Controlled ball tampering could rebalance test cricket

Test cricket has become too biased towards the batsman in recent years. Deliberate manipulation of the ball could restore fear in the bowler, argues

Whilst it was the unlikely hero of Graham Onions who grabbed the headlines for his defiant role in salvaging a draw for England in the third test at Cape Town, the match itself was somewhat overshadowed by rumblings emanating from the South African camp about ball tampering. Although no official complaint was made, England stood accused by their hosts of attempting to doctor the condition of the match ball during the Proteas’ second innings.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of this particular incident – and the huge South African total of 447-7 declared would not suggest any advantage was gained – this might be a good time to readdress the position of one of cricket’s darkest arts.

Consider this. The last few decades have seen multiple changes to the game, all in favour of batsmen. Technology has allowed manufacturers to develop stronger bats and equip batsmen with better protective padding. Bowlers have limits placed on the number of bouncers they are allowed to bowl. Pitches are seemingly much easier to bat on as demands from television companies for tests to last the full five days, as well as the need for host grounds to ensure five days worth of revenue, has resulted in groundsmen being ordered to prepare alarmingly flat decks.

Bowling has become a thankless task in many test series as batting sides pile up one mammoth score after another. The recent series between India and Sri Lanka is a case in point, as every test saw at least one side pass 600 in their first innings. True test cricket revolves around the battle between bat and ball, and with run fests on the sort of lifeless pitches England encountered in the West Indies last winter becoming commonplace, there is a growing sense the odds are now weighted too heavily in favour of the former. Isn’t it about time something went the way of the bowlers?

If allowing sides to tamper with the ball a little can go some way to redress this imbalance maybe the practice should be legalized. Allan Donald, the former South African great, believes so. He told Cricinfo last July: “with the wickets that we play on and the dying breed fast bowlers are becoming on these flatter wickets, I would say we do need some sort of defence mechanism, something to fall back on to say ‘Right, we can do this. We can now prepare this ball to go’ ”.

Donald’s warning about the potential extinction of cricket’s pace merchants is poignant. Gone are the days when he, alongside the likes of Courtney Walsh, Glenn McGrath and Waqar Younis would torment batting line-ups with hostile bounce and swing. Allowing ball tampering could help inject some life into the current generation of pacemen by making it easier for them to do likewise when the pitch is offering little assistance. Fans enjoy watching nothing more than a sustained spell of dangerous fast bowling, and with many across the globe deserting test cricket in favour of Twenty20 this could generate the spark the traditional format is perceived to be lacking, especially as fewer matches would simply peter out in to dull, predictable draws.

The 2005 Ashes series will live long in the memory, and a major reason why it was so enthralling was the ability of the bowlers on both sides to consistently swing the ball and make the contest between batsman and bowler an even one. If such a high standard of drama could be guaranteed every series through tampering with the ball to make it misbehave in a similar manner, surely the game would be better for it.

Clearly some restrictions would have to remain but my suggestion would be allowing bowlers and fielders to pick at the ball and deliberately rough it up in order to generate seam movement and swing, but without the use of outside implements such as bottle tops or coins. Traditionalists will doubtless baulk at this suggestion but I believe it would level the playing field for the bowlers and add a new dimension to the sport giving us more positive results and, above all, greater excitement.

4 comments

  1. While it is true that the the playing field probably does need to be levelled to suggest that ball tampering should be legalised is ridiculous! The difference between the changes you mentioned regarding making things easier for batsmen and your proposed changes is that ball tampering is, and always has been, against the spirit of the game. Preparing flatter tracks, improving bats and bringing in boundaries is not an issue on the same level.

    We do need to make life easier for bowlers, we’ve seen in South Africa that low scoring, tight matches can be brilliant and for me the answer is you legislate the pitches that are produced. The ICC can simply punish, fine or place temporary bans on teams that produce too many flat tracks. These groundsmen are extremely skilled and can get what they want out of the wicket they’re working on but they choose to make them flat to guarantee 5 days so their respective cricket board makes more money. Obviously some pitches will be flat and that’s acceptable but if a country keeps churning out featherbeds then you come down hard on them, meaning each country produces a variety of wickets and thus bowlers come back into the game. Let’s not advocate cheating!

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  2. As a general rule, a wicket would have to be rock hard and flat as possible to get through a five-day game surely? Maybe a little damp to begin with or it would turn to dust (which in itself increases spin, particularly on ‘scalped’ wickets) by the end. The only choice the groundsman has that seriously affects spin is the amount of vegetation left on the surface, and this should remain as even as possible from start of play (i.e. no adjustment of height of cut or brushing or scarifyng of wicket other than outside 5ft marks). Part of the reason bounce has become more predictable is advances in breeding suitable grass species. Improvements in training have also been a help.

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  3. You can still have a good batting wicket that is competitive. More grass left on the wicket gives bowlers something if they can get it in the right areas. Some lateral movement throughout the match would always keep the bowlers in the game. In some areas it’s obviously hard to produce certain wickets. Pitches in the sub-continent are always going to be dusty and flat and that’s OK, but pitches across the world don’t all need to be produced to be as flat as a pancake.

    Wickets can be produced that offer something to everyone; grass on the first day, hard and bouncy throughout the middle few days and breaking up a bit towards the end to offer something to the spinners. It can be done!

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  4. 20 Jan ’10 at 4:33 pm

    Andrew Flintoff

    They’d better not tamper with my balls

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