A big blot on cricket

The two captains, Pakistan's Misbah-Ul-Haq and South Africa's Graeme Smith pose with the trophy after the drawn Test series.-

Even as the two captains posed with the trophy after the series was levelled, disturbing questions on the ball tampering issue remained, writes S. Dinakar.

The ball tampering controversy cast its shadow over the South Africa-Pakistan series in the UAE that was otherwise interesting and full of fortune swings.

As the dust settled on a rather dramatic two-Test series, that saw Pakistan stun World No. 1 South Africa in Abu Dhabi before Graeme Smith’s men hit back in Dubai to level things 1-1 to preserve a seven-year unbeaten away Test series record, debate raged on the ‘light punishment’ handed out to Faf du Plessis.

Can the world cricket’s governing body adopt this head-in-the-sand approach while coping with as serious a menace as ball-tampering? Half-measures will only enlarge the problem.

South Africa was fined five runs and du Plessis was docked 50 percent of his match fee after television cameras caught him rubbing the ball on the zipper pocket of his trouser — two overs after tea — on day three.

After third umpire Paul Reiffel brought the incident to the attention of on-field umpires Ian Gould and Rob Tucker, South African captain Graeme Smith was called in for discussion. Immediately the ball was changed.

In the subsequent hearing chaired by match referee David Boon, du Plessis pleaded guilty to the charge of changing the condition of the ball. According to many, he got lucky.

Boon gave du Plessis the benefit of doubt, something that was not welcomed by the Pakistanis. “I am satisfied that the player’s actions warranted the umpires applying clause 42.1.1 of the ICC Test Match Playing Conditions, including the laying of a charge under the ICC Code of Conduct against Mr du Plessis in respect of changing the condition of the ball.

“After discussions with Mr du Plessis, he has elected not to contest that charge, but I am also satisfied that this was not part of a deliberate and/or prolonged attempt to unfairly manipulate the condition of the ball, and that the imposition of a fine of 50 percent of his match fee is appropriate considering the circumstances,” the former Australian opener said.

Senior South Africa cricketer A. B. de Villiers declared “we are not cheats.” And team manager Mohammad Moosajee said, “Faf showed no intention to change the condition of the ball. It is harsh to term it ball tampering.”

The Pakistani camp was far from convinced though. After all, rubbing the ball on a hard surface with sharp edges such as a zipper can alter the condition of a cricket ball. There were voices hinting that du Plessis had attempted to roughen one side of the ball to get the sphere to a condition where it would assist reverse swing.

A level-two offence, ball-tampering comes with a fine of 50 to 100 per cent of the match fee, and/or a ban of one Test or two limited-overs games. The Pakistanis felt du Plessis deserved a ban.

South Africa, dominant on the field of play for the better part of the last two seasons, was on the back-foot on this one.

Former Pakistan pace bowling great Waqar Younis said, “I think, to be very honest, Faf got away with it with just 50 percent of the match fee. I thought it was a bit of frustration from the South Africans, they did not need to do that. It leaves a big question mark on South Africa’s credibility.”

Cricket had been rocked by the ball tampering scandal in the ICC Champions Trophy in England this year. Former England captain Bob Willis had alleged that “one particular” player had been “scratching” the ball for England against Sri Lanka at the Oval. Umpire Aleem Dar was on the case, the former English fast bowler revealed.

ICC, indeed, needs a rethink on the laws. Even if it was du Plessis’ first offence, the altered condition of the ball could have so easily changed the course of the match. Once a batsman has been dismissed by a ball on which unfair means have been used, there is no provision in the law for recalling him to the crease from the pavilion.

Tampering with a ball is a condemnable game-changing offence which needs to be combated with stringent laws. And the law which handed du Plessis such a light sentence is a toothless one.

Sometimes, a controversy is needed to throw light on a particular subject. Moosajee said, “Regarding the issue around zips, I’m not sure many of you know that it has been outlawed by the ICC and each country has been given until 2015 to make sure that all their kit especially the trousers don’t have zips on it.

He added, “From the CSA perspective, our manufacturers have already begun the process and we will be making sure that we will meet this timeline.”

