Two skippers in two ongoing Test series are in the same boat, facing the heat over ball tampering issues. A British tabloid has accused Team India captain Virat Kohli of shining one side of the ball with the residue of a sweet gum in his mouth during the drawn first Test at Rajkot. The angle of attack is clear — if South African skipper Faf du Plessis can be charged with ball-tampering during the second Test against Australia in Hobart and fined 100 percent of his match fees by the ICC, why should Kohli be let off the hook? The charge against du Plessis is that he had a piece of mint in his mouth, and then applied the ‘sweetened’ saliva to polish the ball that his pacers used to good effect. Kohli has meanwhile pooh-poohed reports against him as an attempt to ‘take the focus away’ from the series, what with Britain 0-1 down heading into the third Test. Coach Anil Kumble too has refused ‘to give wind’ to the story, while the English team is maintaining a studied silence. With TV footages played in loop to repeatedly show Kohli and du Plessis shining the ball for all its worth, the question of what constitutes tampering is back to haunt cricket enthusiasts. The South African skipper is adamant he has been made a scapegoat, arguing that he was merely ‘shining’ the ball with saliva when the cameras zoomed upon him. “Our mouths are always full of sugar. It is such a grey area in the laws of cricket,” he has lamented, claiming that other players regularly use things like sunblock, lip balm and gum to shine the ball. That ball tampering is a grey area hardly needs be reiterated, with ICC rules forbidding players from applying any ‘artificial substance’ to polish the ball’s surface, rubbing the ball on the ground or scuffing it with fingeril or any other sharp object, and picking the seam of the ball. The idea is that such acts will adversely influence how the ball moves in the air, to the batsman’s detriment. However, du Plessis does have a point when he says the ICC rules are hazy. A player can polish one side of the ball with sweat or spit, but he cannot apply ‘sweetened’ saliva!
It will do well to remember that ball tampering first erupted in India as the ‘vaseline row’ back in 1976-77 when the English team had come touring. Rookie pacer Johnny Lever was accused by Indian skipper Bishan Singh Bedi of using the vaseline gauzes over his eyebrows to surreptitiously shine the red cherry. In the Nineties, the epicenter of the debate shifted to Pakistan, where Sarfraz waz, celebrated the world over as ‘Sultan of Swing’, taught his dark arts to upcoming tearaway pacers Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis. When this lethal duo ran amok in England, the British press went to town with reports of sharp objects like bottle openers being used to scar the ball surface and drastically change its aerodymics. But then the English team lost its high moral ground after its skipper Mike Atherton was caught on camera rubbing dirt on the ball against South Africa at Lord’s, cricket’s hallowed ground. As per rules, a wet cricket ball may be dried with a towel; if it is muddy, the mud can be removed under supervision. But when India’s very own cricketing God Sachin Tendulkar was handed a suspended one-match ban in Port Elizabeth and fined 75 percent of his match fee for ball tampering by umpire Mike Denness, the issue rocked Indian parliament and put the South Africa tour in jeopardy. When Tendulkar explained that he was merely running his fingers through the ball’s seam to clean it in wet conditions, lakhs of fans in this country passiotely agreed with him. After reverse swing was added to a bowler’s arsel to supplement orthodox swing, it came to light that a ball will move differently when one side is heavier (daubed with sweat) than when it is shinier. It was left for English cricketer Marcus Trescothick to spill the beans in his autobiography that sweetened saliva is excellent to make the ball swing like a ba! Suffice it to say that when heated debates can erupt over the swing qualities of legitimate cricket balls like the Duke or the Kookaburra, such artificial means will invite differential and inconsistent rulings from umpires and match referees. So until the ICC sorts out this grey area in dealing with a cricket ball, it will continue to bamboozle cricket enthusiasts nearly as much as the hapless batsman on the crease.