Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Ball-biting: how much is too much?

(Also on www.cricketakash.com)
I’m sure Shahid Afridi didn’t expect to get away with it. Holding the ball with both hands, taking three-four chomps on the ball, with a good dozen-plus cameras focussed on him. Obviously he didn’t think he could get away. Not even if the camera had focussed on Rana Naved-ul-Hasan’s face – where a big, indulgent smile spread out the moment the ball went between Afridi’s teeth. Surprisingly, bowler Mohammad Asif showed no emotion – almost as if it was par for the course.

In any case, whenever something like this happens, you ask a few questions: (a) why do cricketers continue tampering with the ball when they get caught? (b) Is there a chance cricketers think they can get away? And most importantly, (c) Do cricketers think they can get away because they know they can get away?Afridi might have taken the thing to an extreme. But what he said afterwards is more damning. Afridi said that all countries and players continue to tamper with the ball. Outrage followed. But is he completely off the mark?

Truth is, he is not.

Yes, there are 20-odd cameras on the cricket field, but how much do they actually catch? More than one former paceman I spoke to confirmed that while bottlecaps are out, various other things are still in. Like the trusted old fingernail. Yes, it still works wonders, and yes, despite Sachin Tendulkar getting caught in South Africa back in 2001, hundreds have not gotten caught in the nine years since.

Remember Rahul Dravid’s little cough drop on the ball? Well, you don’t necessarily need to run the sweet on the ball, but the spit from your mouth when sucking on a cough drop is good enough. It does the trick. Dravid might just have accidentally dropped the sweet when all he wanted to do was use his spit. He got caught. The ones who continue to use the spit and manage to keep the sweet in their mouths are fine.

Importanly, Afridi and Dravid are at two ends of the spectrum. Afridi is a repeat offender. Dravid is one of the nicest people you’ll meet.But both realise that the game, especially ODIs and Tests, are loaded heavily in the batsmen’s favour. Every once in a way, the bowler needs a bit of extra help. Does that mean fielders can tamper with the ball? Not at all. But, to widen the scope of the debate a bit, maybe a couple of rule changes to make the game a better match between bat and ball might do the trick.