On the fourth day of the MCG Test, commentators from the host broadcaster suggested that James Anderson, the England fast bowler, had used his thumbnail to alter the condition of the ball. Earlier in the day, Mitchell Johnson, the former Australia quick, had also tweeted about how he found it strange the ball was reversing for England so early in the innings. The allegations set off a long, sometimes heated, debate on ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball commentary, the highlights of which are reproduced below.
Ball reversing under 10 overs #ashes
— Mitchell Johnson (@MitchJohnson398) December 29, 2017
You bounce, we tamper?
Dave: Re: ball tampering, The Age is running a piece on the umpires having a word to Root, Anderson and Broad re deliberate ball scuffing (i.e. throwing back to the keeper on the bounce rather than on the full)
Andrew Miller (UK editor, ESPNcricinfo): I'll bet they are. How dare fielding sides try to make the most of innocuous conditions by skilfully conditioning the ball to work in their favour? It's an outrage I tell you!
Mawson: Miller!!! "Ball tampering meh". Defensive!!!"
Miller: Not really. Dismissive, more like. I refer you to the consistent position I have taken on this ludicrous moral issue, ever since the Oval fiasco in 2006!
orkydd: Mr Miller, being dismissive of an issue does not make it 'fake news'. If a team whose bowling strength relies on swinging the ball attempts to modify the ball to increase its propensity to swing, then there is something to discuss.
Miller: Completely agree. But I fail to see why it should be deemed as "cheating" to play to one's strengths. Bowling at 90mph and bouncing out tailenders attracted some frowns in the first three Tests, but was it a hate-crime against cricket? Absolutely not, it was compelling viewing.
Laws can change...
Steve: On ball tampering, the issue is, if the law was relaxed, where does it start and where does it stop. Although I have no issue with scuffing up a ball, is digging your nails in worse? What about using my boot stud? So it's just easier to outlaw it completely and keep it simple.
Miller: The late, great Bob Woolmer reckoned that any tampering should be fair game. It's the bowler's ball, and reverse swing is also an art form. My opinion on this matter, incidentally, was forged by watching Waqar and Wasim obliterate England in the 1990s!
Sam: Fact 1: Bowling bouncers at tailenders is a normal tactic and perfectly legal at this level. Fact 2. Purposely altering the ball (nails, etc.) is against the rules of the game.
Miller: The Laws can, and often are, changed. The ball-tampering law is currently trapped in a late-1980s time warp. Which, funnily enough, is around the same era of the game when protection for tail-enders against excessive fast bowling was first codified!
Where do you draw the line?
Dwayne Schultz: I would have thought Australian fans would be open to the idea of ball scuffing. In backyard games it is tradition to play with a tennis ball taped up on one side to make it swing.
Miller: Indeed. It's a more interesting game when the ball moves, isn't it? Don't just take my word for it. Here's one that Osman Samiuddin, our esteemed Pakistan editor, once wrote.
Jon: By that same logic, you might as well let the bowling team go out to the wicket with a jackhammer between innings.
Miller: If they think it would help, why not? I suspect it wouldn't help. As Shahid Afridi, one of the game's most majestic ball-tamperers put it, you have to "make the ball" not destroy it, if you want it to do your bidding as a fast bowler.
Steven: I know your opinion won't be changed by internet strangers but here's my thought: if you allowed ball tampering to induce reverse swing, there's nothing stopping the bowlers destroying the ball by picking the stitches on the seam if it's not doing anything for them.
Miller: No, to be fair, you've got a point. But equally, destroying the ball is not going to help them take wickets, and the umpires would be within their rights to tell them to keep bowling with it and suffer the consequences. The point about well-executed reverse swing is its subtlety. Keeping the ball dry, out of the hands of sweaty-palmed fielders.
Do other sports allow tampering?
Tyler: Can't think of any ball sport in the world that permits the players to deliberately alter the condition of the ball. I don't see why it should be allowed in cricket.
Miller: Shining the ball on one's trousers is altering the condition. As is banging it into the turf over after over. Unlike other sports, the ball is intended to change condition, as is the playing surface.
Matt: @Tyler: Baseball and American Football both allow for prescribed scuffing and roughing of the surface of the ball before play to the thrower's discretion.
Miller: I didn't know that, interesting. Admittedly, deflating the ball is possibly a step too far, but I don't know enough about NFL to have much of a say on that!
