Champions Trophy: AB De Villiers stokes suspicions of England ball-tampering
The most significant aspect of ball-tampering scares is that they do not fade away easily. Once the finger of suspicion has been pointed it tends to stay pointed, which made it inevitable that it would be raised before the first semi-final of the Champions Trophy.
England, who play South Africa at The Oval today, are having trouble escaping from the shadow of suspicion although no official evidence about the remotest wrongdoing has been offered and no reports have been made. It is the issue that exercises minds more than any other except perhaps throwing.
Wrapping your bat round an opponent's head would bring mild censure compared to the faintest whiff of interfering with the natural state of the ball, which tends to elicit immediate howls of outrage about the game's moral decline. It always was a batsman's game.
"If they are doing something funny with the ball, then it's definitely a concern, yes, but we've got no proof of that," said A B De Villiers, South Africa's captain, yesterday. "Look, they seem to get it to reverse a bit quicker than the rest of the teams so maybe they've just got really good skill in their bowlers.
"We've tried as well, I think all teams try to do that, and we haven't really managed to succeed, but we'll try that again tomorrow and see if our bowlers can find that skill to reverse the ball."
All teams try to gain an advantage and reverse swing, with the immediate potency it brings, is obviously beneficial. England happen to be good at it and in the dry conditions at Edgbaston against Australia managed to do it early in the game. They failed to do so at The Oval against Sri Lanka. When their captain, Alastair Cook, had a mild whinge about the umpires changing the ball and the Sky pundit Bob Willis later said that the umpire Aleem Dar was on England's case the tampering floodgates opened wide.
De Villiers ensured they stayed ajar by saying: "It's something that the umpires and the ICC will probably look into why England and some of the other teams might get it to reverse quicker.
"All that is really not up to me to decide or to comment on that. But if there is something funny happening, then it's definitely a concern, yes," he added.
Then again, he would say that, wouldn't he, knowing that England's skill could bring South Africa down. The sides have been evenly matched of late, drawing 2-2 in England last year.
South Africa go into the match saddled still with their enduring status as chokers. They relieved it slightly with their nail-biting tie, under the Duckworth-Lewis system, with West Indies in their final Champions Trophy group match, and might shed it until at least the next tournament, if they win today.
"Look, we've had two big games, the last two games we played, and we didn't choke there," said De Villiers. "Obviously that's a good start. We owned up to it before. It's something that's been around for a while. I believe all teams choke in certain situations. It's just we somehow managed to get that tag behind our names. Unless we win this tournament, people will stay say, 'You're chokers', so no matter what happens, it's something we've dealt with."
South Africa probably have more concerns about the short-term fitness of Dale Steyn than their long-term reputation. Steyn, struggling with an array of fast bowler's complaints, missed the first two games of the tournament and did little at practice yesterday.
De Villiers sounded cautious about his chances but added that South Africa had won without him before. Today, however, already minus Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis and Morne Morkel in this competition they would definitely prefer to be with him.
The new boys: Three South Africans England know little about
Promoted to opener for the first time at the start of the tournament, he looked nervous taking over from the injured veteran Graeme Smith. But a half-century in the crucial tie against West Indies showed that coach Gary Kirsten's hunch was right. He is a bristling left-hander who provides a foil for the more elegant Hashim Amla.
A bludgeoning middle-order hitter who is given licence to attack. He made a huge impression with Yorkshire in the domestic T20 competition last year and in the IPL this year. He has a saying passed on by his father: "If it's in the V it's in the tree, if it's in the arc it's out of the park."
Drafted into the squad in an emergency, without any previous ODI experience, when Morne Morkel was crocked, he is one of a multitude of all-rounders in the team. Exceptional on his ODI debut against Pakistan, he was less miserly against West Indies but still removed Chris Gayle.
Head to head: England v Proteas
Test matches (1889- )
P141 England wins 56; South Africa wins 31; Draws 54
One-day Internationals (1992- )
P50 Eng wins 21; SA wins 25; Ties 1; No result 3
Twenty20 matches (2007- )
P8 Eng wins 3; SA wins 4; NR 1
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