When W G Grace used to scuff the ball with a porcupine in his pocket

Some of the most well-known ball tampering incidents over the years

Chennai, Mar 28: The ball-tampering issue was a vexatious controversy involving Australian and South African Test teams, but thanks to the quick and smart handling of it by the various stakeholders — this is the beauty of collective working — it has ended up as a full-blown international cricketing crisis.

Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft have all been banned from cricket, as Cricket Australia chief James Sutherland himself flew to South Africa to conduct first-hand inquiries into the matter. This was a surprise for us in Asia. For, even when Bob Woolmer was found dead in his hotel room, no one from the PCB flew down to West Indies. But okay, that was Pakistan being Pakistan.

The mini controversy from the bigger controversy is about the role of Australia coach Darren Lehmann.  They say he did not know what his players were up to. He was apparently, as the meme-makers would have it in this part of the world, ‘the mixture-eating guy’ in the dressing room. If he knew what was happening, he should have been sacked for conniving. If he wasn’t aware, he needs to go on the grounds of inefficiency.

The two umpires on the field also had no clue, as they did not see anything remotely amiss. Nigel Llong and Richard Illingworth had gone through their work with the exact sincerity of your modern-day corporate executives attend Monday-morning meetings. They remind us of that oldest cliche that teachers in India never get tired of repeating, “physically present, mentally absent”.

Elsewhere, both Smith and Warner have been banned by the IPL, which has a zero-tolerance policy towards cheating by others. In the coming days though, there will be  a commercial deal, and IPL will have its first “Official Sandpaper Supplier”.

Anyway, ball-tampering is not something new to world cricket. Goes back to the time of WG Grace, who, it is said, used to carry a porcupine in his pant pocket to alter the condition of the ball with its sharp quills. Once the porcupine fell out of his pocket, and Grace, without missing a beat, nonchalantly picked and put it back in his pocket, “pretty friendly, isn’t it?” and continued playing as if nothing had happened. (It is in memory of that porcupine of Grace that many members of Lord’s maintain a prickly, piercing attitude even today.)

Here we have collated some such well-known incidents connected with ball-tampering from the annals of cricketing history that we solely have access to:

  • The first known recorded incidence of ball-tampering happened at a match in the Essex league in 1903.  William Maloney, a player in one of the teams, was the man entrusted with the task of shining up one side of the ball. This he did by constantly stuffing his mouth with mints and applying the saliva on the ball. On one occasion, he overdid the mint stuffing that his sugar levels shot up and he swooned on the field. To this day, he is in the Wisden for being the first and the only player to retire hurt due to diabetes.
  • One of the well-known incidents of ball-tampering that created quite a stir in its time involved England paceman John Lever during the tour to India in 1977. How to swing the ball in Indian conditions, Lever is said to have asked his skipper on that tour Tony Greig. “Use a box of vaseline,” Greig distractedly replied to him, apparently suggesting that he surreptitiously use the cap of vaseline box to rough up the ball. But Lever, being an typical English fast bowler, in the sense he was not given to thinking, went ahead and bought a box of vaseline and applied all its content on his forehead that he looked like a dummy at Madam Tussauds. He could as well have written on his forehead: “I am trying to cheat here”. It would have been decidedly more subtle.
  • Imran Khan, Sarfraz Nawaz and Sikander Bakht were the pioneers of reverse swing in the 80s in Pakistan. “They could ‘do’ the ball so expertly that it used to reverse swing even when Abdul Qadir was bowling,” was what Wisden said of the 80s matches in Pakistan. But none of the visiting teams quite managed to get even normal swing in Pakistan in those times.  Later it turned out that all touring teams were basically supplied with tennis balls painted with red lacquer.
  • This is another story from the ever happening Pakistan dressing room. Wasim Akram and Waqar were the game’s greatest aces when it came to reverse swing. Shoaib Akhtar wanted to understand the nuances of the same, and pigeonholed Akram on the same.  “Bhai, tell me what is reverse swing?” he asked. “It is the swing in the opposite direction to the one that the batsman expects it to,” Akram said and added “You must practice it regularly”. The next day when Akram arrived at the nets, he was surprised to see Akhtar trying to bowl left arm. “yeh kya kar raha hai?” a puzzled Akram asked Akhtar. “Bhai, aap ne tho bhola reverse swing practice kharo. Wohi practice kar raha hoon. Right arm se inswing, left arm pe outswing. Kisi ko patha nahi padenga.” Akhtar to this day still wonders why he never quite got the hang of reverse swing like his illustrious colleagues.
  • This is not about ball-tampering, but about reverse swing. India’s opening ball bowler Sanjeev Sharma, once on a trip to West Indies, wanted to pick the brains of legendary fast-bowler Wes Hall on the intricacies of reverse swing and how to surprise the batsman. Hall, in his typical Barbadian baritone, said “No need to surprise the batsman with reverse swing. At your pace it will be a big surprise for the batsman if you can come up with any damn swing, son”.