Covid-19 leads to saliva ban on cricket field: Much ado about a trifle

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May 24, 2020 6:00 AM

Using saliva to shine the ball is a common practice in cricket. This may come under scanner.

Adapting to the rule change could be a challenge, for players will have to screw over their muscle memory.

Over the last few days, the International Cricket Council’s (ICC) Cricket Committee did a lot of brainstorming on safety measures for cricket in a world ravaged by coronavirus. First, the Committee, headed by Anil Kumble, recommend banning saliva use to shine the ball followed by a set of guidelines, including bio-safety official and pre-match checks to minimise the risk, when cricket resumes. This column, though, intends to deal with the
saliva aspect.

Thanks to the health guidelines issued by different medical agencies, every school kid now knows that the Covid-19 virus transmits through respiratory droplets. The Cricket Committee unanimously acted on the ICC Medical Advisory Committee chair Dr Peter Harcourt’s advice to recommend saliva ban. It was an open-and-shut case.

Coronavirus can be found in saliva. If a player has Covid-19 and if he/she is spitting on the ball to make the leather shine, then his team mates and opponents run the risk of contracting the virus when they touch the ball. On the field, players aren’t washing their hands and if they touch their mouth or nostrils then they can be infected by coronavirus.

“Spitting on the ball would definitely be a risk, particularly given how infective the virus is and how long it has been found to survive on inanimate surfaces,” Richard Bradbury, an epidemiologist from Federation University in Melbourne, was quoted as saying in the lead-up to the ICC decision.

All the while though, it was an oversimplification. Coronavirus can be transmitted through different ways. Former Pakistan fast bowler and bowling coach Aaqib Javed hits the nail on the head. “As long as the pandemic exists, the game is not returning. After that, if you want to take precaution, you have to start with ‘social distancing’. First slip should be standing two metres away from the wicketkeeper. A ‘keeper can’t stand behind the stumps to a spinner, for he needs to maintain the two-metre distance, which effectively takes stumping out of the equation.

“Batsmen should have the required gap while running between the wickets… (Still) how can you protect the ball from the virus? A player might sneeze and the droplets could fall on the ball or go to the fielder standing next to him. Someone might touch his face, nose or lips. So just singling out the saliva use sounds a bit naive,” Javed says.

Using saliva to shine the ball is a very common practice. Players develop this habit when they start playing organised school cricket. At a higher level, saliva is basically used on the older ball to keep on side heavy for reverse swing. Without saliva use, does a bowler lose anything?

“Absolutely nothing,” says former South Africa pacer Fanie de Villiers. “In sweat, you have a natural replacement,” he adds. It is widely believed that using saliva on the ball helps swing bowlers. Then again, as de Villiers points out: “Very few player uses saliva. A vast majority use sweat. In fact, it’s probably a 70-30 percentage. I never used saliva on the ball. I rather kept the ball under my armpits, especially when I was trying to get some reverse swing.”

The ICC doesn’t prohibit the use of sweat to polish the ball. This is in accordance with the guidelines issued by WHO and the Johns Hopkins University. Both omit sweat as a transmitting agent of the virus. “The virus can spread between people interacting in close proximity — for example, speaking, coughing, or sneezing — even if those people are not exhibiting symptoms,” writes Lisa Maragakis, senior director of infection prevention at Johns

But as she informs, Covid-19 doesn’t transmit through perspiration. “The virus isn’t spread through perspiration (sweat), but items touched by many people (ball, stumps, bails in cricket’s case) could pose a risk.” The ICC, by the way, emphasises on not sharing the equipment. How on earth cricket can be played without sharing the ball is anybody’s guess. But more on saliva here…

Adapting to the rule change could be a challenge, for players will have to screw over their muscle memory.

Former India seamer and current India U-19 coach Paras Mhambrey, however, believes that cricketers are smart enough to adapt. “I think it does make a difference. Because using saliva is one of the ways to shine the ball. So it might take a little while. (But) cricketers adapt and that’s how the game has grown,” he observes.

Cricket, sport for that matter, becomes peripheral, when the Covid curve is still on a steeper rise. India’s tally has crossed 1 lakh. UK has the highest coronavirus death toll in Europe. Cricket shouldn’t be allowed to hire medical professionals at the expense of public health. For example, in India, there’s one doctor for every 1,445 citizens, which is lower than the World Health Organization’s prescribed norm of one doctor for 1,000 people. Cricket must wait for the curve to flatten.

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