Cape Town – Specifically as far as South Africa are concerned, the permanently vexing issue of ball tampering, and what is right and what is not, ought to go away for a long time ... they would be mightily stupid if they failed to ensure that.
And in the meantime, if the Proteas do indeed become very conscious paragons of ball-management virtue, be pretty sure that the issue will flare somewhere else in the world: it always does, and virtually no team is or has been genuinely immune.
But right now, considering the awkwardly limited passage of time between the Faf du Plessis “zipper” furore against Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates in October and the current Vernon Philander flashpoint, South Africa will be deemed by many as standout, serial offenders.
Some journalists have even added to South Africa’s perceived dossier of recent indiscretion, if you like, David Warner’s suggestion that Proteas wicketkeeper AB de Villiers illegally “wiped the rough side every ball with his glove” during their Test victory over Australia in Port Elizabeth in late summer.
It is indicative of a certain, dubious righteousness you tend to find in these affairs that Warner is hardly some torch-bearer for the spirit of cricket, even if his shortcomings manifest themselves in different ways.
Remember also that the Proteas’ current foes, Sri Lanka, weren’t too long ago pointing fingers at the Baggy Greens’ Peter Siddle for allegedly (though nothing ever came of it, mind) picking at the seam in a Hobart Test in late 2012.
Be that as it may, “regular offenders” is not a mantle many in the SA Test team’s traditionally proud and ambitious ranks will wish to wear nonchalantly or comfortably.
As former national captain Kepler Wessels said in his SuperSport column: “The Proteas certainly don’t need to do anything untoward to the ball. They are too good a team to have to resort to those questionable tactics.”
It is difficult to imagine that a ringing endorsement of that theory won’t swiftly permeate the team.
Already Hashim Amla and his Test charges should have noticed with some sense of discomfort that their otherwise imperious triumph over Sri Lanka in Galle has been branded as “tainted” in reportage on their 153-run win.
Frankly, that’s difficult to too passionately dispute – even if the likes of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, in their clinical and intense second-innings demolition job well after Philander-gate had been revealed, almost appeared to adopt Wessels’ advice with special urgency, simply confirming their mettle within the parameters of sound practice.
To what extent you can or should be allowed to artificially manipulate the aerodynamics of the ball is one of those “how long is a piece of string?” debates ... one on which finality or agreement will probably always prove elusive under present laws.
Some reasonably distinguished observers even believe that the boundaries of legality (it is fine, for instance, to employ saliva on the ball, throw it in on the bounce and shine it on trousers) should be broadened, so that some manner of scratching or seam-picking is actually made permissible.
They argue that it would restore a better balance in the contest between bat and ball, given the perception that cricket is generally tailor-made these days as a “batsman’s game” and that if exaggerated reverse swing with an old ball comes into greater play as a result of more relaxed stipulations, then so be it.
But here’s something else to consider: if the Proteas find themselves at some point in the near future suspecting ball impropriety by a rival team placing them notably under the cosh at the crease on a wearing pitch, they will be aware their cries may well be pooh-poohed as “a bit rich coming from them”.
Whatever the rights and wrongs on ball tampering, South Africa have surrendered any claims to moral high ground on the topic for the time being.
They’ve got to be much more careful, not to mention increasingly conscious that the television cameras truly don’t miss much.
The words “squeaky clean” come to mind; it’s just the way it’s got to be.
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