put onto his fingers before pitching. Pitch-doctoring has an old, colourful history, and somehow baseball has managed to create even more grey, because apparently substances that allow pitchers to grip the ball better are fine, but substances that make the ball behave differently (hello, Vaseline) are not.

From this distance, baseball, like cricket, loiters in the middle, between outrage and acceptance - maybe even celebration, if the life and times of Gaylord Perry are any guide - of something that just is, and please, can we move on? The latter seems to have been the policy of Tony La Russa, one-time manager of the St Louis Cardinals.

During a World Series game in 2006, cameras caught what appeared to be a smudge, potentially of a foreign substance, on the palm of Kenny Rogers, pitcher for the Detroit Tigers. The implication was that Rogers could have been doctoring the ball. La Russa doused matters by prompting the umpires to ask Rogers to simply wipe it off and continue the game. The Tigers won the game but the Cardinals the World Series.

"I said, 'I don't like this stuff, let's get it fixed,'" La Russa said the day after the game. "If it gets fixed let's play the game. It got fixed, in my opinion. If he didn't get rid of it, I would have challenged it. But I do think it's a little bit part of the game at times and don't go crazy."

It's not unsound advice.

Osman Samiuddin is a sportswriter at the National