Cricket's finest explain rules of this cheating life

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It is somehow more gentlemanly, more sporting, more decent than any other sport. After all, "It's not cricket" is still an expression of unfairness.

Now, it transpires, cheating - up to a point - is acceptable.

A string of upstanding gentlemen were dragged away from Lord's yesterday to come clean at the High Court in London about their cricketing customs. Ball-tampering is a time-honoured tradition, they said. It is not cheating, they told the libel trial against the former Pakistan cricket captain, Imran Khan, brought by England cricketers Ian Botham and Allan Lamb.

According to the Yorkshire legend, Geoff Boycott, ball-tampering is just like speeding: irresistible. Dragged away from his television commentating duties at Lord's, he challenged thecourt: "You tell me someone has kept to the speed limit all his life. We are all a bit naughty and knock on over 30 miles an hour when we shouldn't. We keep looking over our shoulder for the policeman and hope he won't catch us. It's just a fact of life."

Naming names, however, was a no-no for the veteran of 108 Tests: "Unless the judge here makes me, I would prefer not to go to prison." He said: "It's definitely technically a breach of the rule but cheating - no, it's too emotive a word."

The Independent's cricket correspondent, Derek Pringle, went even further. His own club, Essex, was "guilty" of another form of ball-tampering - the application of lip salve, he said. But again, cheating was too strong a word. While it was a clear breach of the laws, it was an acceptable breach. As a bowler, he felt picking at the ball with the fingernail was fair play, but the use of bottle-tops was beyond the pale.

Commentator and journalist Christopher Martin-Jenkins said bowlers picked the seam almost unconsciously.

Mr Botham and Mr Lamb are suing Imran over an "offensive personal attack" on them in India Today magazine, which they say called them racist, uneducated and lacking class.

The case continues.