Controversy: Ball Tampering – the seamy side of cricket
The claim was that Peter Siddle had used his fingernails to raise the seam of the ball in the 88th over of Sri Lanka’s first innings © Getty Images
Australia’s 137-run victory over Sri Lanka in the recently-concluded first Test match at Bellerive Oval, Hobart, was marred by allegations of ball tampering, with accusing fingers being pointed at Australian fast bowler and player of the match Peter Siddle, who returned match figures of nine for 104.
The claim was that Siddle had used his fingernails to raise the seam of the ball in the 88th over of Sri Lanka’s first innings. “All that happened is we have had informal chats with the match referee about what we saw on TV — everybody saw it — and we just asked what you are going to do about it, that’s all,” Sri Lanka’s team manager Charith Senanayake was reported to have told an Australian newspaper. “It’s unofficial, but it’s on video and the whole world has seen it, so let’s see what action they will take.”
In the event, Siddle was cleared of ball tampering charges, with the International Cricket Council (ICC) and the match referee, Chris Broad, seeking to put a lid on the controversy, claiming that there was no evidence to suggest that the ball had been doctored. Siddle, predictably, rubbished the claim as ridiculous, and his captain Michael Clarke backed the bowler, insisting that his side knew what was acceptable on the field.
While it is a matter of conjecture as to whether Siddle altered the condition of the ball or not, the controversy has yet again revived the age-old debate on a vexing issue that has been one of cricket’s worst kept secrets: ball tampering.
Ball tampering refers to attempts by a bowler or a fielder to alter the condition of the ball, which include, among others, pulling the main seam using finger nails or objects, lifting the quarter seam, rubbing the ball on the ground, pressing the ball using spikes, and applying foreign substances like petroleum jelly, hair gel, lip balm, and skin cream to polish the ball with the intent to gain an unfair advantage over the batsmen (a tampered ball, for instance, could swing in the air or seam off the pitch, giving an edge to the bowler). Ball tampering is viewed as an unethical and unfair practice, and in plain terms, as cheating.
While Law 42.3a (of Cricket) allows the bowler/fielder to polish the ball provided that no artificial substance is used and that such polishing wastes no time, remove mud from the ball under the supervision of the umpire, and dry a wet ball using a piece of cloth, Law 42.3b is very clear about what constitutes ball tampering: “It is unfair for anyone to rub the ball on the ground for any reason, to interfere with any of the seams or the surface of the ball, to use any implement, or to take any other action whatsoever which is likely to alter the condition of the ball, except as permitted in (a) above.”
Law 42.3c requires the umpires to make “frequent and irregular inspections of the ball” and “change the ball forthwith” (42.3d) if they feel that “the deterioration in the condition of the ball is greater than is consistent with the use it has received.” The law further empowers the umpires to award, on detecting a case of ball tampering, five penalty runs to the batting side, ask the captain of the bowling side to remove the bowler from the attack, and report the matter to the governing body.
Though instances of ball tampering have come down, thanks to the advancement in the telecasting technology, it has not prevented some bowlers from resorting to doctoring the ball to gain the upper hand in what has increasingly come to be viewed as a batsman’s game.
Former Pakistan speedster Waqar Younis was forthright: “To be really honest, I’m not surprised [l’affaire Siddle]. If people want to close their eyes and say, ‘Oh, it’s not happening and cricket is very clean,’ you’re kidding me, that’s rubbish.”
The latest episode in the saga of ball tampering must have evoked a feeling of déjà vu in Waqar, for he has the dubious distinction of being the first bowler to be ‘punished’ for ball tampering. In 2000, he was handed a one-match ban and a fine of 50 per cent of his match fee for lifting the seam of the ball in a One-Day International against South Africa in the Singer Cup series in Sri Lanka.
In Waqar’s view, “tampering with the ball has been part of cricket for the last 100 years, maybe more…There’s some sort of tampering going on. If you go back to the 1960s and 1970s, you’d see players putting Vaseline on the ball, people eating mints and putting their saliva on the ball, or picking at the seam. There is heaps going on,” he said, adding that different players used different ways to tamper with the ball.
