A little ball-tampering will do cricket good
While the national team competes against Pakistan in the Middle East, attention at home turned to an impressive gathering in Johannesburg that recognised and celebrated the achievements of Mark Boucher. The freak eye injury 16 months ago that ended Boucher's career before time has been well documented, and the tribute paid to him last night at the Sandton Sun Hotel was warm and went long into the night. The money raised from a glittering dinner was given to Save the Rhino, a cause that Boucher passionately supports. Increasingly cricketers use their pulling power for needs other than their own, which is a welcome change from the brief period when well rewarded international players transferred the income from testimonial events to their own accounts.
Boucher was among the first to tweet a message of sympathy and respect after the desperately sad news that 32-year-old South African wicketkeeper-batsman Darryn Randall had died from the impact of a cricket ball to his head in a club match in the Eastern Cape last weekend. Doubtless, Boucher has also reflected on his relative fortune at surviving a dangerous cricket accident and his tweet went on to urge others to live their life to the full. Because you just never know.
Though Boucher was the centre of attention at dinner, the shock and nature of Randall's tragedy received a lot of air time. The other subject on everyone's lips was the ridiculous stand-off between Haroon Lorgat, the recently appointed chief executive of Cricket South Africa, and the BCCI, over India's tour to South Africa next month. Historically there is no love lost on either side. Lorgat's time as CEO of the ICC was littered with clashes with the Indians - not least on the subject of the DRS, in which Lorgat unconditionally believes but which N Srinivasan and others vehemently oppose.
Now Lorgat has been stood down from the part of his job that involves dealing with India or the ICC (quite a chunk of it gone then), and is also defending himself from allegations relating to Beckergate. Rumour has it that CSA responded to Indian concern about Lorgat's pending appointment by telling the BCCI that it was not their business to tell CSA who to appoint. To which the BCCI replied: we are not telling you who to appoint. We are telling you who not to appoint.
India were due to play three Tests, seven 50-over games and a couple of T20s, a schedule that has been vastly reduced since Lorgat's move into the South African hot seat, and the realisation that amongst those Tests was No. 200 - the final curtain, as it turns out - for Sachin Tendulkar. We will come to that obstacle in a moment.
Given India's immensely powerful position in world cricket, many South Africans pre-empted the appointment of Lorgat as unwise. Better to massage the great Indian ego than take it on, in other words. Frankly, everyone pays lip service to the BCCI, whether they like to admit it or not. Money talks and India has it spilling from every pore. India are one-day world champions, a top-three Test team, and must-see T20 outfit. They are led by the incomparable MS Dhoni, cricket's most charismatic face. All of which makes them a hit at the box office. There is a price to pay for their appearance, which is as it should be, but commitments should be honoured not reneged upon.
South Africa mourns for the New Year Test in Cape Town, a much-loved tradition that will not take place because of India's refusal to accept the original tour schedule. Instead, the BCCI hurriedly convened two Test matches at home against West Indies and will go to New Zealand in the New Year. South Africa get to fill the little window in between, small beer for the No. 1-ranked team in the world.
The game is about the players and those who pay to watch them, not the administrators. It is scandalous that Cape Town has lost the match and that South African cricket will lose a great deal of money because of it. The job of administration is to act as a conduit between the product, which is the game in whatever format, and its audience. The boardroom is not a place for self-interest, though you would barely believe it in cricket's hugely political marketplace.
South Africa may feel India still owes them after the IPL bail out four years ago. During that period the South African public wrapped its arms around an Indian tournament, while the South African administrators moved mountains to accommodate the complicated needs and responsibilities of the event. Grounds were clean of advertising and sponsorship, and corporate facilities were turned over to Indian guests. The thank you for that is a kick in the teeth now.
Mostly Indian cricket gets it right. The global game feeds from its table in many essential ways. But the duty to a wider responsibility, to the pastoral care that comes with ownership, is too often brushed aside. Surely CSA and the BCCI could have found a way to play three Test matches between the No. 1- and No. 3-ranked teams in the world. After all, England have five Tests at home against India next summer. Can it really be that there is no New Year Test in South Africa because of the spat between the BCCI and Lorgat, and if it is so, how feeble and irresponsible is that? South Africa's sponsors, TV networks and general public deserved better, and India only needed to stay another ten days to provide it.
Back to Tendulkar. It seems right that he should say goodbye to the game in front of his own people. The period in which he has played for his country has coincided with vast changes in its landscape. He has ridden these and the expectation that follows them with astonishing dignity. The quality of his play is less relevant in this particular argument but only the heartless would vote against a final Tendulkar innings being played for, and in front of, the people to whom he means so much. The South African public understood the Tendulkar reason, even if they found it hard to stomach. The stand-off between Lorgat and the BCCI has got them choking into their Castle Lager.
Was Faf du Plessis really not attempting to unfairly manipulate the ball? Of course he was. The footage is clear enough; he was ripping the thing down his zipper. The South Africans must have made a killer defence for one so hard-bitten as David Boon, the match referee, to go easy. Fifty percent of Faf's match fee? What a result. Captains have been suspended for less. Indeed, a Test match at The Oval was abandoned for less: and by less we mean there was no such compelling proof then as there was in Dubai the other day. The Pakistanis have every right to feel a bit aggrieved. Had this been them, hell would have been unleashed. As it was that dreadful day at The Oval in August 2006.
We should not play down the impact of a tampered ball. Rather we should consider celebrating it. I know, I'm flying a kite here but hang on a minute. Two recent columns in these pages by Ian Chappell and V Ramnarayan eloquently highlighted the challenges the game faces as bats get more powerful and boundaries become shorter. The poor old bowler has very little left in his favour, while the game continues to allow batsmen all they desire and bowlers next to nothing.
It cannot be too complicated to limit the weight of the bat, the depth of its face and the density of its wood. Moisture content may be hard to regulate against but not size, surely. Equally, why is there not a minimum boundary distance for international cricket? Seventy yards, say, to start the debate. If a ground cannot sustain the necessary boundaries, it cannot be suitable for the best and strongest players.
Cricket's history has numerous examples of legislation against bowlers. But always the game has managed to rebalance itself. For example, this happened with throwing and the 15-degree tolerance in a bent elbow; as it has happened with spinners who lost something from uniform pitches but gained something from the DRS.
The swinging ball is one of cricket's greatest attractions. Bowlers have more ways in which to take wickets; batsmen are encouraged into a wider range of strokeplay by the required fulller length, and more fielders are thus brought into play.
To make the ball swing after the shine has worn off, you have to work on it. The time-honoured tradition is of saliva helping to polish one side, but of course, the seam-pickers and sun-block users, sweet- and lozenge spreaders and half-seam lifters have always been there, hidden away in the closet. Allow them out, I proffer. Legalise tampering by natural resource. Outlaw outside agents - bottle tops, stones, coins, pen-knives, zips and the like - but allow that mix of sweat and sun-cream, that raised seam and that torn leather to be at the fielding side's behest. Give them a ball, say to the captain, it is yours for 80 overs to do with as you like but don't expect us to change that ball unless it's clear it came out of the box a funny shape or that the concrete in the stands did the damage.
And even with that massive change in the laws, Faf would be on the wrong side of them!
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK