Cricketers have always crossed over into unfairness in seeking to gain the advantage. In the late 18th century, when cricket was very largely a gambling game, whole teams were bribed to throw matches. In 1817, William Lambert, the greatest batsman of his era, was forced out of cricket for corruption. Around the same time, there was a farcical match between England and Nottinghamshire in which both sides had sold the match, so batsmen were trying to get out to bowlers who were doing their best to avoid taking wickets.
W. G. Grace, the first cricketing superstar, was regularly guilty of irksome subterfuges within the law. He was also a notorious sledger. In 1921, J. W. H. T. Douglas, the England captain in Australia, supposedly threatened to report Arthur Mailey for illegally using resin to grip the ball - until Mailey pointed out that Douglas's own thumbnail had been worn to the flesh picking the seam for his own bowlers.
Until recently most infractions were either ignored by the umpires, or sorted out with a quiet word in the ear of either the culprit or the captain. One umpire just stared at the ball, as treated by an England fast bowler, and said: You better take six wickets with that or there'll be trouble. The media and television, in particular, have changed all that. As Graham Gooch put it: What for years were accepted but mildly frowned-upon practices, like picking the seam, have now been labelled cheating. That's a big word. What people would once have had a bit of a laugh about in the bar is now being flatly denied. Nobody wants to be labelled a cheat. It's all the media's fault for going overboard to get their story. The Sunday Mirror recently quoted Geoff Boycott admitting that Yorkshire players in his day sometimes played around with the ball. Three of the first 55 words were bombshell, incredible and sensationally.
So administrators have clamped down on practices like seam-lifting, using lipsalve to maintain the shine and, horror of horrors, batsmen getting their spikes into the pitch to break it up once their team is in the ascendancy. All these actions are premeditated. In a court of law, a premeditated crime is considered far worse than one committed on the spur of the moment. But in cricket these have traditionally been regarded far more lightly than the behaviour of the chancer who on the spur of the moment refuses to walk or claims a catch on the bounce.
Picking the seam has been endemic to the professional game for years. Usually, that is the action of the individual bowler not only to try and get an advantage over the batsmen but to get one over on his fellow-bowlers by taking more wickets than them and keeping his place in the team. A professional playing a team game has more than one objective in his mind.
In contrast, keeping the ball shiny by using lipsalve requires a team effort. Very often, at county level, this has been sanctioned not only by the captain but also by the ex-players who are umpires. There was an incident that reputedly took place in the law-abiding surroundings of Tunbridge Wells, of all places, where the visiting slip fielders returned the ball to the fast bowler before they had time to rub in whatever substance was being used that day. The bowler bellowed out: What's this greasy stuff someone's put all over the ball?
In my day, everyone cleaned the seam, recalled the former Northamptonshire and England bowler Frank Tyson. You had to, playing on uncovered wickets. Inevitably, the seam would get lifted as well. Some sides were notorious for it. Brylcreem and hair oil would also find their way on to the ball. Both were widely sued as part of the fashion of the day. Of course, it was no bloody use to me. I had no hair to put it on even then.
This was in clear contravention of the Laws and yet, until recently, this sort of thing was far more acceptable than a batsman not walking, though this was not in breach of any written rule. It may have something to do with the fact that, when the distinction still existed, batsmen were a mixture of amateurs and professionals, whereas bowlers were far more likely to be professional. As Bob Appleyard, the former Yorkshire and England bowler, confirmed, when asked if everyone in his day walked: Ay, mostly. But those who didn't were more likely to be professional. It was, perhaps, easier for amateurs to live up to gentlemanly notions of fair play than for professionals who had a living to scrape together.
However, gentlemanliness always had its limits. In the 1960s and 1970s some well-known batsmen were believed to have built up unblemished reputations for walking when an edged catch was obvious, but standing their ground when less obvious chances were offered in more critical situations, relying on their good name to be given not out. This was a very English phenomenon. Ray Lindwall says none of his contemporaries ever walked - except Neil Harvey, once, for lbw in a Test match.
To walk or not to walk? was still a debate on the England tour of Australia in 1982-83. The rest of the world had stopped walking at Test level at least a decade earlier, but England held a team meeting in which Ian Botham vehemently insisted that, if anyone walked, it would be over his dead body. His argument was that England would be getting no favours from Australian umpires and probably bad decisions too. Several players felt uncomfortable with this line and in the end Bob Willis, as captain, left it up to the individual.
Not walking might break the spirit of the game, but it is harder for batsmen to break the Laws. When Shock White walked out in the 18th century with a bat wider than the stumps it was not then illegal; and Dennis Lillee was not breaking any existing law when he used an aluminium bat against England in 1979-80. However, it is not unknown for lead weights to be put in the back of bats to make them bottom-heavy, and bowlers these days get annoyed by batsmen using fibreglass tape, which has an abrasive effect on the ball, rather than Elastoplast to bind their bats. No one screams that anyone should be drummed out of the game for this.
Thus fair play is largely a notion that affects bowlers. And far from being a blessing, it is becoming an encumbrance for players as the game finds itself a vehicle for moral and behavioural issues far beyond its compass. The word cheat has been much bandied round in the past three seasons when first the Pakistani fast bowlers and then England captain Mike Atherton were accused of illegally helping the ball reverse swing.
The discovery of reverse swing is a perfect example of man's triumph over an unhelpful environment in order to survive. Playing on grassless pitches of low bounce with hard, bare outfields, where cricket balls rapidly deteriorate, Pakistan's bowlers developed a method of swinging an old ball. It requires a creation of opposites on the ball's surface, a kind of Yin and Yang effect where one side is kept smooth and damp while the other is allowed to roughen but is kept scrupulously dry. It has to be a team effort, for any dampness on the rough side will negate the swing.
This has not always been achieved legally, and Imran Khan has admitted once using a bottle-top to scratch one side of the ball to speed up its deterioration. But not long ago, roughing up a ball by rubbing it in the dirt was accepted practice. One county captain was seen to do the job against the concrete on the pavilion steps. Granted, it was done in those days to improve the grip for the spinners, but where's the difference?
So was Atherton cheating? To my eyes, there was no evidence that he was taking any action to alter the state of the ball and there is no regulation to stop a player having a pocketful of soil. There is a danger now that the authorities will be panicked into rewriting the Laws yet again. The contest between bat and ball will work best with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of self-regulation.
Derek Pringle played 30 Tests for England between 1982 and 1992. He is now cricket correspondent of the Independent on Sunday.