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The ins and outs of ball tampering

Over the past two decades, ‘making up’ a ball to extract reverse-swing has acquired legitimacy.

mumbai Updated: Mar 29, 2018 23:27 IST
Ayaz Memon
Ayaz Memon
Hindustan Times
mumbai,ball tampering,cricket
Playing to win is important, but winning is not the only thing.(Representational photo)

I don’t know if there is documented history of ball tampering in India. Like everywhere else, this has probably existed since cricket started in the country. But anecdotally, the first time it was evidenced first hand was a little over four decades ago.

In happened in Mumbai (Bombay then). Milind Rege, former Ranji Trophy captain, recalls the 1977-78 season when Pakistan’s Sarfraz Nawaz joined his team at net practice at the Wankhede Stadium and bamboozled everybody with prodigious movement with a used ball.

”I think Sarfraz was in the city for a benefit match or something, and turned up unexpectedly at our nets in tennis shoes. After warming up briefly, he surprisingly chose an old ball. What we witnessed in the next half hour or so was extraordinary,’’ recounts Rege.

Where Mumbai’s bowlers were struggling to swing even the new ball, Sarfraz got late and pronounced movement that batsmen just couldn’t read. “Poor Guru Gupte couldn’t put bat to ball,’’ Rege remembers.

Did Sarfraz tamper with the ball?

“Well, he was constantly doing something to it, polishing it hard, using sweat and spit, clawing at the leather,’’ says Rege. “But we were all so impressed with what how he got the ball to behave that all we did was marvel and tell each other what a great bowler he was’’.

On my first overseas tour, to Pakistan in 1982-83, I saw a strong Indian team succumb to the terrific swing bowling of Imran Khan and Sarfraz. The former took most wickets with his sizzling indippers, as they were called then, but Sarfraz’s skills with the old ball left the Indians flummoxed and impressed.

Over the next decade, these skills had been passed on, and the Pakistanis had earned notoriety for ’doing things’ with the ball which helped their deadly fast bowlers, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis particularly, cause devastation among batsmen all over the world.

Some years after he had retired, I asked Sarfraz whether there something special the Pakistanis did or used to make the old ball swing so late and alarmingly. “No, nothing illegal is done or used. It’s about how much to polish the ball, which side to polish to get swing’’ he said.

“Bowling in Pakistani conditions, on flat pitches is hard work. We had to find a way out,’’ he said.

Among Indian bowlers, the first to latch on to the tactics employed by Pakistanis was Manoj Prabhakar. On the 1989 tour, he got the ball to reverse-swing as much and as often as did Wasim, Waqar and Imran. Prabhakar then passed on the skill to Kapil Dev and others.

Over the past two decades, ‘making up’ a ball to extract reverse-swing has acquired legitimacy.

It is so commonplace now as to be part of the curriculum for young cricketers. Stop at any of the Gymkhana Grounds at Marine Drive, or Shivaji Park and you will see coaches and their pupils discussing the hows and whys of this skill.

Of course, this is permissible only without using an extraneous element to be considered legal, which is where Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft fell foul of authority for using sandpaper to scuff the ball.

They were not the first to do this. Imran Khan in his autobiography talks about bottle caps being used to scuff balls in county cricket. Others – at the international level – have used Vaseline, lozenges, dirt, blades, pins, etc. Shahid Afridi went to the extent of chewing the ball to rough it up.

But why would any player do this when the acceptable practices exist?

It’s to do with performance anxiety, fear of failure and to some extent even the arrogant thrill of venturing into the forbidden. Not every attempt at ‘making up’ a ball within the rules can be successful. This can drive bowlers and captains to desperate measures.

Given the 360-degree coverage of international sports nowadays, however, any transgression is fraught with danger. For instance, there were 30 TV cameras at Cape Town in the Test between Australia and South Africa. Every action by every player was under the microscope.

Escape was improbable. The cookie had to crumble for Smith and Co. There’s nothing sadder in cricket than to see a great player stripped of the captaincy for cheating. But in this, there’s a lesson for everybody, old and young, sport and beyond.

Playing to win is important, but winning is not the only thing.

First Published: Mar 29, 2018 23:26 IST