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.