`It isn't cricket'

GLENN McGRATH... unerring accuracy.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

The reason why batsmen are doing so well at present is that the general quality of the bowling is very poor and accuracy, variation and imagination are almost things of the past.

Perhaps the strongest suggestion to come out of the reporting of Pakistan for ball tampering and the awarding of the final Test to England was made by Pakistan's English coach Bob Woolmer.

A very experienced coach and former Test cricketer, Woolmer's suggestion that ball tampering should be allowed goes against the spirit of the game, and all that has made the expression, "it isn't cricket" widely used throughout the world to signal unfair play.

Like the new 15-degree bent elbow, now allowed for bowlers with dubious action, it could only cause confusion and disharmony. It would also change — like the bent elbow — the balance between bat and ball.

The main platform for Woolmer's suggestion is that reverse swing was critical in maintaining the balance between bat and ball.

"I think the ball should swing and it doesn't really matter — as long as you are not using external implements like razor blades or bottle tops," he said. "Fingers, sweat and everything else mean that the ball should swing, otherwise it becomes totally a batsman's game. Nails are part of the body, if you can encourage the ball to swing that is good... for the art of cricket."

Wow! amazing stuff. But why, after 100 years plus and in an era which is claimed to be the most scientific and professional ever, do bowlers need outside aid and changes to the law when, for over a century, Test bowlers have used guile, skill, hard work and the mastery of line and length to obtain results?

Is it that the modern bowlers have lost all these abilities? Is it because coaches have followed fashion fads and theories to the detriment of good, old-fashioned technique and nous?

Why is reverse swing all the rage these days while traditional swing bowling is almost a forgotten art?

Is it because interfering with the ball — that means breaking the laws and spirit of the game — is making it too easy for bowlers to reverse swing? Or have the bowlers and coaches fine-tuned their actions to make it almost impossible to swing the ball in the legal and traditional ways?

I am all for innovations and new ideas, provided they are within the laws and spirit of the game. Bent elbows and mutilating the ball are not. As with the new bent elbow law, I cannot see Bob Woolmer's suggestion being in the best interest of the game.

Rather than suggesting ideas such as this I would recommend that the coaches concentrate on improving the fundamentals of bowling, such as line and length, variation of pace, legal swing and tactics.

Quite frankly the reason why batsmen are doing so well at present is that the general quality of the bowling is very poor and accuracy, variation and imagination are almost things of the past.

Australia's Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath are two great examples of bowlers keeping it simple. While Warne almost ripped the cover off the ball with his strong action to obtain incredible spin in his early years, these days he doesn't spin it as much, but still gets as many wickets.

He doesn't use a great deal of variation, with few flippers and wrong 'uns, but still mesmerises the batsmen with his mastery of the basics and his ability to bowl fewer bad balls than any wrist spinner in the history of the game.

McGrath doesn't swing the ball a mile or even cut it in or out a yard. Neither is he lightning quick nor has he a searing bouncer. Yes, he has a nice variation, but his great skill is unerring accuracy and the ability to apply great pressure on the batsmen on any wicket. He is perhaps the simplest of all the new ball bowlers I have ever seen and one of the greatest.

Once you fiddle with the laws and the spirit of the game, you are in great danger of doing the game irreparable harm. Nothing illustrates this better than when almost every English county fiddled with their wickets to produce or manufacture results in the three days that were allocated for county cricket.

Most of the time it was obviously done to assist their team and many groundsmen have told me that for over a decade they were given instructions by the committee or management as to the kind of wicket to prepare and this was generally governed by what type of bowlers the opposition team had. The thinking and excuse was, it is the right of the home team to prepare whatever wicket it wants. I cannot agree with this, as it is tantamount to cheating.

The responsibility of a groundsman is to produce the best pitch possible in the interest of the game. Unfortunately for English cricket these mischievous tactics misfired, much to the detriment of the game and quality of their cricketers.

Invariably, with so much fiddling going on with the wicket, the quality of the surface and the skills of the groundsmen deteriorated. This benefited military medium seamers, who only had to land the ball somewhere near the good length and the uneven pitch would do the rest. The net result was that both the bowlers and the batsmen suffered and the quality of English cricket was badly damaged.

A change to four days and instructions to prepare "proper" pitches and penalising those teams that don't comply by deducting points has helped the problem, but it has taken nearly two decades to get English cricket back on track.

Reverse swing can be part of the armoury of medium and fast bowlers, but it must be done without illegal manipulation. Sure, there will be times when pitches won't scuff the ball up a great deal. Sure green wickets keep the ball newer for longer periods and this is when genuine swing will be possible for most of the day. If the pitch is very dry it will enable to flake a crack and this is when good accurate spinners come into their own.

Theory has it that a Test pitch should start with life on the first day and give the new ball bowlers some assistance. The second and third days should be good for batting and day four should begin to take spin and become a little more up and down. Day five should aid the spinners and also become more up and down to make batting more difficult. In theory, this seems to be okay but you seldom get the perfect balance.

Sometimes the pitch will give too much help to the new ball bowlers. Sometimes the spinners can come into the game earlier while sometimes the wicket is perfect for batting and runs come easy.

I have yet to meet anyone who can accurately predict how a properly prepared pitch will play. And this is why all Test players, whether they are batsmen or bowlers, have to develop the skills and temperament to handle all situations.

To allow ball tampering would mean unfair advantage to the pace and medium pace bowlers and we shouldn't consider this as a way to even out the balance.

Test cricket has always been a great contest between batsmen and bowlers. Sometimes the bowlers dominate, such as when the West Indies were in full cry, sometimes the batsmen strike it rich.

Nature, more often than not, dictates this and it would be a great pity if artificial laws are introduced to sway the balance.