A cricket ball is a peculiar object. Primitive, volatile, a relic of the game’s origins in a pre-industrial world, its behaviour still baffles physicists. Over the years, bowlers, seeking to exploit the mysterious properties with which the solid sphere of leather, twine and cork seems endowed, have done just about everything imaginable to it. They have polished and scratched, dried and moistened the ball, applied spit, sweat, sawdust, sun cream, lipsalve, hair oil and, yes, dirt.
Cricket’s tradition of nursing a single ball as long as possible, rather than replacing it with a new one, derives from an era when balls could not be mass produced (cricket balls are still expensive items). Along with the vagaries of the pitch and the weather, the ever-changing condition of the ball became one of the prerequisites for the display of all the game’s varied skills and moods. It also became a key factor in cricket’s perennial controversy over the rival claims of bat and ball.
At the dawn of cricket’s history as a modern team sport – the world’s first – there was already debate over the legitimacy of bowling actions. Jerking, throwing, pitching, pushing were all denounced, but it always proved difficult to define them clearly enough to allow umpires to make consistent rulings. The laws have been tampered with even more than the ball in a vain quest for the perfect balance between bowler and batsman.
In the course of the 19th century, the argument between batsmen and bowlers was shaped by cricket’s peculiar division of labour. For the landed élite who dominated the game, bowling was disdained as a species of manual work. These lofty amateurs cultivated their strokeplay with the help of professional bowlers, often retained as personal servants, who bowled to them for hours on end. Public schools and universities followed their example. Because they had the better bowlers, the professional players usually beat the amateur gentlemen in their annual contests. But it was the gentlemen who made the rules, in cricket as elsewhere.
In the mid-19th century, over-arm bowling transformed the game, making it both more skilful and more explosive. It was an innovation wrought by the best professional bowlers of the day and it was against the laws. Despite a rearguard fight by the anti-professional traditionalists, the MCC, the premier club, recognising as always that some accommodation with the realities of the marketplace was essential if it was to preserve its ancient privileges, legalised over-arm bowling in 1864. But it offered the batsmen compensation by requiring that the ball be delivered with a straight arm. The speed of the bowler’s action makes this rule hard to enforce and there have been rows about ‘chucking’ ever since.
Only a few years before the advent of over-arm, Tom Brown’s School Days had placed cricket on a par with Britain’s unwritten constitution. The ancient festive pastime was becoming ‘more than a game’. With an ideology fashioned in the burgeoning public schools, it soon acquired the pomp and pretension of a national institution. ‘Chucking’ became not just an infraction of the rules, but a crime against ‘the spirit of the game’. Offenders could expect little mercy.
‘Playing the game’, abiding by its unwritten constitution, became the first duty of all cricketers, and especially the captain of the side. In the early years of the 19th century, cricket captaincy was seen as an exercise in cunning. By its end, the cricket captain stood for an ideal of leadership, for the natural moral and intellectual superiority of an élite. At the same time, captaincy became the preserve of amateurs. Those who exercised leadership off the field had to be seen to do the same on it – even if they were patently unqualified for the job.
With the growth of Test cricket as the supreme form of the game, the ancient argument between bat and ball was overlaid by arguments between nations. The ‘bodyline’ controversy of 1932-3 arose because the English cricket establishment was desperate to contain the record-breaking batting of Australian prodigy Don Bradman. England captain Douglas Jardine, a wealthy patrician, and fast bowler Harold Larwood, a Nottinghamshire miner, systematically attacked the batsman’s body with persistent leg-side bowling. This was within the laws but, to Australians at least, outside the spirit of the game. After much acrimony, the English authorities retreated; they changed the LBW law to restrict leg-side bowling and scape-goated both Jardine and Larwood. In Jardine Justified, Bruce Harris observed: ‘So used are batsmen to being on top that when a form of attack is evolved to put bowlers on terms again up rises a wail of protest.’
The same complaint could have been voiced by the Pakistanis in 1992. That summer, the English cricket authorities’ long-standing resentment of their Pakistani counterparts (especially their call for neutral, third-country umpires) combined with the English tabloids’ penchant for spicing their sports coverage with racial and national conflict. The result was the great ball-tampering blow-up.
