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John Lever comes back to Chennai

Lever in Chelmsford in 1969. The 1977 tour of India "wasn't the best of times I had on a cricket field" PA Photos

In 1977, when John Lever played in a Test match in Chennai (then Madras), there was a huge banner in the stands that screamed: "Cheater Lever go home." To his surprise, when he waved to the crowd, they smiled and waved back at him. It was, he felt, as though they had nothing to do with the banner, which also demanded that Lever's captain, Tony Greig, return to England.

Nearly 40 years on, Lever, now 67, is sitting in one of those stands himself, watching KL Rahul and Karun Nair run his old team ragged in Chennai. Like many other former English cricketers - Middlesex batsman Clive Radley among them - Lever is in India with a tour group on a cricket pilgrimage. Not many in the crowd recognise him anymore, but those who do aren't waving hostile banners at him. The ghosts of the Vaseline affair, which haunted him on his first visit to the city, as a player, have long since been laid to rest.

"Coming here where it all happened, it wasn't the best of times I had on a cricket field," Lever says. "Now I can come back here and still enjoy this place. It's nice to be back in India. Having toured here a couple of times, I have enjoyed the place, I have enjoyed the people."

Did the recent ball-tampering controversy involving South Africa captain Faf du Plessis - he was pulled up for shining the ball with saliva while having a mint in his mouth - remind him of his own ordeal with Vaseline in Chennai? Lever believes ball-tampering should not be legalised, but says that one should be allowed to shine the ball.

Even with artificial substances?

He offers a counter: "You are smothered in sun cream for a start when you go out. Every time you do that (wipes forehead and brow) there is something going on the ball. I don't think it makes a huge amount of difference. As long as you are not finding a specific agent to put on the ball which will make it swing more, you are just shining it."

Lever feels the du Plessis controversy is a "little bit silly", and that it's much ado over a relatively small transgression. "But I don't know why he would deny it, because he was caught on camera chewing sweets and applying saliva on the ball," he says. "Just say, 'Yeah, I did that' and that's it. But as soon as you deny things like that, there's going to be all sorts of inquests going on and I can't see the point in that.

"Perhaps I am not one to tell him what to do, but I think everybody in the game will be thinking [what if] he had just got on with it and said, 'I was putting some saliva on the ball' and that's it. The transgressions in cricket - because of all the 20-odd cameras around the ground - look a bit [exaggerated]. They [the cameras] are always looking for something."

The Vaseline controversy happened in the days before wall-to-wall television coverage. In hindsight, Lever would rather have had the cameras around, as he thinks it would have cleared him of wrongdoing.

"In fact, what we had was very uncomfortable and it didn't work [to keep the sweat out of the eyes]. And that's why Bob Willis was the first one to take it [Vaseline-impregnated gauze strip] off and throw it on the floor. The umpires jumped on it, Bishan [Bedi] made the allegations that we'd been caught cheating. It would have been better if there were cameras all around to show exactly what went on. [Things like] the scratching of the ball to make it reverse swing… as I said before, I think there is far too many cameras on the field for you to get away with anything now."

Lever admits to having been upset with Bedi for having "taken away what I had achieved", and it wasn't until the '90s that they patched up. "I saw him in England when he had come over for a seniors' tour. He was past it, I was past it, and we were playing against each other," he says. "I don't think I was looking for an apology from him. I felt, 'This is silly, we are getting too old for this', and we shook hands and there was a happy ending."

In his cricketing afterlife, Lever has spent 14 years with ITC Sports Travel as a host, accompanying cricket tragics to different parts of the world. He is on his second such visit to India, and has also hosted groups to Sri Lanka, Australia and the Caribbean. Before the Chennai Test, Lever's group went to the games in Chandigarh and Mumbai. The core aspect of his job involves discussing the game and its finer points with fans over dinner and drinks.

"At the moment there's only 11 of us here, but we had something like 30 in Mumbai, and in Chandigarh there were 20-odd. I come out and talk cricket, it's a little bit like talking to you really," Lever, whose day job is that of cricket master at Bancroft's School in Woodford Green, Essex, says. "We have state-of-play evenings where we all have a little drinks and dinner once in a Test match, and perhaps somebody from the media might come and talk as well - [Michael] Atherton or [Mark] Ramprakash or somebody like that."

Lever doesn't find watching cricket easy, especially when England are losing; he says it's as much a test of patience watching as it is playing. "The fans are so keen in their cricket, they want to ask questions. They want to know what happened when Root got out, what was the situation," he says.

"You see the way the commentators pull everything apart. Then you get a chance to do that. And as an England player, as an England supporter now, I find it very hard to criticise too much. It is not easy, but if you don't play well, then you have to say that."

It's not always about cricket, though. "This time we went up to Shimla, up to the hill side, and stayed in a couple of hotels there and had a great time," he says. "When you play cricket, you only see hotels and cricket grounds. To come back and do this, I have had a chance to see the rest of India, if you like."

Lever calls his job a "good holiday" to get away from the English winter. What has made the experience more fulfilling is the bond he has forged over the years with the fans who tour.

"They are mostly the same faces year after year," he says. "They have all been great fun. You end up becoming good friends. You start off the tour not knowing too many people, but at the end of the tour you are sort of exchanging telephone numbers, and you catch up with them at a Test match or a county game in England. They watch Test cricket and county cricket in England, so this is just an extension."

What's the most challenging aspect of the job then? "Keeping my wife out of the shops," Lever says with a laugh. "She does [travel with me regularly], yeah. She is back in the hotel, now looking for saree shops and anything else she can spend money on."