Ball tampering: Where does one draw the line?

I agree we need to stop the picking of the seam and scuffing of the ball. However, I don’t think sweets and sunscreen lotion pose a great threat to the game’s integrity, and I wonder how any law can be fairly applied here.

Found guilty... South Africa captain Faf du Plessis was fined by the ICC for ball tampering in the second Test against Australia in Hobart.   -  AP

Hats off to South Africa for their brilliant performance against Australia, whom they defeated 2-1 in the three-Test series recently. The manner of their victories in Perth and Hobart was so emphatic that the chairman of the Australian selection committee, Rod Marsh, was forced to resign. The fact that South Africa were able to dominate despite the unavailability of their two key senior players — Dale Steyn and AB de Villiers — is a huge credit to them.

The only disappointment — apart from Steyn’s unfortunate injury, from which I hope he recovers quickly — was the furore and controversy over the ball-tampering issue. South Africa captain Faf du Plessis was charged with breaching Article 2.2.9 of the ICC Code of Conduct.

 

Ball tampering controversies have been rare in recent years, and it seems somewhat bizarre that such a passionate debate should have been stirred by a simple, boiled sweet.

Personally, I have sympathy for Faf on this ‘Sweetgate’ issue. If the laws are to be strictly imposed when it comes to polishing the ball with sweat and saliva, where does one draw the line? Saliva and sweat are considered natural substances, but at what point does saliva become artificial when mixed with sugar from sweets or lip salve, or at what point does sweat become unnatural when mixed with sunscreen lotion? Do we need a fifth umpire to make sure all players wash their face and mouth before entering the field?

Clearly, this would be absurd and the ICC will be under pressure to review the Code of Conduct in this area. The fact is sugar-infused saliva and sunscreen lotion-mixed sweat are being rubbed on to cricket balls every day in international cricket. I agree we need to stop the picking of the seam and scuffing of the ball. I also agree with the recent move by umpires to stop fielders from deliberately throwing the ball on to the rough patches of the square in order to take the shine off the ball. However, I don’t think sweets and sunscreen lotion pose a great threat to the game’s integrity, and I wonder how any law can be fairly applied here.

The counter argument, which I also understand, is that Faf allegedly placed his finger directly on the sweet and then immediately shined the ball with the same finger. The MCC concluded that this direct contact, clearly captured on TV by the local broadcaster, constituted a clear breach of the law and, irrespective of whether the use of saliva mixed with sweet was widespread or not, the ICC was right to sanction the player. They likened it to speeding: many people do it but when we are caught, we have to be fined. I appreciate the logic and the complications of fairly navigating such issues with the law, but I remain uneasy given the obvious difficulty in fairly policing this area.

It’s worth noting that the shine on the ball is actually one part of getting the ball to swing. And when it comes to reverse swing, the weight of the saliva is more important than its shining properties. Depending on where you play and the abrasiveness of the outfields, the shine on the ball only lasts for 30 to 40 overs and thereafter moisture management is critical. Cricketers will apply saliva and sweat to one side of the ball while keeping the other as dry as possible. The weight differential, if used by a bowler with sufficient pace and necessary wrist skills, can produce reverse swing.

Back to the series, I don’t think the Australians are blaming their defeat on boiled sweets. The Aussies know that they need to address serious issues with their Test team. Heavy defeats to Sri Lanka followed by South Africa have created a lot of concern. Throughout this period, there have been an alarming number of batting collapses. My view is that Australia need to settle their team, identify their core group of players and back them to develop into a new world-class side. Clearly, there is a lot of talent in Australia and this is just a difficult transition that needs to be managed carefully.