Smelling the ball, raising a stink

It was not a case of hunger-pangs gone astray. Shahid Afridi’s act of biting the ball during the fifth and final match of the ODI series against Australia at Perth on January 31, was a deliberate act that went against the spirit of the game. Afridi initially tried to deflect attention with his ‘I-was-just-smelling-the-ball’ line. The pressure of conscience egged on by 26 television cameras, eventually forced Afridi to admit his guilt though he added a rider that all teams do ball-tampering. That he was leading Pakistan in the absence of regular skipper Mohammad Yousuf, made it worse for the Pathan.

The ICC slapped a two-match ban for the subsequent Twenty20 games after Afridi pleaded guilty to violating article 2.2.9 of the code of conduct after being charged with “changing the condition of the ball in breach of Law 42.3" by umpires Asoka de Silva and Paul Reiffel. “I imposed the maximum penalty under the code,” said match referee Ranjan Madugalle though a school of thought believes that Afridi got away lightly.

Amidst the clamour for Afridi’s head, former Pakistan captain Rameez Raja begged to differ. While admitting that Afridi had done something daft, Raja said in his column that Afridi is part of a culture that believes in ‘maintaining the ball’ as that is a viable option on unhelpful pitches. Later Raja whispered the same words on a television show and an incensed Bishan Singh Bedi shot back: “Does Afridi have a mind? Cricket has always been a batsman’s game but that doesn’t mean that you can tamper with the ball!” Another former Indian cricketer quipped: “You can imagine what used to happen when television cameras were not around.”

The truth is ball-tampering and bent-elbows have been part of cricket’s under-belly and when someone is caught in the act, the initial ploy is to do some posturing, projecting injured-innocence. The conventional method of using saliva and sweat to keep the shine on one side while letting the other half get roughed up during course of play to aid reverse swing, has been accepted as legal. The trouble however starts when eager fielders use long finger nails, hidden bottle tops or any other foreign object to alter the state of the ball.

The allegations of ball-tampering did the rounds when Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis yorked England in 1992 but soon the talk died down and focus shifted to the art of reverse swing. Sadly Afridi’s latest misdemeanour falls into a set-pattern that has shadowed Pakistan’s path in cricket. In 2006, Inzamam-ul-Haq’s men failed to turn up after tea on the fourth day of the Oval Test protesting over the allegations of ball-tampering against them and umpires Darrell Hair and Billy Doctrove declared that Pakistan had forfeited the game.

May be this is Pakistan’s hour of shame but it would be well-worth remembering that even men of proven stature like Sachin Tendulkar (finger-nails), Rahul Dravid (lozenges) and Michael Atherton (dirt in the pocket) have had allegations of ball-tampering levelled against them in the past, though they were never proved. And who can forget John Lever’s devious use of vaseline?