In the summer of 2005, with Test cricket struggling to stay relevant in many parts of the world, England beat Australia in an epic Ashes series. It was their first success over the old enemy in a generation, and for a few weeks, cricket competed with football for headlines on the sports pages.
The narrative of that five-Test series was a compelling one. The expected Australian victory at Lord’s, Glenn McGrath’s freakish ankle injury, Andrew Flintoff’s all-round tour de force in an unforgettable Test at Edgbaston, Ricky Ponting’s Old Trafford defiance, England sneaking home by a hair’s breadth at Trent Bridge, Shane Warne’s colossal on-field displays even as his off-field shenanigans dominated tabloid coverage, and Kevin Pietersen’s series-sealing 158 at The Oval.
But throughout that summer, there was another key protagonist that didn’t get much by way of column inches – the humble Murray Mint. Marcus Trescothick, England’s ball-carer-in-chief, much to the dietician’s discomfort or otherwise, kept chewing on them, and the sticky coating applied to the ball resulted in devastating reverse swing for their quartet of pace bowlers. Australia’s much-vaunted batting line-up crumpled repeatedly against balls that tailed in at their shoelaces.
Exactly 13 years earlier, England had been on the receiving end, as Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis got boomerang-like swing to trigger middle and lower-order collapses in a series the visitors won 2-1. Of course, when they did it, it was ‘cheating’. In English hands a generation later, cheating metamorphosed into ‘skill’.
Down the years, few things have divided opinion among cricket aficionados quite like ball tampering. Quite a significant number are happy to overlook minor transgressions – a mint here, a long nail there – especially in a scenario where advances in bat technology and changes in pitch preparation have skewed the playing fields so much in the batsmen’s favour.
Where almost everyone draws the line is at blatant acts of cheating – Cameron Bancroft taking a strip of sandpaper on to the field, or Shahid Afridi biting into the ball as though it was a juicy morsel of filet mignon. But as Australia discovered in South Africa recently, the ‘line’ between what’s permissible and what constitutes unfair play is a hard one to draw. The only option left to the law-makers then is to clamp down on all kinds of tampering, whether that’s rubbing the ball against a zipper, using mints or taking the sandpaper to it.
So lax has been the policing of such transgressions that what happened with Bancroft is Cape Town was an incident waiting to happen. You give cricketers a grey area in the laws, and you can be rest assured they will exploit it. It doesn’t matter if it’s Sachin Tendulkar trying to clean the seam, or Faf du Plessis wearing special trousers, players will always try and gain every little advantage for their team. That’s the nature of sport, and lectures on morality are fairly pointless in an age when the stakes are so high.
The fact that Dinesh Chandimal, Sri Lanka’s captain, attempted to change the condition of the ball in the recent series in the Caribbean, and then brazenly refused to take the field when the umpires and match referee took action gives you an inkling of how casually many players take the matter, despite the fallout of the Cape Town incident. Chandimal was subsequently banned for the third Test, and should get the strongest possible punishment for the disgraceful stand-off that followed him being caught out.
All the administrators can do is make sure the penalties are so harsh that anyone who so much as looks at a piece of sandpaper will avert their gaze. Changing the condition of the ball will now be a Level 3 offence, and the quantum of punishment for it can go up to 12 suspension points, which means a ban for six Tests or 12 ODIs. For most countries, that would effectively mean a season down the drain.
It’s also praiseworthy that personal abuse – some of the vilest examples of which were aired during that South Africa-Australia series – will also attract stringent sanctions. For a long time now, cricket has been kidding itself about on-field ‘banter’, when players say things that would get them the sack in any other workplace. And with teams so unaware of the mythical line between genuine humour and foul abuse, the only option is to clamp down hard.
Personal slurs will now fall under level 2 or level 3, with the punishments rising accordingly. And in the most interesting twist, the ICC’s Cricket Committee has empowered the match referees by ruling that a judicial commissioner will come into the picture only to hear Level 4 appeals. Such a move was always in the offing after Kagiso Rabada and a high-profile legal team managed to overturn a two-match ban during that controversial series against Australia.
Appeal fees should dissuade frivolous pleas for second chances, but most importantly, making the match referee’s word the final one should prevent repeats of the James Anderson-Ravindra Jadeja fiasco that so coloured India’s last tour of England in 2014. There was not a soul at Trent Bridge who didn’t believe Anderson had abused Jadeja – he could be seen mouthing off all the way to the pavilion – but once it went to appeal, the whole affair became a he-said-he-didn’t farce. Anderson got away scot-free.
In an ideal world, such punitive measures wouldn’t be necessary. But when grown men behave like immature, entitled brats, and worse still like dolts completely unaware of their responsibilities to the game – step forward Messrs Warner, Smith and Bancroft – you’re left with no choice. If cricket has to become a nanny state to arrest the decline in standards, then so be it.