Sport

Cricket: Of tainting and tampering

By Antoinette Muller 21 July 2014

South Africa beat Sri Lanka in the first Test in Galle to ensure their pristine record away from home would remain intact no matter what happens in Colombo. But the win came with the controversy of ball tampering and has opened the debate on the issue once again. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.

South Africa began their new era under Hashim Amla with character, class and controversy. Their 153-run win in Galle had it all. The win also means that whatever happens in Colombo, their record of not having lost a series away from home for eight years will remain intact. They need only a draw in order to reclaim the number one ranking.

There will be much praise for Dean Elgar, JP Duminy and, to some extent, Quinton de Kock. However, it’s the bowlers who will be scrutinised most succinctly now that it’s all over.

Vernon Philander was fined 75 per cent of his match fee in South Africa’s first bowling innings for ball tampering. He was spotted scratching the ball and reported by match officials at the end of the day. That only happened because of the footage; the ball was not out of shape and was never changed by officials, something which often leads to suspicion that something untoward is going on. In this case, it was a TV exec who handed over the footage that led to the fine – the umpires had no clue.

South Africa did not contest the charge, arguing that if Philander were to be found guilty in front of a jury, he could face a ban. The footage of Philander scratching the ball was eventually aired late on day five. It looks suspicious and it would have been hard to convince anyone of his innocence.

Before the footage was aired, Coach Russell Domingo said that he had not seen the footage and he wouldn’t bother to do so.

“I don’t know if we are getting a reputation,” he added. “It’s something we don’t try to do intentionally. It’s not that the side says, ‘This is what we are going to go and do.’ Vernon claims to have cleaned the ball and he has been seen on television scratching the ball,” said Domingo on day four.

But South Africa’s unapologetic approach to the situation will sting their reputation and, for some, it will dilute the incredible achievement. Some feel as if though players involved in this sort of thing should fight tooth and nail to try to clear their name, but with video footage, Domingo believes that you will be found guilty “nine out of ten times” even if your intensions were pure.

Whatever the case with South Africa, some will view this as a blotch on their name. Some will question Steyn’s five-wicket haul in the first innings and, because this is the second time it has happened, many will question other and future performances, too. That the reverse swing on day five was not as apparent as a few days ago will certainly raise a few eyebrows amongst cynics.

This is the second time South Africa has had a player involved in this kind of behaviour and fined (and the second time Philander has been involved, although he was not punished previously), and it will see the team’s reputation tarnished by a few. It’s also going to raise the alarm to match officials to watch them more carefully. That Philander has now been involved twice is concerning.

That’s all fair dinkum, but equally important is the wider debate around the issue. Ball management – or tampering – in varying degrees is part and parcel of the game. Every team does it, whether it’s sneaky scratching or scuffing the ball up onto the pitch deliberately (despite often being warned against this and balls being changed because of it). When the Faf du Plessis situation exploded last year, these pages mused that tampering should be a legal issue, not a moral issue. Some will call South Africa “cheats” because of their actions, but it seems there are varying levels of cheating (if cheating equals fiddling with the ball in ways you are not allowed to) that are allowed.

According to the same Code of Conduct laws which got Du Plessis and Philander into hot water, deliberately throwing the ball into the ground for the purpose of roughening it up is also a level two offence. Yet, this is basically common practice by all teams these days and it is hardly punished by a fine or a suspension. Instead, the ball is usually changed and play moves on. This leniency creates a blurred line and needs to be addressed. If the ICC is serious about clamping down on tampering, then all efforts, including the scuffing of the ball, need to be treated as seriously as digging nails into the surface of the ball.

The discrepancy in punishment is also a concern. Because the punishment is not universal and can differ depending who is presiding over it, one player’s ban is another players’ match-fee fine. Again, if the ICC really wants to clamp down on the issue, it needs to introduce a universal fine. And, if it is completely opposed to helping bowlers gain an advantage, then the punishment should be a ban.

Alternatively, the pragmatic will suggest that it’s time to consider legalising some sorts of tampering in an era where bowlers are struggling. But that is an issue for another day.

The dark arts of reverse swing comprise many elements. Some will view South Africa’s win as tainted, but the win came through more than just a fiery spell of reverse swing. Within the current laws of the game, it will leave a stain, but hardly one so big that it will completely overshadow the bigger picture. DM

Photo: South Africa’s Hashim Amla during the Australia v South Africa Test Series in Adelaide, Australia, 25 November 2012. EPA/JAMES ELSBY

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