The Making of a ball: Controversial debate of shining the cricket ball

Since the time Sarfraz Nawaz changed the physics of pace bowling, ball tampering and reverse swing have remained the ‘rough’ and ‘shiny’ sides of a long-standing controversial cricket debate.

Written by Bharat Sundaresan | Updated: November 27, 2016 8:25 am
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Around a decade ago, the fast bowling community in India was on a covert mission to find out which sweet candy suited them the most. You can’t be a big snarly fast bowler and be seen with a toffee. But they had their reasons.

They sought a sugary sweet that would generate the thickest paste on their tongues and subsequently help them in maintaining or altering the condition of the ball according to their requirements, illegally. Eventually it was Alpenliebe that ended up as the winner with Poppins— remember them — finishing a close second.

The ‘amazing mix of caramel, milk and butter’ — as described by its tagline — present in Alpenliebe when blended with the bowler’s saliva would then aid the pacers in maintaining the shine on the ball for a lot longer once he got down to applying the ‘paste’ on it. And its thickness would also make the ‘shiny side’ heavier also helping him in his quest for reverse swing. It was their eureka moment. “Energy ka energy, sugar ka sugar, aur ball bhi ban gaya,” says a player who was part of the ‘search team’.

The ingenious ‘tampering technique’ like the game itself has its origins in England. Marcus Trescothick, the former England captain, had candidly revealed in his book Coming Back To Me in 2008 about having consumed copious amounts — close to 15 a day — of Murray Mints, a popular candy in the UK, while being the official ‘ball-shiner’ of the team during their famous Ashes victory in 2005. Murray Mints of course were Trescothick’s choice of confection. The original discovery had been made by former England all-rounder Dermot Reeve, who identified his county teammate Asif Din’s penchant to chew strong mints as being the reason why Warwickshire swung the ball for longer than any other team. And this addiction for Murray Mints is among the first oddities you experience as an overseas player in the County dressing-rooms to the extent as one cricketer from Asia says, “I would see boxes of them in there. I first wondered how an entire team can suffer from bad breath.”

Ironically though, it was a similar ‘slurp-up’ that South African captain Faf du Plessis was accused of in Hobart two weeks ago, with camera evidence of him shining the ball with a candy in his mouth. There was also another video that emerged last week showing India’s Test captain Virat Kohli seemingly indulging in the same act. Though both skippers dismissed the allegations, du Plessis was found guilty and slapped with a 100 per cent match-fee fine while the ICC found nothing wrong in what Kohli had done.

Code of silence

If you ever wanted proof that cricket has lived out of a candy store for decades, even if not openly, you just had to see the outpouring of support for du Plessis from peers and former cricketers, even some from Australia — the team that he’d technically cheated by altering the condition of the ball illegally — taking the ‘everyone does it’ stand.

The last week or so also showed up quite embarrassingly that the issue of ball tampering still remains a grey area for the ICC. That ambiguity also stems from the fact that the governing body has forever been a step behind when it comes to curbing it. For some, however, ball tampering has always been stuck somewhere between blatant cheating and gamesmanship. Law 42.3 still remains as vague as ever.

But try speaking to any fast bowler about the business of ‘making’ a ball — the word ‘tampering’ is pretty much a ‘conversation ender’ with them — and they literally stop short of quoting the Omerta code, like it’s some occult practice only fit for ears of fellow practitioners. What they do reveal are tell-tale signs. Like the next time you see the ball get tossed around to more players than usual before reaching the bowler’s hands, be rest assured there’s something in the air.

“It’s a practice we followed as a team, especially if it wasn’t doing anything. While shining the ball you have all five fingers on the seam. So all you’re required to do is just scratch the ball lightly with two finger-nails every time you shine the ball. Now if four players are using two finger nails after each delivery, imagine the state of the ball at the end of the over,” says a former international cricketer.

“I’ve played with a few in domestic cricket who could literally chew up one side of the ball within two overs. And I’m not talking about the way Afridi did it literally,” he adds of the apple-bite episode.