Initially, the media complained about the tourists’ allegedly aggressive behaviour and apparent disrespect for the umpire. Ball-tampering emerged as a focus only towards the end of the summer. Without the heated build-up, any concern about Law 42.5 (on altering the condition of the ball) would have been dealt with through cricket’s usual channels, behind closed doors.
Pakistan’s victory in the series owed much to the superb fast bowling of Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis and their mastery of ‘reverse swing’. The duo appeared to have turned upside down the received wisdom about the behaviour of a cricket ball in flight; they were able to make the old ball swing late and in the opposite direction to the new ball. The secret, it seems, is letting one side of the ball get dry and rough while weighing the other side down with saliva and sweat. This is entirely within the laws of the game. Only if the deterioration of the ball is hastened by scratching or gouging is it illegal.
In Pakistan wickets are hard and outfields gravelly. The new ball quickly loses its shine. As Wasim Akram explained, if you can’t ‘do something’ with the old ball, battered and scarred as it is, you don’t succeed as a bowler in Pakistan. Thus, reverse swing, like over-arm bowling before it, was born out of the bowlers’ eternal struggle to get on to an even footing with the batsmen. But for the tabloids, it became synonymous with ‘ball-tampering’. They concluded that the secret of the Pakistani success was illegal scuffing of the ball. ‘PAK OFF THE CHEATS FOR FIVE YEARS,’ demanded the Sun. The Mirror was for an indefinite ban: ‘Maybe they should be apart until they have earned the total respect of the rest of the cricketing world.’
All this struck the Pakistanis and their supporters in Britain as an example of the familiar English habit of defining fair play according to their convenience. They knew, as did everyone high up in English cricket, that over the previous decade English county bowlers, exasperated by dead wickets, low seams on the ball, and the new prohibition against rubbing the ball in the dirt, had often resorted to lifting the seam or scuffing the surface. Umpires rarely took action.
Earlier this summer, the controversy was revived when Imran Khan confessed that once in a county match in the early Eighties he had used a bottle top to doctor the ball. He also said that from time to time, like many other bowlers, he had scratched the leather or lifted the seam. He was pilloried by Fleet Street, and his admission was taken as proof that the Pakistanis had cheated in 1992. In fact, Imran’s intention had been to exonerate Waqar and Wasim. He argued that ball tampering of one kind or another was so widespread that it was unjust – and probably racist – to single out the Pakistanis for vilification. He also argued that one reason ball-tampering was so widespread was that the law governing it was confused, illogical and unenforceable.
Imran has been vindicated by the drama which recently unfolded around the unlikely figure of Mike Atherton, who had seemed destined to become the most widely respected England captain since Mike Brearley. Then came the Saturday of the Lord’s Test. After lunch, the visitors dug in to extend their first innings lead. Atherton had brought on Darren Gough, England’s most promising fast bowler for years – and the first Englishman to master reverse swing. The ball was more than thirty overs old. Television cameras caught Atherton reaching into his pocket and apparently removing from it a substance which he then applied to the rough side of the ball. After polishing the shiny side on his trousers, he handed the ball to Gough, who took it daintily between thumb and forefinger. Alerted by the television images, the umpires inspected the ball regularly but could find no evidence that it had been tampered with. At the close of play the Chairman of the England Selectors, Ray Illingworth, examined Atherton’s trousers. Shortly thereafter, Atherton took his trousers, along with England team manager Keith Fletcher, to a meeting with the match referee Peter Burge, reputedly a stickler for discipline.
After a two-hour meeting Burge announced ‘there was nothing untoward’ about Atherton’s ‘unfamiliar action’. He said he accepted the England captain’s explanation, but would not say what it was. The following day, after repeated showings of the television clips, it became clear that Burge’s statement would be unacceptable to a public which had been told two years before, on the basis of much flimsier evidence, that the Pakistanis deserved to be kicked out of the game.
