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Shahid Afridi has a cricket ball as an on-field snack!

On-field umpires Asoka de Silva and Paul Reiffel speak to Shahid Afridi (right) © Getty Images
On-field umpires Asoka de Silva and Paul Reiffel speak to Shahid Afridi (right) © Getty Images

On January 31, 2010, Shahid Afridi added a new dimension to the dark art of ball tampering by sinking his teeth into the white kookaburra. Arunabha Sengupta recalls the bizarre day that saw the acting captain of Pakistan banned for two Twenty 20 Internationals.

Tooth, claw and bottle-caps

Cricketers have often used the caps of soft drink bottles, sandpaper, and sometimes their carefully grown nails to scruff up one side of the ball or to raise the seam. Around the world bowlers and fielders had taken the help of dirt, Vaseline, raisin and other ingenious foreign substances to alter the condition of the ball. But, on January 31, 2010, an entirely new chapter was added to the scrupulously detailed book of Pakistani aerodynamics.

Not that the cricket ball had always been protected from threatening fangs. In late 1998, in the New Wanderers, when Pat Symcox had run around the fine leg boundary trying to cut off a leg side hoick of Ridley Jacobs, one had seen the spinner suddenly pull away and sprint in a largely different direction. He had excellent reasons for the change of course and sudden acceleration. As he had neared the ball, a rather enthusiastic German Shepherd Dog, a noble member of the Johannesburg canine police force, had become animated at the sight of the fast travelling red cherry and had started to bound towards it. The restraining leash in the hand of the dutiful accompanying officer had prevented this excellent animal from stealing a march on Shahid Afridi in international cricket.

A visibly shaken Symcox had retrieved the ball, proceeded to the wicket to start a new over, and breathlessly remarked to umpire Cyril Mitchley, “The dog almost bit me.” And sharp as a tack, Mitchley had retorted that the dog had more sense than to contract rabies by chomping on a mouthful of Pat Symcox.

In First-Class cricket, however, someone had beaten Afridi to the post. Three years after the scary moment for Pat Symcox, Yorkshire’s Richard Blakey had swept Surrey’s Saqlain Mushtaq to the long-leg boundary of the Guildford Cricket Club ground. The ball had rolled over the ropes and into the press tent, and there had been some inexplicable delay before it had been returned. Surrey skipper Adam Hollioake had then noticed signs of some serious tampering – the ball was wet and pierced, almost mangled. It was discovered to be the work of a certain Bumper, the beloved Labrador of Geoffrey Dean of Times.  When the ball had rolled in, the happy hound had bounded after it with the unexpected delight at finally coming across a game known to him. Soon he had aptly retrieved it following the glorious and honourable traditions of his breed.

However, the only canine interventions on this epochal day at Perth were rooted firmly beside the incisors.

The sorry saga

Things were not going well for Pakistan and Shahid Afridi. The team had been blanked 3-0 in the Test series and had lost four One-Day Internationals (ODIs) on the trot. Just before the fifth and final ODI at the Western Australia Cricket Association ground, captain Mohammad Yousuf suffered a knee injury. Afridi, not quite in the best of form, was asked to lead the side.

The stand-in skipper won the spin of the coin, but things started falling apart immediately after that. Openers Salman Butt and Khalid Latif lasted five balls each without making any impression on the scoreboard. After 11 balls the score read two wickets for no run.

It was only due to a fighting 82-run fifth wicket partnership between Umar Akmal and Fawad Alam that the innings recovered somewhat before stuttering and stumbling to 212. Afridi himself managed just one solitary run before top edging a scythe like pull.

Fighting tooth and claw

After Mohammad Asif had helped check the Australians during the opening stages, the skipper brought himself on in the 17th over with the score on 66 for two. Off his third ball, Cameron White slogged a six over mid-wicket. But the Pakistan all-rounder struck back with his fifth delivery, bowling White off an inside edge.

The Pakistanis got the whiff of a win – something that had been incredibly rare that wretched Australian summer. The captain continued to bowl a steady line as Ricky Ponting and Adam Voges built a partnership.