This is not quite breaking the magician’s code. But it’s probably the closest you’ll get to it. Unlike the candy which is used to keep the sheen on one side for longer, the sharper objects like finger-nails are used to keep the other side rougher. For as we know, reverse swing depends on the shiny side being heavier so that the ball swings in that direction unnaturally while its smoothness allows the air to pass quicker on that side while producing friction on the rougher side.

Now using your finger-nails doesn’t mean gouging the ball and making it look like it’s been in a washing-machine. There’s a lot of skill involved here too, especially these days with umpires constantly checking the ball and also repossessing it after every over, wicket and during a break. Whatever you do, the scuffing up of the ball has to look natural.

“I played with a former Pakistani cricketer, who insisted on being positioned at mid-on, in a T20 tournament and suddenly the white ball started swinging like crazy towards the end. After the innings he showed me the ball, and he’d done it so artfully. There were like concentric circles on the rough side. No umpire could ever make anything out,” he says.

“The secret is as a team to ensure you’re never under scrutiny. Some teams even make sure only the most seedha saadha baccha (innocent-looking boy) is used to work on the ball,” he adds.

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Sarfraz, the original

It was of course a lot different when Sarfraz Nawaz was bamboozling batsmen the world over by rewriting the physics behind the movement of a cricket ball. The former Pakistan fast bowler is adamant that only those who didn’t understand the science of reverse swing, or the nasamajh as he calls them, had to resort to tampering the ball. But he does admit that it was a lot easier back then to get away with ‘working’ on the ball.

“The umpires wouldn’t bother with keeping the ball. So teams would wait till the first 10 overs of the innings, and during the water-break, use everything from sand-paper to bottle caps to blades camouflaged in tapes over fingers to scratch one side of the ball, and nobody ever knew what they were doing,” Nawaz tells The Sunday Express.

While Nawaz is considered the inventor of reverse-swing, he played an integral role in the first-ever public controversy over ball-tampering when he sued England’s Allan Lamb for having accused the Pakistanis for ball tampering in 1992. He eventually won the case with everyone including Lamb testifying that Nawaz himself had never indulged in any corrupt practices with the ball. But Nawaz did witness video evidence of Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Aaqib Javed openly scratching the ball with their nails during the case, and he still sounds surprised.

“At that point, Pakistanis were the only ones who knew exactly how to maintain a ball and get it ready for reverse-swing without having to tamper it. When Imran (Khan) and I played together none of the other fielders were allowed to shine the ball,” he recalls. He adds how it then became a ritualistic passage of rites whenever a young fast bowler would join the ranks.

Considering how competitive Pakistani fast bowlers of the time were, it’s not surprising when you hear about how one fast bowler, an expert at ‘making’ the ball, would maintain it perfectly for his spell. But at the end of his spell, he would apply a lot of sweat on the rough side of the ball so that none of the others got any help from his ‘work’ on the ball.

Reverse swing is more about the bowler than the ball itself according to Nawaz. In addition to being able to bowl at a high speed you also need to develop a slingy release and try as far as possible to bowl into the wind. But it doesn’t surprise him that teams would be keen to rough the ball up early.

“If you don’t have the speed and wait for the natural deterioration, the reverse will be too slow to trouble the batsmen. But if you rough up a ball that’s only 15 overs old, then it’s still hard with an upright seam. That way the movement will be quicker and you leave the batsmen with little time to adjust,” explains Nawaz, who developed the art at Lahore’s Bagh-e-Jinnah ground, kept it to himself for four years before revealing it to Imran Khan on a tour to West Indies in 1974.

Finding loopholes

Though there are plenty of precedents for cricketers being pulled up like du Plessis for getting a little too comfortable with the ball in the last 25 years, fielding teams around the world have never died wondering in terms of devising new tactics to defy what many feel is a pedantic law.