On Sunday night, following England’s abysmal collapse and an easy victory for South Africa, Atherton and Illingworth held a press conference. ‘I am not a cheat,’ Atherton told the media. But he now admitted: ‘In my interview I didn’t present all the facts.’ He had told Burge that he put his sweaty hand in his pocket to dry it but had failed to inform him that there was dirt in the pocket to assist that process. ‘My fear was that it would be misconstrued,’ he said, thinking inevitably of the Pakistanis. He admitted his aim was ‘to get one side of the ball to remain dry to help the bowlers to gain reverse swing’, but denied applying any dirt directly to the ball.
Illingworth fined him £1000 for failing to tell Burge the truth and another £1000 for ‘using dirt’, ever though he accepted Atherton’s claim that he had not used it to alter the condition of the ball. ‘We have to be seen to be whiter than white,’ he explained. ‘Things have gone on in Test cricket – not England but other sides – and they have got away with it. But we have taken firm and prompt action. As far as I am concerned the matter is closed.’
The affair preoccupied the media for the following week. The Mirror hastily transformed its campaign against the Pakistanis into a crusade against ball-tampering in general. The Times called for Atherton’s resignation, as did Jonathan Agnew, the BBC’s chief cricket correspondent. In the end, though, Atherton’s defenders in the media outnumbered his detractors. Most felt his offence was a minor one, and that he was more foolish than criminal.
On the Friday following the Lord’s Test, Atherton held another press conference. He admitted for the first time that Burge had asked him if there were ‘substances’ in his pocket and that he had answered falsely. ‘At no time did I attempt to unlawfully alter the condition of the ball,’ he insisted. ‘On a couple of occasions, as the television pictures highlighted, I had dust on my fingers and wiped them on the ball.’ So he had not merely dried his fingers with the dust, but used the dust to dry the ball? ‘Of course ... That’s the whole point of having the dirt on the fingers, so that the sweat doesn’t get on the ball.’
Eager to clear his name, Atherton tied himself in knots trying to define exactly what he had done and why he considered it within the laws of the game. In the end, his defence came down to custom and practice. ‘Test players do not think it’s a problem,’ he insisted. Like Imran, he believed he was playing the game within the parameters accepted by other professionals. But squaring this reality with the language of Law 42.5 was difficult. Under this law, cricketers are not allowed to do anything to ‘alter the condition of the ball’ – but they are allowed to polish, dry or clean it. They are allowed to apply spit or sweat but not ‘artificial’ substances. They are allowed to rub their hands in the dirt, but not to rub the ball in the dirt. Are they then allowed to rub the dirt from their hands onto the ball? Who knows? What logic is there in a law which says you can smoothe out the rough bits of a ball but not rough up the smooth bits? And what logic in a game which offers high praise and great rewards to bowlers who can make the ball swing or leap – but shrouds in mystery the age-old means by which they do it?
As the supposed embodiment of both cricket’s and England’s innate moral virtues the England captaincy has no parallel in other sports or countries. Because of this, infractions are either glossed over or blown up out of all proportion. England captains have been dismissed for a variety of curious reasons over the years. Success on the field is always in demand, but it is often not enough. In 1968, Brian Close was relieved of the post when he failed to apologise to the selectors for a time-wasting incident in a Yorkshire match. Tony Greig was cast into outer darkness for signing up with Kerry Packer. Mike Gatting was removed following a late-night hotel rendezvous with a barmaid. Ossic Wheatley, the man responsible for that decision, took a different tack towards Atherton’s offence. With the air of a liberal-minded magistrate, he opined: ‘If someone does something thoughtless it should not destroy a promising career.’
By what standards then are England captains judged? Is it possible or desirable to establish a consistent moral yardstick? Do we really want the people who run English cricket – the people who aided and abetted apartheid cricket for decades – setting ethical standards? In other countries the captain comes under intense pressure from the media and officialdom, but he is not expected to be a head prefect either on or off the field. The two most successful and long-serving captains of the last twenty years, Clive Lloyd and Alan Border, frequently sailed close to the wind and certainly bickered with domestic authorities and umpires. There was no serious suggestion that they were morally unfit to lead their countries. Poor Atherton, burdened by so much history, caught in the endless crossfire between bowlers and batsmen, muffled in the mystique of the England captaincy, paying the price of the media’s crusade against the Pakistanis. What had been exposed on television was not so much the moral character of Mike Atherton as the gap between what English cricket is and what it claims to be.