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Last Updated Monday May 25 2020 07:32 AM IST

High time Australia embraced a refreshing change

Dr K N Raghavan
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High time Australia embraced a refreshing change The ball-tampering scandal received worldwide media attention. AFP

Law 41.3.2 of Laws of Cricket states that it is unfair for any player to take any action to change the condition of the match ball. The same law also states that a fielder can polish the ball on his dress or clothing provided no artificial substance is used. The law also permits a fielder to clean the dirt from the ball provided it is done under the supervision of the umpires and to dry a wet ball using a piece of cloth that has been approved by the umpires. Law 41.3.3 states that umpires should consider that condition of ball has been unfairly changed if actions by any of the fielders are not in conformity with Law 41.3.2. The gist of these provisions is that there are very clear dos and don’ts when it comes to preserving the condition of the match ball and players should always be careful not to do anything that would cause contravention of the same.

It is not difficult to guess the reason behind the strict laws governing the subject. The International Cricket Council (ICC) was faced with the menace of “ball tampering” during the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the concept of “reverse swing” gained prominence. There were widespread allegations that certain teams were tampering with the condition of match ball by polishing it using hair gel/oil or scruffing it with nails/rough objects or lifting the seam of the ball. The objective of making one side of the ball too smooth and the other one too rough is to alter the aerodynamics of the ball and cause it to swing in a prodigious manner.

Vaseline incident

The first instance in international cricket when a bowler was accused of tampering the condition of the match ball happened when England, under Tony Greig, toured India in 1976-77. During the third Test of the series that India lost 1-3, John Lever, the left-arm medium-pace bowler of the tourists, was found throwing away a vaseline gauze from his eye brows. This was picked up by the umpires who wanted to find out why this was used. Lever and England team tried to shrug it off saying that it was to prevent sweat from falling into the eyes. Indian skipper Bishan Singh Bedi, however, did not take this excuse and alleged that Lever had used the vaseline to shine the ball to get it to swing more. The fact that Lever, a bowler who had a very average track record in first class cricket till that series, could sow panic in the Indian ranks by taking 13 wickets in the first Test at Delhi lent credence to Bedi’s contention. Englishmen were outraged at being called “cheats” and Bedi lost a lucrative county contract in the aftermath of this issue. But it remains a fact that Lever was not the same force during the remaining two Tests of the series, out of which India won one match.

 'Art' of reverse swing

This incident apart, it is widely held that Sarfraz Nawaz, the Pakistani seam bowler, who is credited with discovering the “art” of reverse swing of cricket ball is also eligible for being known as the father of “science" of ball tampering. While Lever was alleged to have tried to get some extra shine and polish on one side of the ball, Pakistanis, led by Sarfraz, started roughening up one side and lifting the seam with their nails so as to get even better dividends. This started yielding amazing results as batsmen the world over found it impossible to judge the way the ball would swing in air and move off the seam. Imran Khan, along with Sarfraz, ran through the Indian batting line-up when they toured Pakistan in 1982-83. Earlier, Sarfraz had picked up seven wickets conceding just one run in a spell, against Australia at Melbourne in 1979, to clinch a 71-run win for his side.

Sarfraz Nawaz Sarfraz Nawaz is credited with discovering the 'art' of reverse swing. AFP

From the 1990s onwards, the ICC became more strict about ball tampering. Simultaneously, the presence of television cameras all around the stadium that picked up even the minute actions of the players, brought to the attention of officials and spectators attempts by players to alter the condition of the ball. In 1994, Michael Atherton, then leading England, was accused of tampering with the condition of the ball when cameras found him picking up dirt kept inside his pant pocket and rubbing the ball with it. Atherton later claimed that he had kept dirt in his pocket to keep his hands dry for which he was imposed a fine by the match referee.

Pakistan were at the centre of a controversy involving ball tampering during their tour of England in 2006, when umpires imposed a five- run penalty on them and changed the match ball with the replacement ball being picked up by English batsman at the crease, as stipulated by the laws. However, the Pakistanis refused to continue the match after the next interval though they played after the incident till the break. Umpires awarded the match to England in terms of law 21.3 stating that Pakistan had refused to continue with the game. The cricket administrators of England and Pakistan tried to work out a compromise but the umpires refused to budge, which led to a bigger crisis and the match was finally called off. For a long time there existed a confusion regarding the result of the match and it was finally decided by ICC that this Test would be treated as drawn.

After this incident, there have been a few occasions when players were found guilty of ball tampering and awarded punishments. Surprisingly, South African players were the ones to be found guilty during the last three occasions when such instances came to light. This indicated that rather than the incidence of this malpractice coming down, it was spreading to all sides and players were finding more ingenious ways for indulging in this form of misdemeanour.

Tempestuous series

The ongoing Test series between Australia and South Africa had attracted attention on account of the gamesmanship indulged in by both the sides which often crossed the line of fair play. South African players and crowds showed in no uncertain terms that they were not prepared to forgive David Warner for his action in attempting to get physical with Quinton de Kock outside the playing arena. The near constant barracking of their players by the crowds angered the Aussie team management and led to nasty comments from their side. Hence, when the present ball-tampering crisis broke out, Australians found that very few had any sympathies for them, given their attitude on and off the field.

