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Kartikeya Date

The ball-tampering law is clear. But it's not enforceable

It's time everyone reached an agreement on what objects can be brought on to the field and be acceptably used on the ball

Kartikeya Date
12-Dec-2016
James Anderson polishes the ball, England v India, 2nd Test, Trent Bridge, 5th day, July 31, 2007

It's obvious that residue from mints, chewing gum and energy drinks find their way on to the ball when players use saliva to shine it  •  Getty Images

South Africa captain Faf du Plessis was found guilty of tampering with the condition of the ball in the Hobart Test of the recent series between South Africa and Australia. He has appealed the ruling. The MCC's world cricket committee reviewed the situation and decided that no change to Law 42.3 was required.
Du Plessis' case, which recalls an earlier case against Rahul Dravid, prompted three issues. First, as du Plessis argued, what was the difference between saliva mixed with Gatorade and saliva mixed with mint? Second, the very nature of the offence meant that de facto transgressions occurred frequently, and only some of these, chosen arbitrarily, ended up being penalised. Whether players intend it or not, foreign substances are applied regularly to the ball because players eat, drink and chew substances, and wear clothes and accessories on their bodies. Third, the role of a broadcaster in providing the evidence was ambiguous.
As the MCC said in its review, Law 42.3 is clear. 42.3(a) provides instructions about what a fielder may legally do. "Any fielder may (i) polish the ball provided that no artificial substance is used and that such polishing wastes no time. (ii) remove mud from the ball under the supervision of the umpire. (iii) dry a wet ball on a piece of cloth."
Even though this is clear, it does nothing to address du Plessis' first point. Fielders often use sunscreen on their faces. In the day-night Test in Adelaide, fielders even wore sunscreen under lights! Can it really be said with confidence that the sweat that fielders apply from their brow to the ball does not contain even a little bit of sunscreen? Fielders may not intend to apply sunscreen to the ball, but the effects of the sunscreen on the condition of the ball do not depend on intentions.
The famous Vaseline incident involving John Lever provides a case in point. At the time there was no ICC Code of Conduct, nor were there neutral umpires or ICC referees. Umpire Judah Reuben brought the matter to the attention of the two captains, Tony Greig and Bishan Bedi, and reported the matter to the Indian board. The BCCI passed the buck to the MCC (keep in mind, those were the days of the veto).
The English press suggested, with near unanimity, that because India were behind in the series, Bedi, under pressure, was grasping at straws. The MCC accepted the explanations provided by Greig and Ken Barrington, the England manager, and no action of any kind was taken against Lever - despite traces of Vaseline having been found on the ball. Now the MCC has decided that du Plessis "flagrantly contravened" the law.
Consider another case from 2010. In Cape Town, South Africa pointed to video and pictures that clearly showed England bowler Stuart Board with his spikes on the ball. Notice the subtle difference in the way AB de Villiers and Andy Flower, then England's head coach, described the issue. De Villiers said that Broad "stepped on the ball". Flower said "tall fast bowlers stop balls with their feet..." He went on to add that he saw nothing sinister in this at all.
Neither Broad nor James Anderson (who was seen picking at the leather of the ball) was found to have tampered with the ball. The umpires in that case chose not to use the pictures and report the incident.
Michael Vaughan and Nasser Hussain, two former England captains, thought the players were guilty. In Hussain's words, "If a player from another country did the same, we'd have said they were cheating." Vaughan said, "England have been caught."
All this suggests that enforcement of the ball-tampering law is abysmally inconsistent for a variety of reasons. Consistent enforcement is impossible. And as players everywhere often say, few things aggravate matters more than inconsistent enforcement.
Ramiz Raja, a member of the MCC committee, has been quoted as saying, "I think the broadcasters are not looking for such incidents and episodes. Nobody wants this game to be controversial. I think the players are experienced enough to know what's the done thing. Try to live within the perimeters as prescribed. I think let's leave the tampering law as it is."
Consider du Plessis' situation. Australia had lost the series 2-0. Public interest in the dead rubber in Adelaide was likely to dwindle. Some controversy, especially of the type that could get home fans riled up behind the flag, could rekindle interest and as a result, ratings. It would be extremely naïve to think that television producers and newspaper editors do not realise this. Controversy is unquestionably in the interests of both broadcasters and the cricket media.
If, for instance, video cameras were endlessly trained on David Warner's sunscreen-covered face, it is likely that there would eventually be at least one picture of him applying sunscreen-laden flecks of sweat to the ball, even under lights. Would the ICC then be forced to investigate Warner as well? It requires a special kind of innocence, especially from a seasoned television personality like Ramiz, to imagine that broadcasters, who try their hardest to minimise the number of non-competitive games in nearly every cricket television contract they compete for, are incapable of ginning up a little bit of controversy when they feel that interest is dwindling.
The real problem is that the three points raised by du Plessis all arise from the exact same problem with Law 42.3. Even though the law is clear, it is not enforceable in its current form.
A clear solution is available. The ICC should instruct captains, umpires and referees to prepare a list of items permitted on the field of play before the start of each series. In football, for instance, players are not allowed to wear jewellery or watches on the field. Their spikes are checked as well. A similar rule could be instituted for the fielding side. Any player on the field found to be in possession of any item not in the list of permitted items would automatically be considered in contravention of Law 42.3. It would be considered "unfair play".
The implication of this rule is that if the captains agree that energy drinks, chewing gum, sweets and sunscreen are permitted on the field, then their use on the ball would have to be considered legal. In this way, the law would account for the effect of these items, rather than be mired in the vexed question of a player's intention. The point about time-wasting, which is present in the current law, should remain in force.
After all, if a fielder drinks a bottle of cola during a drinks break, swirls it about in his mouth for the first couple of minutes afterwards, and then applies spit to the ball for the next five overs, he is contravening Law 42.3 as blatantly as du Plessis or Dravid or Marcus Trescothick did with their various preferred mints.
An enforceable law along the lines of the one proposed here would achieve two things. First, it would level the playing field. Second, it would nullify the long lens of the partisan host broadcaster and home media.
Clarity, by itself, is no longer sufficient. Nor are the pictures from the broadcaster. The ICC could decide that evidence from the broadcaster will not be admissible in any code-of-conduct proceeding related to ball-tampering. Only first-person accounts from the four umpires could be permitted. But given the ICC's decisions when it comes to lbw and other matters, it may be too much to expect the governing body to ignore television when it comes to ball-tampering, since it will minimise the influence of the broadcaster.

Kartikeya Date writes at A Cricketing View. @cricketingview