Legalise tampering, put the thrill back in reverse swing bowling – a tempting thought
New Zealand’s Jimmy Neesham has recently added his voice to a fairly august constituency that counts Allan Donald and Richard Hadlee among its brethren. Its members believe that ball tampering should be legalised.
Here, first, is a little tale, in which there is no need for names or specific geographic locations. Most readers will be able to work out with a fair degree of accuracy its principal details.
Many years ago, in the subcontinent, a fast bowler was struggling to get the ball to reverse. At some point in the spell, on the walk back to his mark the umpire – before they were mandatorily neutral – asked him why it was not reversing for him.
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Beats me, said the bowler. The umpire asked to see the ball, took out a set of keys from his pocket, dug them into the ball to scratch it some more and tossed it back to the bowler. Everybody can guess what might have happened next.
There might well be some exaggeration on the part of the teller of that story. But in both the umpire’s complicity with the home side, and the use of artificial objects, there are decent-sized kernels of truth. That was just how reverse swing rolled back then.
Those days are long gone. It is almost impossible to imagine elite umpires getting in on the act as they might have before. And reverse swing has changed, both in how it is bowled and how it is obtained.
The thrill of the early years of reverse is impossible to forget, so much so that memories of it colour our expectations of what reverse swing should be even now. Imran Khan in 1982-83, or the two Ws (Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis) in the early 1990s – to this day, those spells represent the purest form of reverse, where the length had to be yorker-full, the speeds 90mph-high and the dip and swing outrageous, as if the illusionist Uri Geller had happened upon the flight of a ball and decided to bend it with his mind.
Reverse swing now is no longer Pakistan’s reverse swing. Collectively, England are probably producing the best exponents now. And in their hands, it is a far subtler weapon, not prompting quite the same visceral love anymore, but demanding a more cerebral appreciation.
The spectacle itself is lesser. Rarely does it swing as sharply – though both James Anderson and Stuart Broad did get extravagant movement last year in a Test in Sharjah. Batsmen are also smarter about dealing with it now, so those wondrous collapses do not occur as often.
The movement is more acute. Lengths need not aim for the toes. Edging behind is a legitimate reverse-swing dismissal now, whereas previously it might have been interpreted as an insult to the art. Anderson and company can also extract it at a far lesser pace than was once thought necessary.
Much of this transformation is a result of the greater vigilance over what bowlers do to balls. It is not easy to get away with scratching a ball, or lifting the seam. Using foreign objects is impossible.
Akram has a point in his oft-repeated moans that Pakistan were accused of cheating when they reverse-swung it, whereas it has been accepted as a science now.
It is not the point he thinks he is making, though. The point is that it has actually changed. Tampering still exists no doubt – South Africa have been caught a couple of times recently enough for that to still be the case.
Domestic first-class cricket is mostly played without TV cameras and so an easier platform to tamper in. Players know there are some on the circuit who are good at it and better at getting away with it. In Pakistan, there is at least one domestic player renowned – and sought after – for the freakish sharpness and strength of his nails.
But to a greater degree than ever before, teams have found ways to work the ball into the right condition by means that are essentially legitimate: bowl a lot of cross-seam deliveries to rough one side up; throw the ball in on the bounce; and like one of the rules about taking care of gremlins, do not, absolutely not, get the ball wet.
The route of the ball back to the bowler is different after a dot ball to one where runs have been scored. Only certain players are allowed to handle it. Conditions matter, ball types matter, circumstances matter. Teams like England have turned this, if not into an exact science, than at least a less crude, more refined process than before.
Calls to legalise tampering always sound tempting. Who does not want to see once again the kind of spells that we once did? And who does not want to bring some balance back into the central cricketing equation?
But down that road lies folly. Where will you draw the line on how and to what degree you can tamper a ball? Bar foreign objects by all means, but can you monitor players’ fingernails, the greatest tool known to reverse swing? Do you put a limit on how long or sharp they can be?
How about the various creams players use, or Vaseline, or hair gel? They can be deployed to alter the condition of a ball. So too can the mints and sweets they eat, which affect saliva and so the shine.
Imagine getting into the legislation for this.
Cricket and its laws and regulations is plenty complicated as it is, without making it even more so.
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Published: September 25, 2016 04:00 AM