The incident that took place during the third day of the third Test at Cape Town was an attempt by Aussies to gain an advantage over their opponents by indulging in unfair play. During the break for lunch on that day, Australia were in a spot of bother with the match slipping out of their hands. The “leadership group” consisting of captain Steve Smith and vice-captain Warner decided to indulge in a bit of unfair play by scruffing the ball a bit to help their swing bowlers. This task was given to Cameron Bancroft, the junior most member of the side, who had shown remarkable amount of energy in executing the mind games designed by his side against the opponents.

Television footage showed Bancroft using a yellow object, which was placed inside his pocket, to rub the rough side of the ball. This, by itself was suspicious, as players are allowed by the laws only to polish the ball to impart more shine, which is done on the smoother side of the ball. Replays also showed Bancroft pushing this yellow object inside his underpants, after being spoken to by substitute Peter Handscomb, who was seen taking directions from coach Darenn Lehmann. The inference one got from this sequence was that Lehmann, sitting in pavilion saw TV cameras pick up the act of Bancroft and sent message to him, through Handscomb, to be careful, which prompted the player to hide the object used for scruffing the ball within his underpants. Later, umpires, presumably on directions received from match referee over walkie-talkie, called Bancroft and spoke to him and the player was seen to take out a black cloth, the kind used to clean sun glasses, from his pocket and wave it. Umpires inspected the ball but did not change it; nor did they dock the player for ball tampering. Hence one has to presume that Bancroft’s efforts to change the condition of the ball were not successful.

However, the TV replays led to a very intense discussion among the commentators, all of who felt that something was amiss. This was confirmed by Aussie skipper when he met the media, in the company of Bancroft, and admitted that attempt to tamper the ball was made with the approval of “leadership group”. While stating that he regretted the action, Smith also claimed that this was the first time such a thing had happened under his command. He further asserted that he would not step down from captaincy as he believed that he was the best person to lead the side.

As expected all hell broke loose after this candid admission. No less a person than Malcolm Turnbull, the prime minister of Australia, came out in the open expressing his shock and disappointment over the fact that national cricket team was caught cheating. The Australian Sports Council, the government body in charge of sports, took the cue from the statement of prime minister and sought that Smith be stood down as captain. These developments left Cricket Australia (CA) with little option other than announcing the removal of Smith and his deputy Warner from their posts. Tim Paine was appointed to lead the side for the remainder of the match. For the record, Australia lost the Test by 322 runs.

Smith was handed out a one-match suspension by the ICC while Bancroft was docked two penalty points. Smith, Warner and Bancroft were removed from the squad for the remaining part of the tour, their replacements flown in and Paine asked to lead the side. The CA instituted an inquiry and handed out one-year suspension to Smith and Warner while Bancroft was banned for nine months. Though there were demands in media seeking sacking of Lehmann, as available evidence indicated that he was the one who saw the TV replays and asked Handscomb to convey the message to Bancroft to be cautious, the inquiry by CA found that he was not in the know of things. However, Lehmann subsequently announced his decision to step down from the job after the ongoing series, owning “moral responsibility” for the episode.

One would wonder why this episode has created such an uproar when earlier instances of ball tampering by other sides had passed off without generating headline stories. Australia had, of late, been playing particularly aggressive form of cricket making no bones about the fact that they were indulging in a no holds barred battle with their opponents. Mental disintegration of the key players of the opposition was one of the tactics employed by Aussies in their quest for supremacy. This involved sledging of batsmen as well as provoking members of other sides to an extent that they misbehaved and attracted punishments. Further, the body language of the entire team conveyed to the public public an image of arrogance bordering on boorishness. The ongoing series saw Warner coming close to getting physical with de Kock and the Australian batsmen, in particular Smith, deliberately provoking Kagiso Rabada to misbehave. These instances were seen by the public as examples of the below the belt tactics employed by Aussies in their quest for winning matches at all costs. This approach had made the team extremely unpopular world over, despite the impressive string of victories that they had gathered.

The second reason could be attributed to the fact that this was not the act of a single player in a moment of “brain fade”, but was planned and executed with the full knowledge and approval of the team management. This indicates that the captain and his aides had no qualms about indulging in unfair play in order to win the match. No lover of any sport would be able to pardon the nonchalant attitude on the part of team management about breaking the laws on the sly, which would tantamount to cheating. Such an approach by the champion side of the game would be akin to ringing the death knells for the sport.

Need of the hour

As the dust settles on the controversy, Australian cricketers should contemplate seriously about continuing with the strategy of playing mind games and attempting mental disintegration of opponents. They would do well to remember that champion sides do not win merely matches, they also conquer the hearts of the spectators and sports lovers. The West Indies team of 1980s, Don Bradman’s all- conquering side of 1940s and the Aussie squad led by Richie Benaud during the early 1960s were respected and adored wherever they played on account of the quality of cricket on display, the dignity with which they carried themselves and the high standards of ethics and sportsman spirit they adhered to. One would expect the Australian cricket administration to utilise this opportunity to impress on their players to follow the footsteps of these heroes and be worthy of emulation, rather than restrict their efforts solely to winning matches.

As Michael Hussey put it so poignantly in an article recently, at the end of the day no one remembers you for the runs you scored or the wickets you took or the wins and losses you had, people will only remember how you played. All aspiring sportspersons would do well to remember the dictum that what sets apart true champions from the rest are strength of character, ability to display grace and poise under pressure and the respect earned from compatriots and public; the records created as well as the victories and defeats are bound to be forgotten sooner than later.

(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)

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