31 May 2020


All things that have come in handy for changing the condition of the ball over the years
All things that have come in handy for changing the condition of the ball over the years

As anyone will tell you, the Covid-19 pandemic has changed the world. A few months ago, if you had walked into a bank wearing a face mask, the security guard would have constantly stared at you, making you feel like you were there not to cash a cheque, but to rob the bank. Today, he is wearing a mask too. The obsessive compulsive disorder of the past — vigorously washing hands, cleaning doorknobs, shoes, clothes, etc — is the new norm. Disinfect to your heart’s content, and no one will judge you.

Similarly, in cricket, there is actually a debate going on now about what kind of artificial substances might legally be allowed to be used to shine a cricket ball, all because the current practice of putting saliva and perspiration on the ball could be a big health hazard for the players.

Former Aussie captain, Ian Chappell, a man who probably knows a bit more cricket than you and I, reckons that some form of ball-tampering could be allowed in cricket. Already, Kookaburra — the world-renowned ball manufacturing company which keeps up with the times, is developing a wax applicator to shine the ball. In other words, ‘ball-tampering’, once deemed taboo will be the ‘new norm’ in cricket.

There is no cricket nation other than Pakistan which can discern the phenomenon of ball-tampering better. In the 1990s, the phrase ‘ball-tampering’ almost became synonymous with Pakistan cricket. It was the end of Pakistan’s 1992 tour to England which opened a Pandora’s Box, when the South Africa-born English cricketer Allan Lamb accused Pakistan’s cricketers of ball-tampering. However, it was the staunch Yorkshire man Geoffrey Boycott, who came to their defence, saying: “On present form, Waqar and Wasim could bowl out the England team with an orange.”

Legend has it that it was Sarfraz Nawaz who introduced this ‘art’ into the Pakistan team. While practising at the Lahore Gymkhana nets in the 1960s, a first-class bowler taught a 17-year-old Sarfraz a few tricks, which he subsequently applied in the match and got the prodigious unconventional swing, which later became known as ‘reverse swing’.

There’s a debate going on in the cricketing world about perhaps allowing the use of artificial substances to shine a cricket ball in the post-coronavirus world

Sarfraz didn’t mind the reputation of being a scoundrel, though he has always maintained that he achieved reverse swing without using unfair means. He proudly claims that he taught this art to Imran Khan who later transferred it to Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, reminiscent of Indian classical music ‘gharana’ (family) in which the style of rendition is passed on from generation to generation.

In 1990, when Waqar and Wasim were hunting down the visiting Kiwis one by one with their colossal reverse swing bowling, one of the Kiwis, the fast bowler Chris Pringle, said “enough is enough” and decided to give the opposition a taste of their own medicine. He used the good old bottle top to make the ball swing. And boy did the ball talk! On a lifeless Faisalabad pitch, described once by Dennis Lillee as a “bowlers’ graveyard”, Pringle took 11 wickets and almost won the game for his team.

In the past, renowned Pakistani bowlers Waqar Younis and Shoaib Akhtar have been called out for displaying the ‘art’ in public. In his autobiography Controversially Yours, Shoaib Akhtar wrote: “Almost all Pakistani fast bowlers have tampered with the ball. I may be the first to openly admit to it but everybody is doing it.”

The English players also have a fair share of ball-tampering history but, in the years gone by, they may have focused more on the shine than scuffi ng up the ball
The English players also have a fair share of ball-tampering history but, in the years gone by, they may have focused more on the shine than scuffi ng up the ball

Even our ‘Lala’, the leg spinner Shahid Afridi tried to ‘make’ the ball by biting it for his teammate Rana Naveed-ul-Hassan in Australia in 2010. At the time, Rana’s smirk and his avoidance of eye contact with his captain, Afridi, made us believe that he wasn’t quite impressed by this action. And he wasn’t alone. Biting a cricket ball wasn’t classy; it looked a bit childish. This incident was rather a disgrace for the cricketing nation, which did not consider ball-tampering as cheating but a form of art, a cricketing skill to be precise.

In our domestic matches, umpires keep a watchful eye on anyone who brings this wonderful art into disrepute. A first-class cricketer who played a solitary One Day International for Pakistan and has 8,168 first-class runs to his name, once said in a TV discussion: “Ball-tampering has been rampant in our first-class matches and umpires are quite lenient about it. Ironically, I was once fined for arguing with the umpires because I tried to bring it to their notice.”

No wonder then that when three Aussies — Cameron Bancroft, Steve Smith and David Warner — were temporarily banned from playing international cricket for tampering with the ball, Pakistanis were exultantly sharing memes on social media. Deep down, most of the Pakistanis had a soft corner for them. So, at the time, if these lads had no place to hide, they could’ve easily visited Pakistan and found out how much we love them.

Well, we may have pioneered and mastered this art, but we’re not the only ones who practice it. The English players also have a fair share of ball-tampering history but, in the years gone by, they may have focused more on the shine than scuffing up the ball. Perhaps they fancied Vaseline more than a bottle top, except for the ‘innocuous’ rub of dirt on the ball episode by Michael Atherton and the ‘ruthless’ use of bowling spikes by Stuart Broad in recent times.

Many people in Pakistan believe that the wily little Pakistani character who bowled leg spins, Mushtaq Ahmed, taught the English team the finer points of this art. Of course, the English players were quite aware of it while playing county cricket, but doing it successfully at the international stage is a different ball game altogether.

Our eastern neighbour India doesn’t have many ball-tampering culprits. Perhaps, Kapil Dev wasn’t that open to new ideas as was his favorite counterpart Imran. That said, two of India’s nicest cricketers (on and off the field) — Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid — were accused of jumping on the ball-tampering bandwagon. To be honest, compared to other brazen ball-tampering incidents, they looked as innocent as lambs.

Some people may hate Imran Khan, especially now that he is an established politician, but not many people would doubt his cricketing knowledge. The man told us in the 1980s and 1990s that ball-tampering is a skill and everyone does it. In Ivo Tennant’s biography on Imran Khan, the iconic cricketer confessed that, during a county match between Sussex and Hampshire, he used a bottle top to alter the condition of the ball.

Do we need to remind ourselves that Imran was the one who initiated the concept of neutral umpires? So, when he talks cricket (not politics) we listen. So folks, get ready, the day is not far when the MCC World Cricket committee will sit in one of the momentous Lord’s rooms and enjoy cucumber sandwiches with tea. And, of course, change the rules and make cricket more ‘Corona safe’ (read: bowler friendly). If that happens, don’t forget that it was Khan who told us first about it — not Ian Chappell.

The writer tweets @CaughtAtPoint

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 31st, 2020