From the other end Shoaib Malik struck with his off-breaks. Both Ponting and Voges were scalped by the off-spinner. And off the last ball of his spell, Afridi got James Hopes caught in the slip. He finished with excellent figures of two for 31 from his 10 overs. The score was 150 for six at the end of the 39th. The Pakistanis were charged up: Afridi’s face told the story of his zeal; he wanted his team to win, just this one match. It had been too long.

Michael Hussey and Mitchell Johnson now slowly nudged the score along. And as Mohammad Asif came back to try and get another wicket, Afridi’s jaw was set with the determination to win. The only flaw was that the ball was lodged there somewhere.

From the footage that was shown on the television some overs later, it seemed that the Pakistan captain, in a trancelike state, had chomped down on the ball. Several replays captured him standing on the ground, palms near his face, and half the ball inside his mouth.

The game went on. In the 44th over Rana Naved-ul-Hasan induced Johnson to edge a slanting delivery. It was 178 for seven. But, as Nathan Hauritz walked in and defended the last three deliveries of the over, the umpires convened to take a close look at the ball.

Television umpire Rod Tucker had watched the images of Afridi biting the ball. His eyebrows had been raised; the hands had reached for the walkie talkie. On the field Asoka de Silva and Paul Reiffel received his call and raised their eyebrows. The ball was called for and the two pairs of eyes pored over it. Close examination revealed some serious damages. And before Iftikhar Anjum could begin the next over, the ball was changed.

Immediately after the match, Afridi explained: “I was trying to smell it.” However, the television replays strongly hinted strongly at mastication rather than olfactory functions. He later admitted: “I am ashamed. I did it in the heat of the moment as the match was a close one, but I should not have done that, it’s a serious offence. I apologise to all and everyone involved in the match and to the fans around the world. This will never happen again.”

Later in an interview to Pakpassion, later published in Cricketcountry, Naved said, “Lala [Afridi] bit the ball a couple of times between deliveries. As you will see from videos of this incident, we all told him not to do that as there were cameras all around the ground. The ball was swinging anyway, but he did not listen and continued biting the ball. I suppose as he was the captain, he got a bit excited as it was turning out to be a close match. We had not won any match in the ODI series by that time, so in his enthusiasm, he committed a mistake and had to face the consequences.”

As soon as the Anjum over was completed there was another bizarre occurrence. A spectator ran into the crowd and tackled Khalid Latif on the boundary line. It did not prove serious, and this strange intruder was quickly apprehended, but it did leave a weird sensation around the arena.

The game continued, and with some intelligent hits in the batting powerplay, Hussey and Hauritz steadily approached the target. As Hussey dispatched Naved for a pulled boundary off the final delivery of the 49th over, Australia creeped ahead in the equation. Three runs remained to be scored off the final over.

Anjum did trap Hauritz leg-before off the first ball of the final over. But Ryan Harris came in to swipe the second ball past mid-wicket for a brace. The strange incidents continued till the very end. The next delivery was a beamer that Ryan hit straight to mid-off. Afridi held it on the full and exulted. But, umpire de Silva had already called a no-ball and the match was over. Australia had scraped home by two wickets.

What followed

Immediately after the match, Afridi was called into a hearing with match-referee Ranjan Madugalle. He pleaded guilty to the charge. According to Madugalle, the Pakistani star apologised and regretted his action. As punishment he was banned for two Twenty 20 International matches.

Later, in an interview to the Pakistan-based Geo TV, Afridi said: “I shouldn’t have done it. It just happened. I was trying to help my bowlers and win a match, one match. There is no team in the world that doesn’t tamper with the ball. My methods were wrong. I am embarrassed, I shouldn’t have done it. I just wanted to win us a game but this was the wrong way to do it.”

Intikhab Alam, the Pakistan coach, was also critical. He remarked: “It’s unacceptable. It shouldn’t have happened but it happened and I feel sorry for him. Being a captain you should be above everything but unfortunately it’s happened.”

When Pakistan took on Australia in the T20I at Melbourne the following Friday, Shoaib Malik led the side. Afridi was left ruminating about his actions.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)

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