Bring the dark arts into the light

The ball at the centre of the tampering allegations Getty Images

The law is an ass. Don't take my word for it, take Bob Woolmer's. In an interview with The Guardian on Wednesday, Pakistan's coach decided that attack was the best means of defending his team, as he accused Law 42.3 - their alleged breach of which has thrown the game into chaos - of being anachronistic and contrary to cricket's best interests.

"I'd scrub out the law completely," said Woolmer, of a ruling that once consisted of a couple of ambiguous paragraphs about the do's and don'ts of ball maintenance, but has - since the start of the millennium - been rehashed as an eight-clause, 13-subclause magnum opus.

"It was brought in because of ball-tampering with razor blades and bottle tops and everything else in the past," added Woolmer, "but that's been shoved out of the game now. It's like prohibition: the more you ban alcohol, the more it goes underground. They really need to open it up in my opinion."

These are brave words from a man who had admitted that, before yesterday's hearing postponement shifted the goalposts, the future of Pakistan's tour of England hinged entirely on that very charge of ball-tampering. As one exasperated journalist pointed out at the height of the brouhaha on Monday, cricket is such a hick's game. Only in cricket could a team prepare their defence of a rule-breach by turning round and saying: "Well, it's a silly rule anyway."

Well, it is a silly rule, and that's what makes this whole issue all the sillier. Though the moralists froth with righteous indignation, in the eyes of the ICC law-makers, ball-tampering barely even registers on the Richter Scale. It is deemed a Level 2 offence, which is on a par with sticking too large a logo on the back of your bat, or getting over-excited in the pursuit of an appeal.

The Level 3 offence, the disrepute charge that Pakistan are now willing to accept, is actually one notch more serious, though it does not come attached with anything like the same historical, emotional and moral baggage. Pakistan have no truck with being called troublemakers, but quite understandably, they won't stomach being called cheats.

Well, most of them won't, at any rate. Shahid Afridi, however, has always done things differently, and back in February, at a time when his team's bowlers were being lacerated by India's batsmen on the slow, flat featherbeds of Lahore and Faisalabad, he gave an interview to the Indian news channel, Times Now, extolling the virtues of making the ball.

"You have to make the ball in order to make it swing," said Afridi in the interview that has spread like wildfire since Sunday's stand-off. "I don't think there's anything wrong because it's a torture for the bowlers to bowl on these wickets. With the kind of cricket that is going on, it spells death for the bowlers if you don't."

Afridi has a very valid point. In the first two Tests of that turgid series, 2770 runs were scored for the loss of just 36 wickets, 410 of which came in a single opening stand between Virender Sehwag and Rahul Dravid. It is all part of a modern-day trend towards bland, conformist pitches that last a full five days and thus please the TV companies, ground authorities and everyone else whose priority lies with the short-term buck. No wonder any attempts to assist the bowlers are so frowned upon.

Pakistan's underlying grievances, however, stem from the double standards inherent in ball-tampering. As anyone who has ever played the game knows, a bit of spit and polish is perfectly acceptable, essential even, but a bit of scratch and scour ... well that can only be the devil's work.

But remember last summer when England "reinvented" the art of reverse-swing? The claim doing the rounds in the Australian press, in a not-so-distant echo of England's own gripes in 1992, was that their fielders had been armed with boiled sweets to make their shiny sides all the shinier.

Whether sugar-enhanced spittle constitutes an "artificial substance" is a brilliantly moot point - it's not exactly Justin Gatlin territory is it? You might as well ban high-energy drinks if you're that worried. But when Simon Jones plucked out Michael Clarke's off stump at Old Trafford with perhaps the most orgasmic delivery of the summer, the only thing that mattered was the sheer, unadulterated skill on display.

Personally, I'd seen nothing like it since Wasim and Waqar's own zenith in 1992. Why on earth would we want to drive such an art-form underground? To hear Afridi talk of "making" the ball as an innings progresses is a wonderfully creative vision, the sort that should appeal to any schoolboy who has ever sat at the back of a history lesson, folding his way to the perfect aerodynamic paper dart. It's time for the dark arts to be brought into the light.

But let's go back to Woolmer's thoughts, because they are the most intriguing. "I'd allow bowlers to use anything that naturally appears on the cricket field," he suggested. "They could rub the ball on the ground, pick the seam, scratch it with their nails - anything that allows the ball to move off the seam to make it less of a batsman's game."

Provocative comments, but personally, I wouldn't go quite that far. I certainly wouldn't permit rubbing on the ground, because that just replaces one grey area with another - remember Steve Kirby's furtive scrape on the carpark concrete at Sophia Gardens? And besides, who wants to see the unedifying spectacle of a bowler sandpapering the match ball on the cut strip for minutes on end?

Afridi himself suggested making it all legal from the 30th or 40th over, which is a neat solution, albeit one that is equally open to abuse. But, in an extension of the natural-substances line, how about this as a solution? Why not require all players to have their nails clipped at the start of a match, and then send them clawless out onto the field, in the full gaze of 26 television cameras, to do their damnedest as the match progresses?

It's not as ludicrous as it sounds - after all, footballers are required to have their studs checked before they set foot on the pitch. And more importantly, in bringing the practice up to surface level, we would get one step closer to demystifying the whole phenomenon of reverse swing, which everyone talks about but no-one truly understands. Last summer, one national newspaper commissioned a full-page spread on the subject, complete with illustrated diagram. They happened to get their aerodynamics completely wrong, but of course absolutely no-one noticed.

Ultimately, what people find most offensive about ball-tampering is not the act itself, but the furtiveness involved. When Mike Atherton was fingered for the dirt-in-the-pocket scandal in 1994, he could have insisted that he was maintaining the condition of the ball, as per the rules. But upon encountering the formidable figure of Peter Burge, the match referee, Atherton panicked and changed his defence.

Bad move. It was quite clear from Atherton's actions that he was guilty of something - anything! - and in the kangaroo courts of the British media, that was enough for pandemonium to ensue. It sounds familiar, doesn't it?