Give the bowlers a break

2013-11-02 00:00

BECAUSE I have some previous experience when it comes to ball tampering, I am in no position to condemn any of the Proteas for an action that is now regarded as cheating. I would rather put my own two cents worth into a serious debate on the merits of allowing fielding sides to interfere with the condition of the ball.

Before the pioneers of ball tampering discovered that the aerodynamics of a used cricket ball could be altered by changing the state of one of its sides, the phenomenon known as reverse swing was unknown. That they used items such as bottle tops and pen knives to achieve the desired effect on the ball was probably against the spirit of cricket as practised at the time but the fact is that interfering with the surface of the ball is a habit as old as the game itself.

In the older and less informed days, lip-ice and Brylcreem were used to preserve the shine on one side of the ball. No one considered this to be cheating. It was widely thought that cricket was so much a batsman’s game that anything the fielding side could do to redress the balance was morally benign.

My own favourite ruse was to switch a newer ball for one that had come to the end of its useful life, at least as far as the bowlers were concerned. This was easily achieved in a variety of methods. A ball would be left behind a mobile sightscreen. A bowler would “decide” to bowl round the wicket and a couple of helpful fielders would offer to move the sightscreen and take the opportunity to swop balls.

It was often just as easy to replace the old ball that an umpire would leave in his coat pocket during an interval.

Such skullduggery did not always work. In a game at Ladysmith, Bruce Groves hit six successive fours off the first over of the “fresher” ball and had the manners to thank us for the change.

The great Eddie Barlow used to cultivate a particularly strong thumb nail which he used to sever the seam of the ball thus rendering it suitable for a legitimate exchange for one that might be more bowler friendly.

There were many other ways to tamper with the ball to which the authorities turned a blind eye. The big change in attitude came when the Pakistanis introduced reverse swing to the world and the likes of Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram began to make the old ball swing all over the place.

Suddenly batting in the middle of an innings against such skilled bowlers became seriously awkward for even the best batsmen. For most tailenders it was almost impossible. For a few years one of the finest sights in cricket was to watch the two Pakistani fast bowlers demolishing the stumps of the middle and lower batting orders with reverse-swinging yorkers.

Whether or not the means of this reverse swing was illegally obtained, cricket was enhanced by this change in the game. Tail enders were disposed of quickly and the matches moved on at pace. Spectators were enthralled. Even on flat pitches, bowlers skilled in reverse swing became a handful.

Then the authorities decided that tampering the ball was a heinous offence. They ignored the entertainment value of the Pakistani innovation and the history of the game. Legislation was again introduced to make life more difficult for bowlers.

Since World War 2 bowlers have had to put up with the following changes to the laws or conditions under which cricket is played: the covering of pitches, which eliminated damp and sticky wickets; the introduction of the front foot no ball law, which took all fast bowlers back by half a yard; the allowance of heavier bats that have made hitting boundaries easy, even off mis-hits; the limitation of bouncers to two an over; and the introduction of helmets, which have enabled feeble-hearted batsmen to survive and prosper.

On top of this, umpires have become accustomed to taking players off the field whenever light conditions have been less than ideal despite the physiological evidence that proves the pupil of the eye is still constricting to limit light into the eye when modern umpires deem the conditions unfit for play.

This is a raft of changes that have made batting much easier than it was 60 years ago. I say, give the fielding side the right to tamper (within certain rules) with the surface of the ball. The game would become more entertaining and the poor fast bowlers would be thrown their first bone since 1948 when Don Bradman persuaded the MCC to allow a new ball after 55 overs.

We should not think that bowling reverse swing with a tampered ball is easy. For a start, to be effective the bowler has to be very quick, which is to say “Dale Steyn fast”. Bowling at that kind of speed is a way of earning a living that is not for those faint in heart or frail of limb and mind. Nor is it possible to swing the ball at 145 km/h without dedicating many hours to both practice and fitness.

Fast bowlers have comparatively short lives at the top of cricket. Few make it past their early thirties before their bodies begin to protest at the vicissitudes of a tough existence.

The time has come to give them a break and in doing so to increase the entertainment quotient of the game.

This brings me in a roundabout way to our own case of ball tampering. It looked silly for players such as AB de Villiers to protest the team’s innocence when Faf du Plessis pleaded guilty to the offence. It would have been better for the team to have accepted that they were caught fair and square.

It is a pity that Faf has been branded a cheat but he must know that he is in good company for an offence that has been honored more in the breach than in the observance.

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