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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • omer on October 30, 2013, 14:03 GMT

    Newtons law failed here action and reaction are not equal in muagnitude even not opposite in direction this states all what happened during the test match

  • Naseer on October 30, 2013, 7:05 GMT

    There has been a lot of debate over ball tempering, and its penalties, I think penalties should be decided as per the impact that the ball tempering had on that particlar match, for example if a team is batting well and suddenly when the ball gets old it starts reverse swinging and the batting team collapse or loses some wickets and suddenly TV footage shows ball tempering in that case very serious and sever penalties should be applied. measures should be taken to minimize the impact that ball tempering had on that particular game. but if ball tempering was spotted in a match like the one in Dubai between pak and SAf, then if the punishment is not that sever it will be ok, because pak lost the plot at start of their first inning when ball was new, ball tempering did not have any significant impact on the match but anyhow, because it hurts credibality of the game, it is necssry to warn the culprit for the first time that he will be banned for certain time if he repeats the appalling ac

  • Garreth on October 30, 2013, 6:39 GMT

    I tend to agree to an extent. Sure one has to draw the line and you certainly don't want cricketers rocking up with knives, carving the ball to pieces. But a bit of a scratch here and there? Why not? A zipper cannot change the shape of the ball and if it did then that would be conflicting with another rule that dictates the shape of the ball should be able to fit through the hoop apparatus that the umpires keep on them. I used to be indifferent toward ball tampering until I saw how the administrators were unfairly changing so many of the rules to fit the batters. To make it even more of a batters game than it is. If you need to scratch it up a bit to reverse it go ahead. I think lot of folks moral radar is completely skewed in this case. Guys like Dravid, Atherton and Tendulkar (supposed high-esteemed ambassadors of the game) have 'tampered' with the ball so that should say something. It's very pedantic to expect nature to scuff up the ball and not an individual. That's just ridiculous

  • Simon on October 30, 2013, 2:27 GMT

    Personally, I think it's lame for professionals not to be able to use the natural ball and adjust to it's changes as an innings progresses. Hard to tell if zippering is team sanctioned, but why is there designated 'ball shiners' other than a bowler anyway? Give the thing to the guy who slings it, at least then he can learn what he can do with it in all conditions. That might just make them better bowlers, rather than this fixation that a ball has to be artificially aged to get reverse swing after 15 overs, just because the conditions aren't ideally conducive to normal swing. With the risk management brigade ironing away side on actions, the natural swingers are now leaving the game and the frenzy for reverse has replaced natural swing in all but most favourable conditions. Who knows, with new restrictions heaped on bowlers every month, maybe it's time to allow roughing the ball to be no different than shining it.

  • Bennett on October 30, 2013, 0:34 GMT

    How is vigorously rubbing a ball on your leg, sport ? How is it exciting, or watchable or thrilling or gripping or any of the myriad of emotions one feels watching a sporting contest ? A magnificent catch, an elegant boundary, a deceiving delivery, an explosive castling. This is sport. Rubbing ball on leg, I'm afraid, is not sport.

  • Jonathan on October 29, 2013, 23:16 GMT

    Actually, conventional swing *is* possible with a perfect ball - particularly those varieties with more prominent seams, where it is the position of the seam as the ball travels through the air that determines the direction of swing.

    Of course, such a seam also assists the fast bowler to get movement off the pitch.

    But of late, there has been a tendency towards cricket balls having a less prominent seam.

  • Rayner on October 29, 2013, 17:48 GMT

    It needs to be decriminalised to be honest, no use of foreign objects, but spit and human nail is fine. The bats have improved as has the protective gear, the spinner is now allowed to chuck but the fast bowler has gained nothing - is it such a surprise that we have so few decent fast bowlers these days, you would be mad to want to be one these days.

    @first Drop, both teams get to bowl also...?

  • Phil on October 29, 2013, 16:02 GMT

    @foozball - both teams get to bat - therefore better bats benefit both teams...

  • santosh on October 29, 2013, 14:20 GMT

    Finally someone influential spoke up about the unnecessary fuss being made over what essentially is not cheating but inappropriate use of the word 'tampering'. A bowler should be allowed to use all the right means -- dirt, spit, grass, trousers, shining one side -- to gain an advantage. It is for the batsman to figure out how to overcome it -- that is what the game is all about. What should be ruled out and wrong is use of any external help -- cream, studs, stones, or even teeth -- anything that changes the shape of the ball; that's tampering and it needs to be dealt with appropriately. But for cricket's sake please do away with ideas and suggestions that make it some kind of kid's game -- the kind where the batsman is informed about what the next delivery is going to be!

  • Ninny on October 29, 2013, 14:07 GMT

    Nice article. Well done. osmaan ji, isn't this a team activity? someone does it but others know it too? if FafduP did it, it was not for himself. I guess the captain would know this too. WHy only FafduP is punished?