Robert Dillon: Sporting Declaration

SWEET TIMING: South African skipper Faf du Plessis on his way to a century against Australia in Adelaide. Picture: Getty Images
SWEET TIMING: South African skipper Faf du Plessis on his way to a century against Australia in Adelaide. Picture: Getty Images

A FEW lingering thoughts on the much-publicised tamper tantrum that has overshadowed the Test cricket series between Australia and South Africa.

First and foremost, Sporting Declaration finds it a bit hard to swallow that Faf du Plessis is refusing to cop it sweet, if you’ll pardon the pun.

The South African skipper continued to insist this week that “I have done nothing wrong”, even after the conclusive video evidence that prompted the ICC to find him guilty of trying to artificially change the condition of the ball by using a mint to help polish it.

His teammates and hierarchy have supported him vehemently, including the press conference at which Hashim Amla pushed the boundaries of credibility by asking: “Is that a tactic? I am not aware of it. Is it proven or what? Because that’s something really new to us.”

Yet it really is this simple.

Du Plessis either knew he was cheating at the time, or should have realised in hindsight, as soon as the story broke.

Proteas officials should have immediately advised him to apologise and accept he had transgressed.

It’s not as if this was some unprecedented, unique occurrence.

Under the MCC’s code of conduct, Law 42.3 states quite clearly what practices of ball maintenance are and are not permitted, and there have been numerous examples of players being disciplined for breaches.

Du Plessis should have been well aware of this, considering he has previously been sanctioned for deliberately rubbing the ball on the zipper of his trousers pocket.

But amongst the Proteas’ self-righteous rhetoric and siege mentality, du Plessis raised a valid point when he said: “It’s just a such grey area in the laws of cricket. It’s obviously something now to be looked at.”

As many observers have noted, cricketers routinely chew gum and sweets, drink sugary liquids and use sunscreen and even hair products, all of which could potentially help give the ball an artificial sheen.

It is almost as if that particular clause of Law 42.3 is unenforceable.

As Australia captain Steve Smith said: “We along with every other team around the world shine the ball the same way.”

That du Plessis escaped suspension and was merely hit with a fine (against which he has appealed) adds to the whole sense of farce.

If the law is place, and a repeat offender is caught red-handed, then a suspension would surely send a strong message that such conduct will not be tolerated.

Fining a multi-millionaire is hardly a deterrent, especially as there would appear nothing to stop Cricket South Africa (or any sympathetic supporter) from reimbursing him.

So the logical conclusion to be drawn is we have a law that makes little sense, and a governing body that seems confused about how to enforce it.

All of which brings me to the question of whether ball-tampering is indeed a blight on the game.

A cricket tragic since my earliest days, I must have seen hundreds of Test series over the years, but only a small minority of them linger in the memory.

Two of the most enthralling I can recall were England at home to Pakistan in 1992, and the Ashes in England in 2005.

Both were series dominated by masterful reverse-swing bowling.

In 1992, the Poms were unlucky enough to encounter Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis in their prime.

Between them, the pair took 43 wickets in a five-Test series won 2-1 by Pakistan.

The series featured a recurring trend. In most innings, England’s top order – featuring names like Graham Gooch, Mike Atherton and Alec Stewart – produced solid starts.

Then after about 40 or 50 overs, Waqar and Wasim would return for their second spells, bowling 150kmh yorkers that seemed to bend around corners. In the fourth Test at Headingley, for instance, England were 1-270 in their first innings. All out 320. It was perhaps the most skilful fast bowling I have ever seen. 

The series, however, ended in acrimony, when it emerged that on at least one occasion umpires had to change the ball after it appeared to have been deliberately scratched.

After the Daily Mirror published a front-page story headlined "How Pakistan Cheat at Cricket", quoting England batsman Allan Lamb, relations between the two teams hit an all-time low.

In 2005, Australia’s Ashes dominance came to an abrupt and unexpected end against an England team in which Andrew Flintoff, Simon Jones and Matthew Hoggard used reverse swing to devastating effect.

Their secret weapon, apparently, was a brand of sweet known as Murray Mints, which England opener Marcus Trescothick later wrote “enabled [the ball] to keep its shine for longer and therefore its swing’’.

In this era of bigger bats, flatter pitches and smaller boundaries, bowlers are often reduced to the role of cannon fodder.

Perhaps it’s time for the powers-that-be to review and relax Law 42.3.

Allowing the fielding team some discretion to “modify” the ball – within reason – would not endanger the batman’s health.

But it would certainly give bowlers a fighting chance and perhaps make Test cricket a more attractive product.


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