And Waqar did not shy away from naming names: “If you come to the subcontinent and the pitches they play (on), you still see people throwing the ball around on the ground, trying to scuff it up as soon as possible. The England team does it.” He further said that when Australia was playing recently in Abu Dhabi, where he had gone as a commentator, “it [ball tampering] was happening then.”
Having made his point, Waqar added tongue firmly in cheek that he was happy that the recent accusation of ball tampering was not against a team from the subcontinent: “Sometimes they pick on certain teams. It’s good that it’s happened in another part of the world other than the subcontinent. All I’m saying, when this happened during our time, I don’t know if it was to do with we coming from the subcontinent and we were just too good and people didn’t like that.”
There is a grain of truth in what Waqar says about the different yardsticks — one for teams from the subcontinent and another for teams from the rest of the world — used by the ICC and the match referees when it comes to dealing with alleged cases of ball tampering. A quick look at some of the reported instances of ball tampering does reveal the extant prejudice and partiality.
About a quarter century before Waqar was given a one-match ban for doctoring the ball, in a much-publicised instance of ball tampering, English pace bowler John Lever was accused of using Vaseline to swing the ball on Indian pitches when England toured India in 1976-77. England’s first series win against India in India since the Second World War was then ruined by claims by the hosts that Lever applied Vaseline (present in the strip of surgical gauze he was wearing on his forehead to avoid sweat from running into his eyes) to a side of the ball to make it swing viciously. Though Lever was reported by umpire Judah Reuben during the series for wearing the strip of surgical gauze impregnated with Vaseline, which the umpire felt was a breach of Law 46, nothing came off it, as Lever was let off amid claims and counterclaims, and Lever’s series haul of 26 wickets remains tainted by the smell of Vaseline.
And when former England captain Michael Atherton was caught applying something on the ball by television cameras in a Test match against South Africa at Lord’s in 1994, he had a ready explanation: he was just using the dirt in his pocket to dry his hands. Atherton’s version was accepted without much ado, and he was allowed to get away with a fine of £2,000 for failing to disclose that he was carrying dirt in his pocket.
However, players from the subcontinent were not that lucky. Sachin Tendulkar’s standing in cricket and track record of commendable on-field conduct did not prevent match referee Mike Denness from imposing on Tendulkar a fine of 75 per cent of his match fee and a one-match ban for alleged ball tampering in the second Test between South Africa and India in Port Elizabeth in November 2001. Tendulkar’s explanation that he had just removed the grass stuck on the ball was not accepted by Denness. Though the ICC later announced, after a huge public outcry in India, that Tendulkar’s offence was cleaning the ball without the umpire’s permission rather than ball tampering, the incident served to highlight the bias against players from the subcontinent.
Allegation of ball tampering in the fourth and final Test match between England and Pakistan at Oval, London, in 2006, was by far the most serious. On-field umpires, Darrell Hair and Billy Doctrove, concluded, when England was batting the second time, that the Pakistani team had altered the condition of the ball and awarded five penalty runs to England and replaced the ball. When the Pakistani team refused to take the field, alleging discrimination, the umpires awarded the match as a forfeit to England. While the umpires’ report on the match was never released, the ICC, curiously, changed the result of the controversial Test from an English victory to a draw in 2008, only to go back on its own decision a year later to rule that the original result (English victory) would stand.
In the light of such actual and alleged discriminations along racial lines, perhaps it would not be a bad idea if the International Cricket Council (ICC) considered designating at least one on-field umpire from the subcontinent for matches involving subcontinent teams, to avoid accusations of racial factors influencing officials’ decision. The ICC may also appoint two match referees instead of just one, with one of them chosen from the subcontinent, to oversee a match. The decision by such a two-member panel is bound to be more democratic and less arbitrary than that by a single referee. After all, as Lord Hewart put it, “justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done.”
(Venkatesan Iyengar was a speedster who could swing the ball both ways. He captained his school team at the zonal and district levels. His boyhood dream was to open the bowling for Team India in the august company of his idol Kapil Dev. Even today the sight of Kapil makes him nostalgic)