Law 42.3a (i) regarding fair and unfair play and the condition of the match ball says: “Any fielder may polish the ball provided that no artificial substance is used and that such polishing wastes no time.” A zipper is an artificial substance. Polishing the ball on it is not a case of “working on the ball” with saliva and other natural substances which a cricketer is allowed to employ.

Najam Sethi, the otherwise affable chairman of the PCB’s interim management committee, was unhappy with Boon’s findings. He demanded a clarification from the ICC since, according to him, the ball tampering rule had not been applied equally to all countries.

Pakistani cricketers themselves have been at the receiving end of more stringent punishments in the past. Shahid Afridi was banned for two Twenty20s in early 2010 for a ball-tampering offence. Television cameras had caught, on two occasions, Afridi attempting to bite the ball in the Australia-Pakistan ODI in Perth in 2010.

This time around, an angry PCB shot off a letter to the ICC on the inconsistent application of the ball tampering laws vis-à-vis different teams.

Defeat in the second Test apart, there were some gains for Pakistan from the series. After a phase when opening pairs appeared and then disappeared, Pakistan finally found a combination that put together a 125-run partnership in Abu Dhabi.

Khurram Manzoor (146) and 24-year-old debutant Shan Masood (75) built a platform against an incisive pace combination of Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel in a heart-warming association. The surface might have been on the slower side but these three top-notch South African pace-men in their own different ways impart plenty of work on the ball.

South Africa went into the match with left-arm spinning all-rounder Robin Peterson, ahead of attacking leg-spinner Imran Tahir, and paid the price. With the side’s 39-year-old skipper, Misbah-ul-Haq, continuing to defy age by notching up his fourth Test century, Pakistan consolidated.

For South Africa, Hashim Amla, still averaging over 50, the benchmark separating the ordinary from the extraordinary, came up with a quality hundred in the first innings and de Villiers fought hard in the second. The lack of partnerships, however, hurt the side. Even if the Pakistani batsmen, recovering from a shock Test defeat in Zimbabwe only days ago, set up the win, it was the bowlers who sealed it.

Beanpole pace-man Mohammad Irfan’s ability to extract bounce on any track with his height and high-arm pegged the South Africans back. And Saeed Ajmal struck with his turn and variations of which the doosra was a key element.

Newcomer Zulfiqar Babar, a left-arm spinner making his Test debut at 34, tangoed well with Ajmal. At the end of it all, Pakistan was home by a comfortable seven wickets.

South Africa, under Smith, is a resilient outfit. The side also made a critical change for the second Test by including the wicket-taking Tahir for Peterson.

Tahir, playing against his former countrymen, scalped eight in the Test, with a match-turning five-for in the first innings. The leggie, mixing his leg-spinners with the wrong ’uns, was a delight to watch. Actually, the match was decided on the first day when Pakistan was shot out for 99 in 36.4 overs, within an hour after lunch.

This Pakistani line-up, with just two experienced customers in skipper Misbah and Younis Khan, is prone to such collapses. “We do not have quality domestic cricket at home against good sides and this hurts our performances,” mulled Misbah. With virtually no international cricket at home, the Pakistani youngsters are a hard-hit lot.

South Africa cashed in on the advantage. Smith, returning to Tests in this series following a six-month injury lay-off, built a monumental 627-minute 234 of concentration, endurance and judicious stroke-play. And with de Villiers, striking a skilful 164 of light footwork, South Africa batted Pakistan out of the Test.

Against a probing pace attack led by Steyn and having to cope with Tahir’s leg-spin, Pakistan succumbed to the stress early on before a defiant Misbah (88) and the compact Asad Shafiq (130) offered stiff resistance.

The 27-year-old Asad is technically the most pleasing upcoming batsman from Pakistan and he reached his fourth Test hundred; this time against the finest side in the world. A lapse in concentration by Misbah against Dean Elgar’s part-time left-arm spin ended the partnership and hastened Pakistan’s end. South Africa was victorious by an innings and 92 runs.

Even as the two captains posed with the trophy after the series was levelled, disturbing questions on the ball tampering issue remained.