The seamy side of cricket

CRICKET is soft on offenders. Those who break the law often get off scot-free. And, yes, the game continues to suffer.

S. DINAKAR

Shoaib Akhtar... punished for altering the condition of the ball. — Pic. AFP-

CRICKET is soft on offenders. Those who break the law often get off scot-free. And, yes, the game continues to suffer.

Just consider this scenario. It is the decisive league match of a three-nation tournament. Team `B' has to beat Team `A' to qualify. Otherwise, Team `C' progresses at the expense of the former. Team `A' is coasting to a win. Enter a furiously fast bowler. He strikes deadly blows, turns the contest on its head and Team `B' makes the final. In the same game, the fast bowler is also reported by the umpires for tampering with the ball.

Sri Lanka had every reason to feel hard done by when Shoaib Akhtar's final burst played a significant part in Pakistan's win over New Zealand in the key league encounter in Dambulla.

Especially, when the bowler in question was discovered by the television cameras as having altered the condition of the ball, and reported by the umpires for a `heinous' cricketing crime. Match Referee Gundappa Viswanath's two-match suspension of Shoaib, a very light punishment for a very big offence, might have denied Pakistan its strike bowler in the final. But, should Rashid Latif's men have got to the summit clash at all?

If illegal tactics are found to have been used, then the International Cricket Council (ICC) should devise ways and means to stop a team in its tracks, not the bowler alone. Sri Lanka, ultimately, lost out in a close race to making the final, with Shoaib's `ball-tampering' playing a no small part in it. Shoaib might have been banned for two matches, but it was no consolation for the host nation that stood eliminated.

Unless the ICC takes the punishment for ball tampering — even in individual cases the ban must be at least six months to one year and not just a handful of matches — to another level by pulling a team out of a tournament, one of the oldest bugbears in cricket will continue.

Indeed, way back in 1925, a player — not named in the records — was accused of tampering with the ball during a county tussle between Middlesex and Worcestershire. Then Alfred Myann, a prominent bowler of those times was accused of raising the seam.

And in 1931, the Australian Cricket Board banned the use of resin by bowlers. It was believed that one of the greatest bowlers in cricketing history, Sydney Barnes, kept resin in his pocket.

It was alleged that Jack White, an effective spinner during his time, raised the seam during the 1928-29 Ashes series down under. And during MCC's tour of South Africa in 1948-49, Doug Wright was asked to put an end to his practice of licking his hand before every delivery.

Law 42.5 clearly said, `No one shall rub the ball on the ground, or use any other artificial substance or take any other action to alter the condition of the ball.'

John Lever was certainly charged with `using artificial substance' by the Indian captain Bishan Singh Bedi during England's 1976-77 tour of India, when the Essex left-armer swung the ball prodigiously in the dry Indian conditions. The Indians were surprised at the amount of movement Lever was managing to gain.

The needle of suspicion pointed towards Lever and his headband. The great Vaseline controversy generated much heat, grabbed the headlines, created much acrimony between the two sides, and ultimately cost Bedi, always outspoken, his contract with Northamptonshire.

It is not clear, as yet, as to how much the substance, if at all it was vaseline, enabled the ball to swing. However, in the 90s, Lever and Derek Pringle, another Essex and English paceman, admitted to tampering with the ball in their careers. It's no coincidence that Keith Fletcher, an integral part of the English teams of the 70s, was the long-standing Essex captain.

Pakistan has a rather dubious record of doctoring a cricket ball with Sarfaraz Nawaz, that huge Punjabi, having the reputation of being the daddy of them all. He got the old ball to swing wickedly, and there indeed were several instances when he would run through sides after the tea break, with a ball that had seen more than 50 overs. The Australian team of the 70s would tell you how Sarfaraz once demolished them in the last session of the final day to end up with nine wickets.

It is widely believed that Sarfaraz passed on his knowledge to the rest of the Pakistani pacemen. Indeed, when India toured Pakistan in 1982-83, Imran Khan and Sarfaraz Nawaz were able to obtain extraordinary movement, that left the Indians baffled. Those were the days when at least in the sub-continental conditions, there would be movement for the pacemen only due to early morning moisture.

All this changed in the Lahore Test, the second of the series, where Imran destroyed the Indian first innings with an astonishing post-tea spell with a ball that was by no means new. Poor Gundappa Viswanath will never forget that delivery. The classy right-hander shouldered arms to a ball that pitched wide outside his off-stump only to see it swing back venomously to castle him. That dismissal set the tone for the series. Imran was among the wickets in a big way, Sarfaraz troubled the batsmen no end, and Pakistan triumphed convincingly. Tongues had also started wagging.

While there is no denying that Imran and Sarfaraz were quality pacemen in their own right, so were Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, the next generation of Pakistan speedsters. But, was their wicket-taking ability enhanced by the picking of the seam, or the scuffing up of the ball?

