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The problems with Law 42

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'Storm in a teacup' - Gillespie (3:08)

Former Australia pacer Jason Gillespie feels the whole Faf du Plessis incident was a non-issue and has been made into something bigger than it should have ever been. (3:08)

Whether or not Faf du Plessis applied an artificial substance to the ball in Hobart was "irrelevant", David Warner said on Tuesday. And, to the series outcome, perhaps that is true. But that du Plessis was that evening found guilty enough of ball-tampering to cop a fine was anything but irrelevant to cricket's bigger picture.

Under the Laws of Cricket - Law 42.3, to be precise - players are allowed to "polish the ball provided that no artificial substance is used". Du Plessis' second conviction in three years - and South Africa's third - is a warning to the rest that there will be a crackdown on this law, even though there is no clarity on what, for cricket's purposes, constitutes an "artificial substance".

Broadly speaking, we all have some idea that shoe polish is synthetic and saliva is natural but what if the shoe polish is mixed with saliva? How much of the synthetic substance needs to mix with the natural one for all of it to be deemed artificial? And what if the artificial substance is food? Organic food? The wording of the law is too vague.

As Jason Gillespie said in an interview on these pages, "It's a tough one because in the laws of the game it says, technically, no one should be able to have anything in their mouth on the ground. You shouldn't be able to have any lollies, chewing gum, anything. I mean how far do we want to go? You can't have a Gatorade or whatever power drink they have because it's got sugar in it. So everyone, just drink water. Where do you want to go with it?"

Gillespie is one of several former players to support the "storm in a teacup" argument over the shining of the ball. "It is actually just accepted and isn't a big deal," Matt Prior said on Twitter, while Sourav Ganguly told ESPNcricinfo's Match Day du Plessis, "is not the first person who has done it and I don't think he will be the last."

That was what South Africa were hoping would get du Plessis out of trouble. They are understood to have used the "everybody-does-it" defense. They produced footage of several high-profile players, including Virat Kohli and David Warner, using saliva that could have come into contact with an artificial substance on the ball.

Neither example is as blatant as du Plessis': Kohli rubs something close to his teeth and for a split-second there seems to be gum visible, while Warner applies a lip balm and then receives the ball after the next delivery to polish. For the ICC to investigate those clips and lay a charge, the matter should have been brought to its notice within five days of the event*.

Consider the similarity to the seatbelt law. Hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of drivers and passengers choose not to buckle up and when they are caught, they are fined because they are guilty of an offense. Even if you're an advocate for freedom of choice, or you fervently believe the seatbelt won't save your life, or you just forgot to put it on, you are still guilty, and will be sanctioned, and so will everyone else who is caught.

But perhaps the dossier du Plessis' defence produced - and the comments from former players - will prompt a thorough enquiry. It may even lead to a realisation that a law becomes redundant if it is so openly flouted. Or perhaps it will just cause those players to become even more discreet, particularly the South Africans.

They are only team to be caught in the past three years and every time, it has been by broadcast cameras. There is one school of thought that du Plessis would not have found himself charged if only South Africa hid their actions as well as other teams. "He has just been a bit stupid," Ganguly said. "Maybe because he was ignorant that the camera was on him. He could have done it differently."

In this case, if du Plessis had had the sweet under his tongue, for instance, he would have got away with it completely. The on-field umpires, who check the ball after every over to assess its condition, did not detect anything amiss. However, it is interesting to note that all three umpires were strong in telling the hearing that had they seen du Plessis' actions on field, they would have taken action immediately. At least the officials and the administrators are in sync, even if the players are not.

All that leaves the ICC with a problem. One of their own laws is being flouted because players have found ways to skirt around it. Clearly, some players view it as a law that exists just for the sake of it. If players are happy to break it so long as no-one gets caught, there is obviously a problem. If the ICC is serious about enforcing its law, they need to make better efforts to clamp down, as they did with illegal bowling actions. Otherwise, they could accept that some form of working the ball will take place and make room for that within the laws.

Perhaps that is the most reasonable solution. In any case, most players aren't sure how an artificial substance actually affects the way the ball moves. "I'm no expert in the science of how a sugary sweet will impact on the aerodynamics of a cricket ball. I wouldn't have a clue," Gillespie confessed.

So here is a left-field thought: someone could try to find out. Scientific research could be conducted into what substances have an effect on the ball, and whether such effects are significant enough to justify the law's existence. Perhaps cricket would end up with a list of banned substances, as WADA does with doping. But that has its own problems in terms of practicality.

The issue is a hazy one, but if this hearing brings any sort of clarity it will prove a landmark moment indeed.

*1215GMT The piece has been altered to clarify the ICC process regarding the Kohli and Warner footage