Scratching the surface

cricket ball

Forget what the poet said about scorned women. In July we learned that hell hath no fury like a cricket ball scratched.

No sooner had Vernon Philander’s manicurist thrown her emory board across the room and yelled, ‘Why do I even bother?’ than the condemnation began. Ryan Harris took time off from tightening the bolts that keep his body together to state that ball-tampering was equivalent to match-fixing. A similar thought spread like rumours of a plague through local cricket circles. Suddenly feeling an old twinge in their faded Hansie scar, respected South African correspondents described Philander’s actions with the c-word: cheating.

One or two suggested that ball-tampering should be legalised or at least destigmatised, but these heretics were howled down in the comments sections by fans who clearly believe ball-tampering is the fifth rider of the apocalypse. ‘Stone him!’ they cried, ‘but be careful not to change the condition of the stone before you throw it at him …’

Personally, the incident disgusted me. Seeing one of South Africa’s bowlers scratching at the ball left me depressed and appalled. Because of course it should have been all South Africa’s bowlers scratching at the ball. And the bit that disgusted me the most? The 75% match fee fine handed to Philander.

In case I haven’t made myself clear, let me do so now. I don’t believe that changing the condition of the ball is cheating. I don’t even think it’s a misdemeanour. I believe it should go into coaching manuals, and from Perth to Peshawar little children should be taught that changing the condition of the ball is as noble an art as swing-bowling or wrist-spin.

Let me also say that I don’t expect you to agree with me. I don’t even expect you to believe this is a debate worth having. But this enormous blind spot isn’t your fault. It’s the game’s. Injustice and asymmetry are so entrenched in cricket now that they have become more or less invisible to most fans.

When debuting Sri Lankan keeper Niroshan Dickwella claimed a dubious catch off AB de Villiers in Colombo and was fined 10% of his match fee and given an official reprimand, most fans would have felt that justice had been done. But how many of those justice-seeking fans have demanded an identical punishment for batsmen who nick it and don’t walk? I would guess very few. And that’s because the hegemony of the batting class has come to be seen as normal, and its entrenched two-tiered morality has stopped looking like hypocrisy. And yet the hypocrisy is stark. By having a law for cheating fielders but no equivalent for cheating batsmen the game is telling us that batsmen are gentlemen operating according to a gentlemen’s agreement, while bowlers need policing because they are (the implication seems to be) working-class rabble predisposed to crime.

But before I get carried away about cricket’s class wars, perhaps I should get back to the basics in my defence of Philander, and look at fundamentals of cricket and how they got out of whack.

At its heart cricket is a competition between a bat and a ball, a tantalising struggle between attack and defence. Attack exposes vulnerabilities; defence surrenders momentum. Over decades, cricket developed a thrilling surface tension. Too much weight in either defence or attack, and the tension breaks, swamping the sport. But keep that tension just right, and you have a fantastic sport where risk and reward match each other step for step, where mistakes are punished, where initiative is rewarded, and where all life’s complex struggles seem elegantly acted out by 13 men in white on a stage of green grass.

The surface tension of cricket has been broken before, first during the Bodyline tour, and again during the Gotterdammerung of the late-1970s and early-80s when Australia sowed the wind and then reaped the West Indian whirlwind in a pace arms race that saw the game come dangerously close to becoming a blood sport. It was thrilling to watch from a safe distance, but  it wasn’t a fair fight. Great batsmen were getting only three or four scoring opportunities per hour and spending the rest of their innings waiting for the dreaded ‘death ball’, clear evidence that the game had swung hopelessly off balance. The batting elite hit back hard as they always have: via the law books. Bouncers were limited, rules against intimidatory bowling were introduced. Again, order was restored.

But now the surface has been punctured for a third time, and it is the bowlers who are drowning. I’ve complained about it for years but Geoff Lawson probably said it best in 2012. ‘If you’re not allowed to touch a cricket ball, let’s have standardised bats,’ said the former Australian quick. ‘If you look at a ball in the SCG Museum, it’s exactly the same as now, but if you look at cricket bats, we’ve got bazookas now where we had feather dusters before.’

Of course, Lawson wasn’t entirely right. According to rumours circulated by some bowlers and coaches, balls were updated in the early-90s, their cores subtly altered to make them swing … less. So, in fact, balls are slightly less potent than they were during Victoria’s reign. But don’t believe rumours or the ruminations of retired fast bowlers (who, let’s be honest, believe batsmen are pond scum who don’t deserve a single run, let alone 40 or 50.)

Rather consider the fact that, between 1970 and 2000, the average of the 10 best batsmen in the world (according to the ICC Reliance ratings) was just over 48. Now consider that, since 2000, the top 10 have averaged 52. Four runs doesn’t seem like a lot until you consider the difference between a bowler who averages 26 and one who averages 30, or a batsman who averages 46 versus one who averages 50: where averages are concerned, cricket fans understand that four runs can separate great from good or good from mediocre. And since 2000 the trend is clear: batsmen are scoring more freely and more consistently than perhaps at any time since high-class fast bowling became a feature of Test cricket.

