Sri Lanka v South Africa, 1st Test, Galle, 4th day July 19, 2014

SA's tampering offences expose lenient laws

South Africa have been associated with three ball-tampering offences in nine months. That all incidents have passed with little fuss shows that the ICC needs to enforce stricter laws to prevent it from recurring

The unpredictable nature of sport is the reason why many of us are drawn to it. Almost anything can happen once without arousing suspicion. But when something unusual happens more than once, we speak of it with wonder. Twice is like once, just double. This is the third time in the last nine months South Africa have been associated with ball-tampering and we are now forced to look at it more critically. When do they do it? Why do they do it? How do they explain it? And should they be doing it? Maybe there will be answers if we begin where it began - by looking over the recent incidents (see Sidebar) featuring South Africa and ball-tampering.

The most recent has come about in the ongoing Test in Galle, South Africa's first Test series of the post-Smith era, when South Africa had the upper hand. On a flat pitch, they scored 455 in the first innings. Sri Lanka threatened in periods with the bat but their challenge was chopped in half by a sensational post-tea spell on the third day from Steyn. Steyn admitted it was one of his finest performances because of where it was achieved - in "a tough place to play cricket." This was in the same country in which South Africa last lost a Test series on the road, and a series win was needed to reclaim the No.1 ranking they lost in March.

Five-and-a-half hours after Steyn spoke, the ICC made public that Philander had been fined 75% of his match fee for ball-tampering. The incident was not shown on air but was reviewed by the match officials after the day's play. The release said it took place "in the afternoon," and showed Philander "scratching the ball with his fingers and thumb." The charge was laid by the officials, Philander did not contest it and the matter was regarded closed.

It was later discovered that the match referee knew about the incident during the day's play but did not take immediate action because it is up to the on-field umpires to report any questionable events. The on-field umpires had had no problem with the ball, even though South Africa used it well after the new ball became available. The original ball was in play for 97.2 overs.

The incident was brought to the attention of the umpires after play ended. A source said there was "compelling evidence of Philander's intent to change the ball," but that footage was not broadcast. No reason was given for why the television production company - which is run by Ten Sports who have signed a R1.5 billion broadcast deal with CSA in September 2011 - did not show the incident on air. Incidentally, Ten Sports was the broadcaster for the series in UAE as well where the first incident against Pakistan took place.

Although CSA did not make any official statement about Philander, a source confirmed the reason they did not contest the charge was the same as it was nine months ago: they did not want to put up with the possibility of greater sanctions, so opted to accept the punishment and move on. Despite this approach, however, South Africa did not, the insider said, believe they had done anything wrong and said Philander was only cleaning the ball.

In the aftermath South Africa have had to deal with a barrage of accusations from fans to fellow players, including Ryan Harris. The Australian bowler, who was part of the March series, said he regarded ball-tampering as "the same as match-fixing." The cost in credibility terms, not cash, could affect South Africa going into the future. Their star bowler, Steyn, whose spell drew so much praise yesterday, could well have a cloud of suspicion hanging over him.

Which leads us to the next strand of this story. Based on their insistence about the team's innocence, South Africa's natural response would be to head for the match referee's room to clear Philander's name. But they did not do so. This could well be because the sanctions currently in place are applied relatively leniently to most players who admit guilt, that is easier to stomach them than try to clear your name or save face.

In Philander's case, he will lose around R22,500 (US$2,250) which would be considerable for the common man but can be made up fairly easily for a professional cricketer. The cost to character is far too nebulous a concept to worry about.

Managing the ball - as tampering is described euphemistically - could well be something all teams do and South Africa have just been careless enough to get caught twice in a short space of time. Some even argue that the practice should be something all teams are allowed to do in order to close the gap between the advantage batsmen have when compared with bowlers.

That though a separate debate because what matters now is that changing the condition of the ball is an offence and if the ICC want to keep it that way they will have to find a more effective deterrent. That's what the three cases have told us.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent