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Ball tampering: Cricket's bowling controversy

Updated on June 19, 2011

Even though it is a battle of willow and leather, cricket favours the willow; it is a batsman’s game. Everything from the laws of the game to the docile pitches used in modern cricket favours the batsmen. Bowlers have a far more difficult job – physically and mentally. However, cricket’s laws do not allow bowlers too many advantages. As such, it prohibits ball tampering – any deliberate act that changes the shape or condition of the cricket ball.

The implication of this offence goes beyond some fantastic efforts at tampering in cricket history. Fielders cannot even rub the ball on the ground and they surely cannot pick the seam or “clean” it without supervision. Ball tampering is a controversial aspect of cricket because it is difficult to prove conclusively and there are ways to go around it.

Ian Chappell, the former captain of Australia endorsed the notion that attempts to alter the condition or shape of the ball are not recent or singular. He facetiously stated that “bowlers have been doing things to the ball since cocky was an egg.” Some cricket followers would remember John Lever’s infamous “Vaseline affair” in 1976. In the 1990s, there were several incidents, like Mike Atherton’s dirt in the pocket. Most recently, the Pakistan team forfeited a Test (the result was later converted to a draw) after Darrell Hair awarded penalty runs to England for the offence.

Cricket umpires, match referees, commentators and fans have viewed teams whose bowlers swing the ball at will with suspicion. Usually, teams from the subcontinent – Pakistan in particular – were stereotyped in this manner. However, individuals have been caught with their hands dirty – literally, in the case of former England captain Michael Atherton. In a Test against South Africa in 1994, the then England captain used dirt in his pocket to work on the ball.

Pakistan was suspected of malpractice in times past because their bowlers used to do things with the ball that cricket’s establishment could not understand. Sarfraz Nawaz, Imran Khan, Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram all had amazing talents that were only later understood and accepted as legitimate possibilities. Naturally this suspicion came from cricket’s old firm – Australia, England, New Zealand and South Africa.

The worst instance of bias against Pakistan was by controversial cricket umpire Darrell Hair. In that infamous Oval Test in London, he awarded England five penalty runs after he and Billy Doctrove determined that Pakistan had tampered with the ball. That incident, and the umpires’ awful officiating even before that, made Pakistan reluctant to resume play. Although such incidents happened before, Hair decided that Pakistan forfeited the game. Evidence was limited and the ICC eventually cleared Pakistan of the charge, although then captain Inzamam Ul Haq was penalized for breaches of the code of conduct for his role in the resulting imbroglio.

The controversy surrounding ball tampering is akin to the one surrounding throwing; they are both deemed attempts to give the bowlers an unfair advantage. The “unfair advantage” is that tampering changes the aerodynamics of the ball, making it more difficult for batsmen to read the line. This is because the movement through the air (or even off the pitch) would be more irregular and unpredictable. The fuss about ball tampering stems from the physics behind ball movement in the air and off the pitch.

The issue of tampering rears its head at intervals and creates major headlines when it does. Match referee Barry Jarman accused the 1997 South Africans of this because he observed that the opening bowlers swung the new ball. However, new-ball swing is possible without sharp practice. Former England opener Marcus Trescothick admitted using mints to help shine one side of the ball. However, some former cricketers thought that was nothing, although others shared a different view. Generally, fielders try to gain an advantage wherever they can. Fielders tried returning balls fielded “on the bounce” in an attempt to make it softer and rougher; there’s nothing wrong with that practice.

Suspicions of ball tampering will always arise unless the ball is many overs old or conditions are ideal for swing. So if the atmosphere is not humid, skies are clear, the ball is new and swinging like a pendulum, expect the ball tampering issue to come up. Better yet, if the team is Pakistan. However, most teams use legitimate means of affecting the condition of the ball. In some cases, they stretch the boundaries of what is ‘appropriate.’

Cricket is a game for batsmen or batters, so the attempt to gain an advantage with the ball is frowned upon. A batsman can change his stance without informing the bowler, but that is ‘innovative.’ Ball tampering is so controversial because it is difficult to prove and has a few grey areas.


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