When is ball-tampering ‘ok’?

Notwithstanding the sense of schadenfreude experienced by some cricket players and supporters outside of Australia by the resurrection of the Newlands ‘Sandpapergate’ fiasco of three years ago, there is something ‘else’ needed to explain just why the ball-tampering scandal elicits such strong emotions within the game. Something is missing and it both intrigues and frustrates me. What, exactly, was it about that episode which made it so different to other incidents of ball-tampering?

It is said, a little too easily, that interference with the natural condition of the ball has been ‘a thing’ for over half a century. It’s almost certainly true but evidence is far outweighed by innuendo. Pakistan’s great swing bowler, Sarfraz Nawaz, is credited as one of the pioneers of lavish (and reverse) swing. 

Ian Botham and Allan Lamb claimed he was a ball-tamperer which led Sarfraz to sue them. Imran Khan defended his bowler and said the two England cricketers “lacked class” which led Botham to sue Imran. It was the first time ball-tampering became properly messy although in 1977 John Lever and Bob Willis had been accused by the Pakistan team of using Vaseline on the ball to make it swing. Interestingly, Imran later admitted that he had once used an old bottle top to scuff up one side of the ball.

Another bottle top incident surfaced in 1990 when New Zealand swing bowler, Chris Pringle, admitted that he, too, had scuffed the ball with one during his career-best 11-152 against Pakistan in Faisalabad saying he had done so because the home team were also doing it. His captain, Martin Crowe, also defended his bowler saying that, while he was prepared to admit that Pakistan were the better team, “we were not going to accept what they were doing with the ball.” Two wrongs, and all that…

South Africa’s historic victory at Lord’s in 1994 was overshadowed by England captain Michael Atherton’s infamous ‘dirt in the pocket’ affair in which he was seen carefully sprinkling some soil onto one side of the ball during an over. He said at the time, and has always maintained, that it was taken from one of the rose beds behind the pavilion and was merely an attempt to keep one side of the ball dry. 

England’s manager and coach, Ray Illingworth, reacted as though his captain had been caught in bed with a teammate’s wife. Actually, that would have been acceptable as ‘part and parcel of the game’. Illingworth fined Atherton £2000 and disowned him, their relationship never to recover. A wider cricket watching audience was finally having its eyes opened. 

Six years later the great Waqar Younis became the first player to be fined and suspended after television footage showed him apparently using his finger nails to scratch at the quarter seam of the ball. English county players nodded their heads and smiled. Most of them had been terrorised by Waqar’s deadly inswinging yorkers and it was common if not public knowledge that he was an ‘artist’. 

A year later match referee Mike Denness took the extraordinary step of suspending Sachin Tendulkar for a Test match after he was seen cleaning dirt from the seam of the ball during a Test match against South Africa in Port Elizabeth. Cleaning the ball is permissible under the supervision of the umpires, but Tendulkar acted alone. The subsequent backlash (Denness also fined four players for excessive appealing and captain Saurav Ganguly for failing to control his players) saw the ICC quietly overturn Tendulkar’s suspension. But they refused India’s demand to replace Denness and the third match of the series was subsequently played as ‘unofficial’. 

Two years after that Shoaib Akhtar was banned for two ODIs for scratching the ball. In his biography he said: “I can’t seem to help it. I have got to do something with the ball. I know this will make a big noise, but I won’t lie about it.” International players around the world chuckled. Oh Shoaib, what a rascal. 

In 2004 one of the game’s most inscrutably honest men, Rahul Dravid, was ‘caught’ on camera applying the saliva from a sucked sweet to the ball and fined 50% of his match fee. It evoked the sort of reaction that the Dalai Lama would should he be fined for making too much noise in a library. 

It was quite the opposite in 2006 when umpires Darrel Hair and Billy Doctrove changed the ball and awarded England five penalty runs after concluding that Pakistan had illegally altered its condition in a Test match at the Oval. Inzamam ul Haq refused to lead his team onto the field after the tea break and the umpires awarded the Test to England. No evidence was presented for the tampering and the game withheld judgement, as much because of Hair’s reputation for attention-seeking and controversy.

In 2010 Stuart Broad very clearly stood on the ball after fielding it with his boot in a Test match at Newlands. No formal charges were laid although former England captain, Nasser Hussain, said: “If a player from another country did the same, we’d have said they were cheating.” Broad said he’d been “…a bit lazy because of the extreme heat.” People chuckled. Naughty, but quite funny.

Not nearly as funny, however, as when Shahid Afridi was caught on camera biting the ball during an ODI in Perth. Match referee Ranjan Madugalle banned him for two matches. Afridi said no team in the world does not tamper with the ball but: “…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.”

Former South African captain, Faf du Plessis, was fined 50% of his match fee for appearing to rub the ball vigorously on the metal zipper on the pocket of his trousers during a Test against Pakistan in Dubai in 2013. The South Africans strongly denied the allegations of ball-tampering but accepted the sanction for fear of incurring a stiffer penalty on appeal. The zipper was a natural part of his attire – it just got in the way. Afterall, it wasn’t a bottle top. Match referee David Boon said: “I am satisfied that it was not part of a deliberate and/or prolonged attempt to unfairly manipulate the condition of the ball.” Right. So it was an accident. Sort of. Maybe. 

Three years later du Plessis was nabbed again, but this time it appeared he was attempting to bring the matter to a head, consciously or sub-consciously, by opening his mouth wide to reveal a large, white mint on his tongue from which he took a dollop of saliva and rubbed it on the ball. He was charged and fined his entire match fee for a practise which was common place worldwide.

“We, like the rest of the teams in the world, shine the ball in exactly the same way,” said then-captain, Steve Smith, to his great credit. There was an appeal and much hand-wringing. Several other players and former players came forward to confirm that sugary saliva had been applied to cricket balls for decades, but rules were rules. It became obvious that the game’s authorities were happy to turn a blind eye – provided the players didn’t shine bright lights into them. 

Then came ‘sandpapergate’ and the ball-tampering saga surged to greater levels of judgement and opprobrium than ever before. Far harsher verdicts and sentences than had ever been previously imagined were handed out and Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft were treated as criminals and regarded with disdain bordering on disgust. 

My curiosity is not about what is ‘acceptable’ but about how and why we judge the way we do. Any attempt to alter the natural condition of the ball is against the laws of the game, yet some attempts are hilariously innocuous, some frown-worthy and others career-threatening and reputationally catastrophic. 

I am one of thousands of cricket followers who felt that carrying a piece of sandpaper onto the field to rough up the ball was amongst the lowest of the game’s all-time low moments. I have many theories about why that might be, but I still can’t put my finger on it. It fascinates me. 

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