In a 21-Test career spread across 10 years, England left-arm seamer John Lever could never relive the high of his stellar maiden series against India. He kicked that off with a 10-wicket haul on debut in Delhi in 1976-77. Lever’s menacing swing was one of the reasons England quickly went 2-0 up in the series, but his soaring stock crashed abruptly in the third Test in Chennai.
The umpire noticed a Vaseline-smeared strip of gauze left at the base of the stumps at one end. Bishan Singh Bedi alleged that Lever was using that Vaseline to unfairly impart shine to the ball. English captain Tony Greig maintained that his bowlers wore gauze strips above their eyebrows to avoid getting sweat into the eyes.
Things got preposterous after that—the Indian cricket board sent the match ball and a piece of the gauze to the forensic lab in Chennai. Lever and Greig were seen as villains. Eventually, nothing was proven, and no action was taken, but what became known as “The Vaseline Incident” is the first of a long line of explosive scenes from cricket’s oddest morality play—ball tampering.
Odd, because allegations or proven incidents of tampering invite great moral judgement and official punishment—think Steve Smith, David Warner, and Cameron Bancroft in 2018 in “Sandpaper Gate”—yet, just about every player through the history of the game has done it. Sachin Tendulkar has done it. So has Rahul Dravid. Shahid Afridi was caught on camera biting the ball.
Now those actions—well, not the biting—could get the nod if the International Cricket Council (ICC) walks the talk of legalising use of artificial substances on the ball under the supervision of umpires in Tests.
Why? Because when cricket resumes in a post COVID-19 world, extraordinary importance will be given to ensure a hygienic environment where the virus isn’t passed on through bodily fluids. Which means the only legal route that bowlers have to encourage the ball to swing—using sweat and saliva to shine one side of the ball—may now be banned.
Players have reacted with alarm at the possibility.
“You’re sharing change rooms and you’re sharing everything else, I don’t see why you have to change that,” Australia opener David Warner told cricket.com.au. “It’s been going around for hundreds of years now, I can’t recall anyone that’s got sick by doing that. If you’re going to contract a bug, I don’t think it’d necessarily be just from that.”
The former Pakistani fast bowler Waqar Younis, one of the finest exponents of swing in the history of the game, said he rejects any proposal to ban the use of sweat and saliva. West Indies great Michael Holding called the idea illogical.
Former India fast bowler Ashish Nehra told espn.in that not allowing the use of sweat or saliva is akin to “murdering the bowlers.”
Using saliva and sweat to “maintain” an old ball is an integral part of the game. This is how it works. Normally, the lacre of a Test ball wears off in 15-20 overs. As that happens, the bowling team begins to try and maintain the shine on one side of the ball. If the ball has one shiny side and one rough side, then the rough side experiences more friction as the ball moves through the air, making the ball swing towards the shiny side.
Nehra offered a masterclass of the intricacies behind it to espn.in: “There are different ways to shine the ball. Sometimes you don’t shine the other side completely, especially if your ball has landed on the seam,” he said. “Sometimes the ball goes to boundary or into the stands and comes back damaged, then you shine the ball in a different way. You shine a Kookaburra in a different way, a Dukes in a different way and you shine SG Test in a different way. You shine a new ball differently. When the ball is old and it is reversing. sometimes you put more sweat. When the ball is not reversing you are only using spit. When there is a new ball you only put very, very little spit wherever there is a scratch.”
Stop all that, and the ball stops moving through the air, and batsmen have a field day in a sport that already heavily favours heavy scoring. Nehra does not believe that there is a viable alternative, not even legalised ball tampering, though South African great Allan Donald has even spoken out in its favour.
“I absolutely agree with legalising ball-tampering,” he told espn.in.
“There’s no reason why, if you are really struggling at the SCG and you are looking for reverse swing, you shouldn’t be able to try and get some by working the ball. It evens the game out. I don’t mean you should be able to bring bottle tops onto the field or bite the ball, but I genuinely think there is scope for working on the ball, if it is well controlled.”
Ball tampering comes into play when players use means other than saliva or sweat to shine the ball, or try to make the rough side rougher—common techniques for which are scratching with fingernails and ‘frisbeeing’ the ball, that is, making the ball bounce off the ground, trying to land it more on one side than the other, something umpires are often on the lookout for. Current Pakistan premier and former all-rounder Imran Khan admitted to using a bottle top to scratch the rough surface in his biography.
“There are so many ways to prepare the ball,” former Pakistan quick Shoaib Akhtar wrote in his autobiography. “It’s not just a matter of scratching it. I have used my boot nails and the zip of my back pocket. Many bowlers use vaseline or gum on the ball. The only way to stop this is for the ICC to ensure that at least some pitches are prepared in favour of bowlers.”