Even at the Belgachia United nets—a Cricket Association of Bengal (CAB) league club—we used sweetened saliva to the ball as a shining agent. Vivian Richards had made gum chewing look belligerent and our coach, Badal Chanda, a former Bengal and Railways middle-order batsman, never disapproved Chiclets (jelly beans and mint came later) unless you were playing across your front pad to an incoming/straight delivery. The punishment for the ‘transgression’ was 200 shadow drills of forward defence—an extra hundred for an upstart who showed the temerity to refer to Ravi Shastri’s ‘chapati’ shot—but that’s a different story altogether.
Pakistan fast bowlers—Imran Khan, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis—were called the ‘sultans of swing’ those days. We didn’t even know how reverse swing was done, let alone the skill part. But we wanted to imitate our Test heroes, so we had chewing gum and used saliva to polish the ball. In fact, most of us perhaps didn’t have the idea that chewing gum made the saliva sugary; but shining the ball has been a common and accepted practice since the inception of organised cricket.
This leads to us to the oddity of Faf du Plessis’s punishment. He has been found guilty of ball-tampering and was docked his entire match fee from the second Test against Australia in Hobart. TV footage appeared to show that du Plessis applied saliva and residue from a mint on the ball and as per Article 2.2.9 of the International Cricket Council’s (ICC) Code of Conduct, he was found in breach of the Laws of the game.
The clause deals with ‘changing the condition of the ball’ and the ICC match referee Andy Pycroft was convinced that du Plessis tried to change the condition of the ball using an artificial substance. A press release from the world cricket’s governing body said: “After hearing representations from both parties and evidence from the umpires in the second Test as well as Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) Head of Cricket John Stephenson, Mr Pycroft found Mr du Plessis guilty of the offence.
“The decision was based on the evidence given from the umpires, who confirmed that had they seen the incident they would have taken action immediately, and from Mr Stephenson, who confirmed the view of MCC that the television footage showed an artificial substance being transferred to the ball.”
Du Plessis understandably disagreed with the guilty verdict and launched an appeal. “I felt like I’ve done nothing wrong. It’s not like I was trying to cheat or anything, I was shining the ball. It’s something that all cricketers do. Our mouths are always full of sugar; I think it’s such a grey area in the Laws of Cricket,” he said.
Cricketers’ mouths are indeed “always full of sugar”. So it begs a clarification, what constitutes an “artificial substance”? Every team uses mints/chewing gum/bubblegum. Players gulp down energy drink and eat bananas during breaks. If that are permissible, how can you charge someone for applying sweetened saliva to the ball? Doesn’t it sound a little nonsensical?
Former England off-spinner Graeme Swann said as much in a tweet, while tearing into the ICC. “ICC need to stop being jobsworths. Perhaps concentrate on improving test crowds rather than concentrate on this nonsense,” he posted.
Did the ICC make a mistake by upholding a petty rule? With utmost sympathy to du Plessis, whose punishment is rather an irony, the answer is no. Once the complaint had been raised, the ICC was forced to follow the letter of the law. Spirit of the law is subject to interpretation and the governing body of the world cricket didn’t have the leeway to be subjective. It had to charge du Plessis under the amended Code and fine 100% of his match fee.
Interestingly, du Plessis wasn’t reported against by the match officials. Media reports took the matter to the ICC, as Australia had been smarting over the hiding given by the Saffers in the first two Tests. And then, a British tabloid accused Virat Kohli of ball-tampering during the first Test at Rajkot. Maybe, oblivious to the rules, the paper missed the ‘deadline’. It had to bring in the charge within five days of the completion of the Test match. Once again, no one from the England team or any match official had complained.
Kohli’s response to the allegation at the pre-match press conference in Mohali on Friday was sarcastic. “I think it’s just to take the focus away from the series to be honest. It happened in Australia when South Africa won the series. I’m surprised the issue of what I’ve been told came up in Rajkot but there was no mention until the result in Vizag,” he said, adding: “To me a newspaper article doesn’t matter over the decision of ICC.”
Du Plessis, meanwhile, scored a masterly 118 not out at the Adelaide Oval to take the wind out the naysayers’ sails. More importantly, the ICC has refreshingly decided to revisit the existing Law following the appeal from the stand-in South Africa captain. “Following the appeal we will review the matter along with our members and the MCC to see if there are any learnings to be taken from this issue,” it stated.
Every cricketer is basically a club cricketer. Habits developed at the grassroots stay with a player, doesn’t matter how far he goes in his journey. Applying sweetened saliva to polish the ball is something that cricketers start doing at junior level these days.
At the top level, reverse swing is essential for fast bowlers, especially in the subcontinent. You have to keep one side of the ball rough and heavy. And you have to apply saliva on the other side to keep it shiny. Picking the seam or scratching the leather to roughen up one side of the ball—allegedly rampant in Pakistan in the 1980s and 90s—or using Vaseline to extract swing —allegedly done by England fast bowler John Lever at Chepauk in 1976-77—must remain illegal and strictly punishable. But saliva, doesn’t matter if it is sugary, should be considered harmless.
The lawmakers must appreciate the practical side of the game.