When Faf du Plessis appealed against his punishment for ball-tampering during South Africa’s Test series in Australia in November, his reasons were understandable. He didn’t want to be penalised for a practice that – in one form or another – has gone on since before W. G. Grace. And he did not believe he deserved to be labelled a cheat for a deed most cricketers consider little more than mischief. His offence had been to coat the ball in sugary saliva – he was sucking a mint to improve aerodynamics rather than halitosis – and it was the second time he had fallen foul of Law 42.3. With the ICC determined to clamp down on such methods, his appeal failed.
But the episode was a reminder that nothing stirs cricket’s moral ire like claims of ball-tampering. From John Lever’s Vaseline strips in India, via Michael Atherton’s dirt in the pocket at Lord’s, to Pakistan’s forfeiture at The Oval, judgment is usually severe – especially by the media.
This righteousness is not shared by most cricketers. When it comes to altering the condition of the ball, they see any creativity, within limits, as acceptable, which explains why they feel hard done by when they are caught. Hence the double standard – of ball-tampering as a crime many are happy to commit, but few are prepared to admit. I should know.
My moment of denial came after a day’s play at Chelmsford in 1985, during Australia’s tour match against Essex. Faced with a docile pitch, I had lifted up the quarter-seam to create a flap on the non-shiny side of the ball. To my slight surprise (these things didn’t always succeed) the response was instant: reverse swing into the right-handers, which interested the umpires. When they saw the ball’s state, they changed it and demanded to see Graham Gooch, Essex’s acting-captain, at the close. Gooch knew what I’d been up to but, when he formally asked us who had done the tampering, I could not bring myself to own up in front of team-mates.
I don’t know why I demurred. With a side’s interests best served when their bowlers are potent, few players have ever complained about tampering, at least not outside the dressing-room. Only when one team’s bowlers cannot achieve the same influence as their opponents’ do the batsmen tend to carp, a hypocrisy that occurred when Pakistan won in England in 1992. Reverse swing can be achieved legally, though usually after 30 overs or so. During that summer, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis often achieved it much sooner, prompting several England batsmen to cry foul.
Bowlers are cricket’s innovators and, after Wasim had uprooted my stumps with a late outswinger in the final Test at The Oval, I asked umpires Dickie Bird and David Shepherd if I might see the ball. This was not done out of protest, but as a matter of research: Wasim was as close to genius as was possible on a cricket field. What I saw was revelatory, at least for a ball 78 overs old. Most striking was the distinctly two-toned appearance: one side dark but smooth, with the cool clamminess of a marble floor; the other dry and dusty, much lighter in colour, but pitted all over, like the dimples on a golf ball.
It was a work of art, however the alchemy was achieved – and it could have occurred naturally, as Pakistan were scrupulous about keeping one side dry, while applying sweat, but never spit, to the other. In its sudden and late swing, that ball moved like no other I have experienced: England slumped from 182 for three to 207 all out, with Wasim taking five for 18 in seven overs, as the ball homed in on stumps – and toes – like a guided missile. Only wrist-spinner Mushtaq Ahmed did not benefit: with one side light and the other dark, batsmen were able to pick his googly a mile off.
The animosity between the teams came to a head soon after, when the umpires changed the ball during England’s innings in the one-day international at Lord’s. Some claimed it had been deliberately disfigured, and the ball was spirited away by officials. It has yet to resurface, and accusations of cheating can still pique the protagonists even a quarter of a century later.
That stigma has led to some bruising encounters off the pitch. Court battles between Imran Khan on one side, and Ian Botham and Allan Lamb on the other, and between Lamb and his old Northamptonshire team-mate Sarfraz Nawaz, arose from accusations of tampering. I was subpoenaed by Imran’s legal team to give evidence following a piece I had written for The Independent on Sunday about my own tampering exploits. I wrote that any English bowler worth his salt would have picked the seam at some stage during his career, something Botham denied in court. The jury, though bewildered by the arcane details, found in Imran’s favour.