Xiong: "My main problem is that to legalise tampering you need to make it a free for all. That's all good and well, but is swapping an old ball for a brand new one not tampering? If it's not (ie: gone beyond tampering) how much can I replace on a ball before it's not the original one? Is it the cork in the middle? Plus the string? I can argue spit chemically changes the original materials, hence they are not original. But that is currently completely legal. Seamstress + 40 minutes lunch break...
Miller: I guess the thin-end-of-the-wedge argument is why the law is currently too draconian. But seriously, we've been grousing about the unsporting nature of this pitch since the very first day. Anything that helps the bowlers transcend the conditions, especially in this era, should be encouraged, no?
Ed Rafferty: Why not do what MLB does? If the baseball hits the ground being pitched - new ball. If the baseball goes into the crowd - souvenir. If the pitcher doesn't like the feel of the ball - new ball. A great boost to the economy and no ball tampering either!
Name: Miller, I understand well executed reverse swing is an art. Also, I don't understand user comments on damaging or destroying the ball simply because it's no way an advantage. But isn't using thumbnail on the ball to rough it up in order to get reverse swing a bad thing? I'm perfectly okay with using an old ball to reverse swing by keeping it as dry as possible. But changing the surface of ball to get it to reverse earlier does affect the game, I believe.
Miller: I don't know the full details of what was going on with the thumbnail, or even if it has been reported by the umpires. But I've no doubt this one will run and run at the close of play!
"It reminds me of a scene from Two and Half Men when Charlie Sheen said, "Baseball was a lot more fun with steroids"
A little help for the bowlers?
Varun Arora: How does your argument in favour of ball tampering stack up against the ban on bat sizes? You can argue that swinging ball adds to the spectacle, more so if the pitch is as docile as the one in Melbourne, but so does the big forceful shots. You do have to draw a line somewhere!
Miller: I am against the ban on bat sizes, actually. It's a recognition that something needs to be done to redress the imbalance between bat and ball, but why attack the entertainment that six-hitting offers? Surely the game instead needs to find ways to support the skill in bowling.
David: Actually, ball-tampering doesn't SUPPORT the skill of bowling, it OBVIATES it. The most skillful bowlers can alter their craft according to the conditions to extract something that lesser bowlers can't. Anyone can put tape around one side of the ball and get it to hoop around corners. That's not skill! And if sometimes the conditions are too difficult for even the best bowlers to make much of, so be it. The odd tame draw is a much better solution than completely changing the nature of the game.
The spectacle argument
Paras: Following the discussion about ball tampering, reminds me of a scene from Two and a Half Men when Charlie Sheen said, "Baseball was a lot more fun with steroids." Although I am not a fan of performance enhancement drugs, he did have a point. Even with steroids, one needs to work extremely hard to reap benefits of it. Similarly, we won't find Wasim and Waqar in every team just because ball tampering is made legal.
Miller: Yeehar! This is more like it. Let's jump the moral shark while the rain falls...
Craig: "I'm sorry, are we actually in favour of ball tampering? How do we draw a line between gentle fingernail scratches to encourage reverse swing and wholesale manipulation of the ball's condition? There's a reason it's outlawed.
Miller: Well quite. There's clearly a line that should be drawn. One of the issues that England appear to have been pulled up on was the practice of skidding the ball off the ends of the used wickets when fielding. Which definitely strikes me as the wrong side of the line. Why shouldn't they, or indeed, any team?
Dip the ball in masala?
@issshank: What if someone hits a six and the ball goes in the stands. Some miscreant tamper with ball there...what happens next? If the bowler gets wicket on such tampered ball are those valid?
Miller: Funnily enough, I have known of occasions when a reverse swinging ball has been scuffed by a big smack into the concrete stands, and suddenly the swing stops. Like I've been saying all along, it's a subtle issue. It's not all about chainsaws and sandpaper.
Nigel: So this is the progression: polishing the ball on the trousers, spitting, licking, bouncing intentionally, nail scratching, biting, candy/gum, scratching with your aglets, scoring with the metal zipper (apparently kits no longer allow zippers), pushing a dozen thumbtacks on one side, sandpapering, scoring with a pocket knife, dipping in chicken masala sauce, waxing, and bouncing against concrete walls. Anything else?
Andrew McGlashan (Deputy editor, ESPNcricinfo): About sums it up.
Eventually, though,the umpires and the match referee found no irregularity or issue with the condition of the ball. In the words of England coach Trevor Bayliss, it was all just a "bit of pommie-bashing", which they are used to by now.