How a packet of mints may have swung the Ashes

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The Independent Online

Nearly six weeks after England ground out their famous win at the Oval, a leading Australian player has shocked the cricket world by claiming the home side was propelled to victory by the humble peppermint.

The fast bowler Nathan Bracken, who has played English county cricket but was left out of the Australian side, believes the swing bowlers Andrew Flintoff and Simon Jones may have had a little help from the team's candy jar, using their sugary saliva to alter the way the ball moves.

Though this is technically legal, the game has cracked down hard on players found guilty of ball tampering. An Indian batsman has been reprimanded for rubbing a lozenge on the ball during a one-day match. But Bracken said the technique of adding sugar to the ball was commonplace in England.

"It is just a breath mint you put in your mouth, but it makes your saliva very sugary," said Bracken yesterday. "When I was playing at Gloucester a couple of years ago, as soon as we needed the ball to go 'Irish', they would bring out some of these mints and it would work," he told the Sydney radio station 2KY.

The combined destructive power of Flintoff and Jones claimed 42 Australian wickets, largely due to their ability to swing the ball. The visiting bowlers, with the exception of Shane Warne, who span rather than swung the ball, struggled to get any movement.

Jones dismissed Bracken's claim as "sour grapes" yesterday, and denied any wrongdoing. "Are you telling me that they haven't done it?" he said. "What's happened on the field, happened on the field, and I can't believe that a guy who didn't even play in the series has come out with such a comment."

Jones was backed by the England and Wales Cricket Board. "Bowlers and fielders are allowed to add saliva to the ball. The match umpires saw nothing untoward with the way that the ball was treated."

Scientists also admitted to being stumped by the claim. Bowlers are able to make the ball swing by exploiting the basic laws of aerodynamics, explained Dr Martin Strangwood, of Birmingham University's Sport Material Research Group. They do this by polishing one side with sweat or saliva while allowing the other to become rough. This moves the "boundary layer", the point at which the air becomes turbulent around the circumference of the ball, creating the lift seen in a sail or an aeroplane wing. Bracken's theory appears to be that sugar helps to smoothen the surface on the shiny side - filling tiny scratches in the leather - and exaggerating the swing.

But Dr Strangwood, an avid Warwickshire fan, is unconvinced. "The effect of the sugar would be very small. Where it has worked in the past is by using Vaseline or sun-tan lotion, substances where you have a lot more oil putting a layer on the ball like the manufacturers' original lacquer finish."

Among the finest exponents of reverse swing was Pakistani bowler Waqar Younis, some of whose 373 Test wickets prompted outraged allegations from opposition batsmen. He played down the row. "These controversies have always been with the game. The West Indies used to rub the ball on their arms. It's nice to see you boys doing it. When we used to do it, you used to call it a lot of things," he said.

The former England bowler Angus Fraser said there had been murmurs about the use of sweets for some time. "I've heard that some teams have a guy in the field with a bag of wine gums in his pocket. But the fact is that ball-tampering works.

"Perhaps one easy way to check would be to inspect the player's dental records at the end of each season and see how many fillings they have had," he said.