Clean bowled: Why cricket has double standards over cheating
There is one major reason why ball tampering is viewed as an evil of the game - it works. Reverse swing, the phenomenon achieved when one side of a cricket ball is scuffed up either by natural or illegal means, can produce devastating results when it is placed in the hands of a highly skilled bowler. Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram proved this in the 1990s, as did England during last summer's Ashes.
But isn't it amazing how these two events, and those at the Oval on Sunday, have been viewed by officials, spectators and certain sections of the media? When Waqar and Wasim were ripping out Test sides with an array of unplayable inswinging yorkers, the antennae of those on the receiving end suddenly perked up, and underhand tactics were deemed to be taking place. And it was the same at the weekend when Alastair Cook was flummoxed by a similar style of delivery from the Pakistan seamer Umar Gul.
Yet in 2005, when Andrew Flintoff and Simon Jones were knocking over Australia's Ricky Ponting and Adam Gilchrist, barely an eyebrow was raised. The consensus was that England's brave young boys had legitimately perfected this mysterious art and the ageing Aussies were not up to it.
I have no reason to believe that England tampered with the balls they used to defeat Australia, and I am yet to see anything to suggest that Pakistan were guilty of acting in this way over the weekend. Reverse swing can be generated naturally on dry, abrasive surfaces when a ball is carefully looked after, and both teams could have achieved the phenomenon through legitimate means.
It is these conditions that prevail on the sub-continent, particularly in Pakistan where the pitches are amongst the flattest in the world, and it is why the method of bowling developed there. Sarfraz Nawaz, the former Pakistan fast bowler, is looked on as the founder of reverse swing and the technique has been passed down from one generation of fast bowler to the next.
The physics behind why a ball reverse swings is very complicated but the wear and tear caused by the hard, rough pitches in Pakistan allows it to happen more quickly than in other parts of the world. During my time with Middlesex, we used to practise reverse swing in the nets, and two or three minutes rubbing the ball on a piece of concrete used to do the job (not something we would ever dream of repeating during a match, of course).
Teams are aware of the consequences of being caught but they also know that the process can be accelerated by the occasional strategic scratch, and it is this that the umpires accused Pakistan of at the Oval. The designated fielder - most teams tend to have one - will, in an attempt to accentuate the roughing up of one side, scratch the scuff mark created by the previous delivery. When this is done well it is very difficult to detect.
The whole issue of ball tampering and the irregular way in which it is interpreted annoys me intensely. To me there are huge inconsistencies about the law. I mean, how can it be legal to improve the condition of a cricket ball - by polishing it - but unlawful to increase its rate of deterioration? A cricket ball is the tool with which a bowler plies his trade and I believe that, within reason, he should be allowed to do what he likes to it. Obviously a bowler cannot stand at the end of his run-up with a Swiss Army knife cutting chunks of leather out of the ball, but what difference is the odd little scratch with a fingernail going to make to a piece of hide that has just been thrown at a rock hard piece of turf at 90mph? Being able to swing the ball does not bring automatic success and only the best use it to great effect.
Scratching is not the only means of changing the condition of a ball. For years fielders have surreptitiously placed lip salve, sun cream, hair wax, vaseline or polish on their face or trousers in an effort to get a better shine on it. Attitudes have changed recently and players now suck sweets, believing that the extra sugar in their saliva, when transferred to the ball, will help improve its lustre. There are teams in county cricket who swear by this method and there will be dozens of players playing today who are happily rotting their teeth to try to get a ball to swing. If the laws of the game were to be strictly observed the umpires would be reporting several instances of ball tampering on a daily basis.
But are they all cheats? And was I a cheat for occasionally raising the seam with my fingernail or making the scuff mark caused by the ball hitting the pitch a little larger? Or was Michael Atherton cheating when he was caught on camera putting dirt on a cricket ball when captaining England against South Africa at Lord's in 1994?
I do not think so. I am no more of a cheat than a batsman who stands his ground when he knows that he has hit the ball, or a fielder who claims a catch that has not carried. And as for Atherton, he was doing nothing more than attempting to keep one side of the ball dry - for reverse swing - on a hot, humid afternoon in central London.
I was bowling at the other end to Darren Gough, a reverse-swing specialist, when Atherton was performing his deed but I had no idea of what was taking place. And, ironically, had he called for sawdust, and used that to dry the ball rather than dirt, the event would have passed without interest. Atherton escaped the wrath of the match referee when the England and Wales Cricket Board moved in swiftly and fined him £2,000 before he could act.
Chucking is another highly emotive subject. Why? Could it have something to do with the fact that by straightening his arm a bowler could be gaining some sort of advantage over batsmen, the lawmakers of cricket?
Has anyone sat down and considered why bowlers push the laws to the limit? If you look at the law changes that have taken place you will be hard pressed to find an alteration that has made a bowler's life easier. The covering of pitches, the lbw law, no-balls, running on the pitch, the restriction of fielders behind square-leg, smaller boundaries and limiting the number of bouncers in an over have all had the required affect - making runs almost as easy to accumulate as A levels. So come on lads, give the bowlers a chance.
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