As a bowler never quick enough to intimidate, I always sought ways of getting the ball to move laterally, either off the seam or through the air. Most were legal, such as applying sweat or spit, and rubbing it on my trousers or shirt to get a shine. Players are also allowed to remove bits of grass or mud from the seam. All other means, and there are plenty, are probably illicit.
When Marcus Trescothick admitted sucking Murray Mints during the 2005 Ashes to give the ball a sheen, the use of sugary saliva was a new one on me. England’s bowlers deployed reverse swing superbly during their 2–1 win, and Australia knew what they were up to, even if the press and public did not. John Buchanan, Australia’s coach, told me over a beer in Manchester how he believed England’s sweet tooth was aiding Andrew Flintoff and Simon Jones, their best exponents of reverse swing. Buchanan did not want to appear a whinger, so forbade the story being published. I remained sceptical, though it did explain why England’s twelfth men were occasionally seen flinging sweets on to the outfield for Trescothick and others to stuff in their pockets, ready to be sucked into service.
Yet it seems the use of sweets comfortably pre-dates 2005. One prominent county batsman, who prefers not to be named, told me he believed the practice began at Warwickshire in the mid-1990s. And Atherton has written about the time he sent England’s twelfth man to buy chewing-gum, only for him to return with a sugar-free version, “ensuring his twelfth-man career was brief”. Quite why sugary saliva is supposed to work better is a mystery yet to be explained.
At Essex in the 1970s and ’80s, in an era before the cameras got up close and personal, we used Lipice (a brand of lip screen) to shine the ball. Our captain Keith Fletcher had drummed into every player the fact that the team got only one ball per innings, and needed to look after it. Besides, John Lever was the best swing bowler in county cricket, so keeping it shiny for as long as possible was simply good sense. According to Fletcher, Lipice became prominent after Australia’s Bob Massie had swung England to defeat at Lord’s in 1972, with 16 wickets in his debut Test. Accusations that he used Lipice arose on the back of that incredible performance, though they were never proved.
“Massie just bowled better than everybody else,” said Fletcher. “The ball swung, but you still needed skill to control it. Anyway, England didn’t have any swingers except Basil D’Oliveira, so couldn’t really take advantage of the conditions, as Massie did.” Yet, whether or not Massie used Lipice, swing bowlers everywhere took note; Essex were not alone in buying it in bulk.
Prior to that, hair gels such as Brylcreem seem to have been the illegal substance of choice – Denis Compton and Fred Trueman even advertised the stuff. But uncovered pitches meant bowlers in those days were less reliant on movement through the air: if pitches were gripping after rain, the ball’s seam was often enough. It could be cleaned, but it was not meant to be raised, at least not deliberately, though many bowlers could not resist, turning plaited twine into a bristling edge with a swift twist of their thumbnail. Not that picking the seam suited everyone. At Essex, Lever felt it made the seam go soft, so the practice was discouraged, although the slow left-armer Ray East would lift half an inch to give his spinning finger some purchase.
Umpires, who back then were all ex-pros, might have tut-tutted, but generally turned a blind eye. Only when the TV camera was able to zoom in and expose the chicanery for all to see did they have to become policemen as well. Umpire Judah Reuben famously queried Lever’s use of Vaseline during England’s 1976-77 tour of India. Lever had swung them to victory with ten for 70 on debut in the First Test at Delhi. After a second win followed in Calcutta, India were under severe pressure when the series reached Madras.
“Most of us had long hair in those days, so the extra sweat I was pumping out in Madras, which was hot and humid, was getting into my eyes and making them sting,” says Lever. “I used to play football in the off season, and sometimes put Vaseline across my forehead and eyebrows to channel the sweat away from the eyes. So I asked Bernard Thomas, the England physio, whether he could do the same. With no Vaseline, the best he could come up with at short notice was Vaseline-impregnated gauze.
“I wore the gauze after lunch on the third day, when we had them seven down, but discarded it quite quickly as it didn’t really work. I put it behind the stumps, but the umpire picked it up and claimed it had come adrift while I was bowling. He obviously felt there was something underhand going on, and he reported it to Bishan Bedi, India’s captain, and then to the Indian board, who leaked it to the press.”