If John Lever was pulled up for using Vaseline over his eye-brows to help shine the ball, but one journeyman cricketer tells you that teams still walk out to field with the moisturizer laced on their trousers while some use glue. If not, there’s always the sun-screen, hair gel or the lip balm that can be brought into play from time to time. For those who haven’t developed the taste for Murray Mints can always like Matt Prior go with jellybeans.

Even when it comes to roughing up the ball, you can always play the law rather than play by it. There’s always the rogue throw to the wicket-keeper where the fielder is clearly focusing more on landing the rough side of the ball on the abrasive part of the hard square, forget about aiming at the stumps. Or like Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad kept doing a couple of years ago in the UAE, you step on the ball with your spikes ‘accidentally’. One domestic coach in Australia didn’t find it wrong to rub the ball against the concrete outside the boundary ropes and throw it back in.

Then there’s Pat Symcox. A video on YouTube has the former South African off-spinner in a bizarre sequence from a Test in Australia in 1997 where he first seems to be scratching the ball before he — and this is at viewer discretion for graphic images are involved — lodges it in through the sleeve and rubs it against his arm-pits. The late Richie Benaud is the saving grace on commentary. “Hello Patrick….some people use deodorant, others the leather of the ball,” he says as Symcox continues to stink-up the ball.

There’s also the business of lifting the quarter seam — the one that runs perpendicular to the main seam, cutting the ball into four quarters — by loosening the stitching, which is known to assist swing. “Some even wedge pebbles inside the gap to make it heavier. You can never get caught with picking the quarter seam,” says a player.

But despite the sophisticated levels to which the art of ‘making’ a ball has grown to, there still exists a tinge of naivety — we aren’t talking about Afridi sniffing at the ball with his teeth—when it comes to understanding the science.

Merv Hughes recently recalled how Collin Miller once admitted to have scratched a ball that was only 3-overs-old to which the big fast bowler told the umpire, “Can you please ask that idiot to stop scratching the ball?” There’s also the case of Mike Atherton recalling how a young 12th man returned with the sugar-free Orbit when asked to get ‘chewing gum’.

There have been voices and prominent ones like Richard Hadlee who have spoken about legalizing subtle ball tampering—as he called it in his 1994 column—letting players use ‘whatever means on their persons’ like finger-nails to scratch the ball. Even as the ICC has tried to keep abreast, with the players’ constantly-innovative sleight of hand, bowlers from across generations have only echoed Hadlee’s words of ‘there being more parity between bat and ball’ when it comes to justifying their intentions, especially when quality of bats keep improving on a daily basis and the rules continue favouring batsmen.

As one player puts it, “Most batsmen are licking their lips when they face us like in the Alpenliebe ad. So what’s the harm if we chew on one instead and get the better of them?”

IT’S NOT JUST THE BALL, YOU NEED TO BE FAST, SLINGY, ACCURATE, STRONG TO GET REVERSE SWING:

THE SCIENCE

Fielding teams do their best to maintain the shine on one side of the ball while keeping the other side rough and worn. The shiny side also needs to be kept smooth so that the air passes over the side quicker than it does on the rough side due to friction, ensuring that the ball moves in the direction of the shine. It is basic aerodynamics.

DEGREE Of DIFFICULTY

Theoretically, even a club bowler operating at medium-pace can reverse-swing a ball that’s been ‘made’ for him. But movement, unconventional as it might be, at that pace will hardly bother an international batsman.

NOT EVERYONE’S CUP OF TEA

The delivery has to be bowled at well over 85 mph at least. The batsman shouldn’t be given the time to adjust to the late movement.

You also need to change your action slightly to make it whippier or slingier like a Waqar Younis to generate that late movement. No wonder Sarfraz Nawaz feels Jeff Thomson would have been the greatest exponent of reverse swing because of his action, if only the Australian had a clue about it.

The length needs to be fuller than usual too, even if it’s closer to a half-volley.

Bowlers need to bowl into the wind as it will assist the ball moving towards the shiny side. When you are bowling downwind there is no resistance for the ball to encounter and therefore the swing is seriously curtailed.