Imran's confession after retirement that he did experiment with ball-tampering by using a bottle top during one of Sussex's county games, added fuel to the fire. Here was one of the legends of the game, a match-winning all-rounder and a fine leader of men, admitting to a grave cricketing misadventure. And the Pakistani's statement that he did it only once in his career, did not prevent him from coming under a mountain of criticism. The doubts over the tactics adopted by the Pakistani bowlers only increased.

When Imran alleged that off-spinner Jim Laker's 19-wicket Test haul against Australia at Old Trafford in 1956 was helped by a raised seam, the accusation provoked a sharp reaction from the English establishment that ridiculed the Pakistani's charges. There had already been considerable acrimo<147,2,1>ny between some of the English and Pakistani cricketers during the 1992 series in the Old Blighty where the phenomenon of reverse swing caught the cricketing world's attention. This was achieved by retaining the shine on one side of the ball while making the other rough; one half of the ball was heavier than the other, and it would, thus, swing the other way.

This also meant that reverse swing could only be achieved with an old ball, and preferably on a dry wicket with not too much grass on the outfield. This would enable one side to roughen up quickly. In fact, the entire team often worked on a ball, shining it on one side.

The batsman would expect the ball to swing away from him, but it would zip into him out of nowhere. The very nature of this delivery meant that it would be most effective in the form of a yorker.

Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis were masters of this delivery, so much so that the English camp in '92 believed they were resorting to means that were not always fair. Things came to a boil during the Lord's ODI that followed the Test series won by Pakistan 2-1, where umpires Ken Palmer and John Hampshire replaced the ball during the England innings. The Englishmen were convinced that the ball had been tampered with. Allan Lamb, it was, who informed the English media about the incident, and soon, he did write in the tabloid, Daily Mirror, that "Breaking the laws and getting away with it is cheating. When I went in to bat and saw them up to their old tricks, I objected to umpires Palmer and Hampshire. I pointed to the scuffmarks and told the two to keep an eye on them. The marks had grown alarmingly by lunch."

For his revelations to the press, Lamb was fined �5000 by the English establishment. To make matters worse, he and legendary all-rounder Ian Botham lost a court battle on the ball-tampering issue, where Imran Khan was the central figure.

The fair name of English cricket was also sprinkled with considerable dirt when Michael Atherton was nabbed by the television cameras when he put his hand in his pocket and rubbed one side of the ball.

Indeed, more cameras, more angles, and more replays meant more trouble for the offenders.

When Match Referee Peter Burge questioned Atherton during the Lord's Test against South Africa in '94, the English captain pleaded innocence, and was let off. Then, when the chairman of English selectors, Ray Illingworth, demanded to know the complete truth, Atherton did admit in a press conference that he had sand in his pocket with which he dried his hand before drying the ball.

The argument did not sound convincing though and there was a feeling that the ball had been gouged up on one side. Despite `dirt in his pockets' Atherton stayed on as skipper, after having to cough up �2000 as fine. There were references though in the English media that it had been an `unfamiliar action' and that the skipper had been `eco<147,3,7>nomical with the truth.'

Atherton may have survived the storm but ball-tampering continued to stay in the news. Kiwi paceman Chris Pringle, after a seven-wicket innings haul, declared that he had done so by following the methods of the Pakistani bowlers. Danny Morrison, a much quicker paceman from Kiwiland, achieved considerable reverse swing on certain occasions, drawing attention.

Towards the end of the 90s, Waqar Younis was pulled up by Match Referee John Reid in Sri Lanka for `scratching at the ball.' The debate started again. How far can a bowler go in a batsman's game?

Sachin Tendulkar, too was captured by the cameras as running his fingers along the seam during the Port Elizabeth Test of 2001. Tendulkar explained that he was only trying to get rid of the dirt on the ball. Even if that were to be true, the Indian superstar had committed the technical error of not informing the umpire beforehand.

Tendulkar was fined 75 per cent of his match fee and handed a one-match suspended ban by Match Referee Mike Denness. That was a Test where five other Indians were punished by the former England captain for either excessive appealing or show of dissent. This episode revealed that Match Referees did have different yardsticks for different teams.

It must not be forgotten here that Indian swing bowler Manoj Prabhakar was hauled up in a domestic match during the 90s for tampering with the ball. And he was probably the first Indian paceman who knew more than a thing or two about reverse swing!

And now Shoaib is in the eye of the storm for a level two offence under the International Cricket Council's Code of Conduct. The paceman with a doubtful action is no stranger to controversies, and, in fact, had been severely warned by Match Referee Clive Lloyd for tampering with the ball during the series in Zimbabwe last season.

Indeed, the list of `ball tamperers' includes a few illustrious names. Some of the biggest and the fastest. From Sydney Barnes to Shoaib Akhtar... it's the seamy side cricket could have done without.