Lever, who admits some of the Vaseline got on to his hands and therefore the ball, reckons a technical breach of the Laws probably did occur, but not a deliberate one. “If I’d wanted to get Vaseline on the ball I would not have advertised the fact in such an obvious way,” he says. The subsequent furore proved stressful for him and his family back in England. “Dad suffered a heart attack soon after, which I’m convinced was brought on by the press intrusion,” says Lever. “I found it very hard to forgive Bedi for stirring it up the way he did in order to divert the pressure of a series defeat. It wasn’t until 30 years later that I was able to finally shake his hand and let bygones be bygones.”
If lotions, potions and seam picking represent the traditional, almost acceptable, face of ball-tampering, the relatively recent phenomenon of reverse swing has produced even more bizarre ways of contravening the Laws. Its aerodynamics, with most of the technique going into preparing the ball, are still not completely understood, but it is different from conventional swing, where the skill and technique go into bowling the ball, with finger and wrist actions crucial.
Reverse swing requires a ball of opposites, a yin and yang, with one side smooth and shiny, the other rough, dry and pockmarked. Most abuses occur when trying to achieve the latter, though roughening a new ball, so spinners might open the bowling, used to be commonplace in county cricket before the 1980s. They still talk about Wilf Wooller, Glamorgan’s post-war captain, walking down the 70 or so steps at Swansea and scraping the ball on each, because he wanted to open with Len Muncer’s off-breaks.
The leather on cricket balls is tough, so abrading one side is not easily done with fingernails. That is why Atherton, at least to my mind, was not tampering when he was caught applying dirt to the ball against South Africa in 1994. The incident, which almost cost him the captaincy, occurred when his team were trying to harness reverse swing with only a rudimentary knowledge of how to do so. With dirt scooped from old pitch ends in his pocket, he was trying to make one side of the ball drier than the other – crucial for reverse swing to be achieved on a humid day – by lightly rubbing it with soil. The Laws allow players to maintain the ball’s condition, but not increase its rate of deterioration. In Atherton’s case, it was possible to argue both viewpoints.
More brutish means have been used. In the early days of reverse swing, Imran Khan admitted using a bottle top, as did New Zealand seamer Chris Pringle. Fed up with his team being bowled out in Pakistan in 1990-91, Pringle scratched up one side of the ball and skittled the home side for 102 in Faisalabad with seven for 52. But Waqar took 12, and New Zealand still lost.
According to some, scalpels and razor blades have been employed to cut the leather in search of swing. Mike Smith, who played one Test for England against Australia in 1997 and is now a lawyer, reckons one player had an emery board taped to his finger. I’ve heard of another who sewed a sheet of sandpaper, coloured white, into his trousers, allowing him to polish the ball on the outside, and scrape it on the inside.
One simple way to stop the worst abuses is to allow bowlers to do what they like to the ball, using only what is available in the course of a day’s play. Fingernails, sun lotions and lip screens (from their skin only, not shirts or trousers impregnated with the stuff), sugary saliva (if they want large dentist bills, so be it) and hair gels, along with spit and sweat, would all be allowed. Outside agents, such as knives or bottle tops, would not, their use incurring both financial and run penalties.
The late Bob Woolmer advocated something similar after his Pakistan side forfeited the 2006 Oval Test following umpire Darrell Hair’s insistence that they had been guilty of tampering. Like many who have played and watched a lot of cricket, Woolmer was adamant a balance was needed between bat and ball if the game was to have meaning, and that a moving ball, in all its guises, helps provide that.
Tampering, in one form or another, has gone on for over 100 years. It is as much a part of the fabric of the game as bats, pads and gloves, and it is time MCC acknowledged as much. Loosening the Laws would also remove morality – and hypocrisy – from the equation. As the American man of letters H. L. Mencken once said: “The truth that survives is simply the lie that is pleasantest to believe.”