All of which brings us back to the c-word. By most definitions, cheating is an act committed outside the rules of a game in order to gain an advantage. But given the indisputable imbalance between bat and ball; given that bowlers have been systemically placed at a disadvantage; is fiddling with the ball still cheating or is it simply an attempt to regain some semblance of equilibrium? Calling Philander a cheat, or frankly describing what he did as ‘tampering’, presupposes that cricket is a fair contest, and surely nobody can still believe this is the case?

Yes (replies the establishment), but you ball-tampering anarcho-vandals are forgetting one important point: by walking on to a cricket field, bowlers are agreeing to abide by the laws of the game as they stand. And you certainly can’t accept the laws that help you (such as the lbw laws) and cry foul over those that don’t.

It sounds like a solid legal argument but I would argue that this isn’t a legal issue but a political one. Cricket has been conquered and occupied by a batting regime, and the laws as they stand have become the illegitimate edicts of an illegitimate occupation. And I would also argue that just as it is the duty of a captured officer to attempt to escape whenever he or she can, it is the right of a citizen of an occupied country to try to defeat the laws imposed on him by that occupation. Ball-tampering is not a crime. It is an act of justifiable resistance.

Occupying powers engaged in ‘asymmetrical warfare’ tend to over-dramatise the weapons of the resistance. They might be pounding the insurgents with thousands of tons of laser-guided  ordnance, but it’s the shoulder-mounted rocket, the Molotov cocktail, that hogs the headlines. The batting regime has done the same with the cricket ball. Batsmen dressed in body armour, wielding bats made of laminated nuclear warheads, can now mistime reverse-sweeps for six, but a ball with a roughened hemisphere or an artificially raised seam is seen as something verging on a war crime. But let’s go there. Let’s confront the sum of all fears of the batting regime and imagine what would happen if bowlers were allowed to use their fingernails, teeth, sunscreen and perhaps even their boot spikes to work on the ball.

Would it mean he end of cricket as we know it? Teams shot out for 50? No. We would simply see a subtle shift of power back into the middle ground where dominance has always been fairly contested. Because the truth is that apparently unlimited ball-tampering is self-limiting. There is only so much damage you can do to a cricket ball before either seamers or spinners start being handicapped. Even the worst-case scenario – a ball altered to make it the ultimate reverse-swing weapon – would simply result in batsmen getting better at playing the late in-ducker, or the ICC limiting bowlers to two reverse-swinging balls per over.

Ultimately, the ball-tampering issue is not about justice or the spirit of the game. It is pleasant and comforting to cling on to those romantic relics from an imaginary golden age, but modern cricket is a business and the cold bottom line is that the big money that owns the sport cannot afford to let bowlers back in. The shareholders, intent on milking their asset for every cent, want every Test to go into the third session on Day 5. Budgets are founded on 450 obliging overs haemorrhaging 1 300 runs per match. Subtly but relentlessly the suits have prescribed to us our relationships with Test cricket, telling us that ‘nobody wants to see a three-day Test’, and by repeating it often enough they have convinced most fans that it’s true.

Well, call me a thrill-crazed nihilist but I would love to watch a three-day Test if it featured batsmen playing at their peak against bowlers allowed to use all their arts without restriction. It would make a grand change from the fat, complacent sport that thinks bigger is better; that tells us a batsman who makes 120 out of a total of 450 is representing cricket at its best while a batsman who makes 45 out of 150 has merely been the best of a somewhat shameful bunch. How quickly we seem to have forgotten the pleasures of a true contest. We want every batsman to score a ton, but we forget that it was the ultimate run-glutton, Sir Donald Bradman, who once declared Jonty Rhodes’ innings at Sydney in 1994 to be one of the best he’d ever seen – a score of just 76 not out.

I’m not saying I want batting to become a nightmare of rearguard actions on diabolical pitches. That would mean cricket has swung towards bowlers as much as it has currently swung towards batsmen. But we must acknowledge that the game is not a fair contest between bat and ball, and that we are being encouraged by vastly rich vested interests to believe that the batting hegemony is not only normal but needs to be strengthened. Our expectations are being ratcheted up relentlessly: already we start getting a bit bored when our IPL team is scoring at ‘only’ eight runs per over. We want 10. And when we get 10, we’ll want 15. And why? Because the game – run by retired batsmen, their salaries paid by revenue made from run-fests – is endlessly whispering in our ear the words ‘runs, runs, runs, runs …’

Cricket will not legislate in favour of bowlers any time soon. The occupation is digging in. Which is why I say: cry havoc and let slip that fingernail under the seam. Long live the resistance. And Vernon, if you’re reading this, aluta continua.

*

First published in Business Day Sports Monthly and sacricketmag.co.za

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