Cricket is a batsman’s game as of today. There are no two ways about it. Over the years, the game has evolved in a number of ways and most of them have been advantageous for batsmen. Pitches have become flatter, grounds have become smaller and bats have become thicker. The game seems to be stacked against bowlers, and recent developments suggest that it’s only going to get tougher for them. Especially for pacers.
For fast bowlers, there is a limited scope to attack in white-ball cricket. In 50-over games, there are two new balls used and reverse swing is out of the equation. So as a pacer, you try to move the new ball around in the first powerplay before playing a defensive role in the rest of the innings. And as far as the shortest format is concerned, wicket-takers are still crucial to teams but it is more about variations like the slower deliveries and yorkers.
More and more, bowlers rely on innovation and their own skills than receiving any assistance from the balls while modern-day bats make the batsmen ever more dangerous.
The only real opportunity for fast bowlers to dominate comes in Test cricket. Batsmen don’t have the license to throw their bat at everything, the field placement is aggressive, and the red ball swings considerably more.
And now, because of a pandemic, the fast bowlers seem set to be pegged further back.
Recently, the International Cricket Council announced that players will have to get rid of an age old tradition – using saliva to shine the ball. With hygiene a priority due to the coronavirus threat, the ICC’s Cricket Committee, led by Anil Kumble, has taken this interim measure to minimise the risk to players’ health.
While this decision is justified, it also brings with it yet another advantage for batsmen. Saliva plays a key role in the success of fast bowlers. A new ball, especially, relies greatly on it to be maintained. Saliva is the best option for fixing the small abrasions on a new ball. Sweat proves to be counterproductive early on as it soaks the ball and makes it heavier.
This change suggested by the ICC will lead to bowlers struggling to generate swing and the balance tilting further in favour of batsmen.
To avoid this from happening, there are several workarounds being suggested by those interested in the game. Former India captain Kumble said he would like to see more spinner-friendly pitches, Australian legend Shane Warne feels one side of the ball should be made heavier so that there’s always some swing on offer, and former England cricketer Mark Nicholas reckons the umpires should carry a small jar of wax or gel to polish the ball from time to time.
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Return of the dark arts?
It’s unlikely that any of these solutions being offered will see the light of day, but what seems certain is that fast bowlers are in for a real challenge without saliva. They will need to relearn an art they mastered after many, many years of hard work. As a bowler, you’re used to having a certain kind of arm rotation and wrist position to deliver each of your variations, and if the lack of saliva reduces the amount of swing, you will have to bring about significant changes to your methods.
To start off, it’s easy to imagine teams following every rule that the ICC puts in place. But what happens when the going gets tough? Because make no mistake about it, batsmen will indeed be much harder to dismiss with the ball swinging less due to the absence of saliva. With runs being piled and crucial Test Championship points at stake, say, will players resort to using some of cricket’s dark arts?
Ball tampering has been a part of cricket for a long time. From England pacer John Lever applying Vaseline on the ball in 1977 to Australia’s sandpaper gate in 2018, players have tried to (subtly or otherwise) illegally tamper with the condition of the ball on a number of occasions.
But why do players take these risks despite the ICC’s severe sanctions in place? Perhaps, it’s only human to try and do whatever it takes when your back is against the wall. Why else would players of the stature of Steve Smith and David Warner indulge in ball tampering? You can, indeed, get carried away when the times are desperate. And with the use of saliva being banned, it won’t come as a surprise if players go back to using some old tricks.
Earlier, with cameras not being as focused and umpires not being neutral, players got away with a lot more than they can these days. Bottle tops, lip balms, coins and even sandpaper may not be viable options in today’s day and age, but that doesn’t rule out the possibility of players trying subtle ways of tampering the ball going forward.
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Having said that, here are some methods of ball tampering to keep an eye out for once cricket resumes without saliva:
- Using sunscreen, hair gel/oil and applying it on the ball. This is an effective way of maintaining the shine on the ball.
- Scratching the ball with nails, fingers, thumbs, bracelets, shoe spikes or trouser zip. This is done to scuff up one side of the ball for reverse swing.
- Picking the main seam. This is done so that the thread of the seam comes off, which leads to variable bounce.
- Lifting the quarter seam (a small joint that runs at 90 degrees to the main seam). This is done to enable conventional and reverse swing.
- Throwing the ball to the wicketkeeper at a bounce or using the ‘keeping gloves to rub the ball. Both are ways of damaging the leather/shine on the ball.
- Keeping dirt in the pocket to rub on the ball or rubbing hands with sawdust before shining the ball. Again, both are ways of scuffing up the ball.
It had earlier been reported that the ICC is considering allowing the use of an artificial substance to shine the ball. This was before the governing body announced the ban of saliva. One reason why the ICC might hesitate in green-lighting any major change is the possibility of things going back to normal in the future. The performances by the players during this period, when there are interim measures in place, could be looked at as unfair additions to the record books.
If that is indeed the concern, then one can only hope that the ICC doesn’t lose sight of the disadvantage it is putting fast bowlers at by taking saliva out of the game. While it’s understandable that an artificial substance could have a drastic impact on the ball, the unfairness of the situation right now should not be overlooked.
Ball tampering has always been one of the biggest taboos in the game of cricket. Maybe now it can be seen as a solution, not a problem.
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