Are the Pakistani bowlers cheating?: After the 'ball tampering' case, a question remains unanswered

IT WAS the summer of 1992 again. An England batsman (in this case Robin Smith) had come in, faced a few deliveries, then returned to the pavilion sooner than expected.

David Eady QC jumped to his feet, apologising to the judge but asking for an early luncheon adjournment: 'I'm sorry, I expected Mr Smith's evidence to last longer than that. I have no other witnesses at the moment.'

Sarfraz Nawaz, 44, former Pakistan bowler, was suing the former England batsman Allan Lamb for writing in the Daily Mirror that more than 20 years ago Nawaz invented an illegal trick to make cricket balls swing wide and late, deceiving batsmen, a technique refined by his successors into widespread cheating by the international team last summer.

Over four days last week, Lamb called a succession of current and old players ('former players', the judge insisted') in support of his claims.

The resulting High Court middle order collapse was not an indication this time of failure, just that cricketers, like many sportsmen, are best at doing what they are paid to do. When they start talking, even about cricket, their limitations are exposed.

Robin Smith, for example, one of the finest players of fast bowling in the world, confessed that he had little understanding of why a ball sometimes swings in the air between a bowler's hand, and his bat. He just kept his eye on it carefully to see where it went, he said. It was very hard to pick in advance.

Cricket is a religion, vitally important to the believer, incomprehensible to the non-believer, and the judge, Mr Justice Otton, repeatedly made it clear he was a believer. At the end of Day Two, he was sure the jury was 'appealing for the light'. At the conclusion of the case he even awarded himself one of the 10 balls used as exhibits, and wished Smith the court's good wishes for the winter tour of the West Indies.

By contrast, Jonathan Crystal, a former Tottenham Hotspur director, and counsel for Sarfraz, had to ask the former Kent and England all- rounder Chris Cowdrey if he had bowled. 'I once took a wicket for England,' he replied, hurt.

But behind the jokes and personalities that sustained the jury were the serious questions raised by Lamb's 1992 Daily Mirror article. First, did Sarfraz, main strike bowler for Pakistan for 15 years to 1984, gouge bits out of one side of cricket balls to help him take wickets? Second, do the current Pakistan fast bowlers cheat systematically? Specifically, when umpires changed a ball during a one-day international at Lord's in August, was it because they found that the Pakistanis had scratched it?

In evidence, Lamb said he had never seen Sarfraz cheat in a match, and that was good enough for the Pakistani to drop the action after four days, considering his reputation intact. Sarfraz paid his own costs; the Mirror paid Lamb's.

But the second question regarding systematic cheating by Pakistani bowlers, with its much wider implications for cricket and even international relations, has remained unanswered, sparking a new public controversy.

Lamb said after the case that the Test and County Cricket Board, which runs the game in England, and the International Cricket Conference, the world body, had tried to stop him having access to all the documents and witnesses he needed. He did call the third, or substitute umpire, Donald Oslear, who confirmed Lamb's version of why the ball was switched.

The premature end to the case meant nobody found out the full truth about that incident, although the jury must have formed a view about the 52 examples of alleged ball- gouging by Pakistan bowlers in a video sequence compiled by Chris Cowdrey and shown to the court.

Neither of the bodies officiating in the England-Pakistan matches in 1992 would comment on ball-tampering at the time, and they continued their stance through last week.

The TCCB, which knows the answer to the ball-substitution at least, is keeping mum. 'The board's principal concern has been, as always, to support its umpires and in particular to preserve the confidentiality of its reporting systems with them and the finality of their decisions.' Umpires have been checking balls much more carefully since then, it pointed out. The International Cricket Conference, which runs test matches, also refused to comment, but its former secretary, Lt Col John Stephenson, alleged that a top Pakistani Board member had tried to pressurise him after the ball-substitution. 'The president of the Pakistan Board telephoned me and instructed me to say there had been no ball-tampering,' Stephenson said. 'I refused to do so.'

Ken Lawrence, press officer for the TCCB at the time of that match, said yesterday that the ICC's match referee, Deryck Murray, had prevented the TCCB from issuing a statement about the ball-tampering.

There has been surprisingly little interest in the case in Pakistan, where Lamb's comments are widely seen as sour grapes, but Imran Khan, the former Pakistan captain alleged by Lamb to have been the conduit passing reverse swing down the generations from Sarfraz to the current bowlers, said in his Daily Telegraph column yesterday that all bowlers cheat in various ways, and that Pakistan bowlers are good enough to produce reverse swing without cheating.

A libel case is often a costly, unsatisfactory end to a dispute. But with the authorities remaining silent, it is all the public is likely to get.

(Photographs omitted)