Let me spit it out: cricket should clean up its act on hygiene

By Allan Jacob

What’s the big deal about players tampering with the cricket ball when the sport is rolling in real dirt and muck? The recent moral outrage has been a test of our hypocritical skills. It’s an old normal, but this breast-beating about cheating has left me confused. What concerns me is the state of general hygiene on the pitch. The ugly spectacle of a player rubbing the cherry or white ball on his thigh or crotch and then sticking it down his underwear fills me with angst about the germs that are being spread on the field. Even umpires are not spared when they inspect the ball at regular intervals.

The act would be considered obscene to the uninitiated whose knowledge of the sport is limited to an insect by the same name. But not to cricketing fanatics who often consider such actions macho, for they produce match-winning displays when bowlers get into the swing of things. The purists (Test cricket faithfuls) don’t mind it either as long as their team pulls off those spectacular victories on what they imagine to be seaming or turning pitches that defy the elements. It’s only when politicians like Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull turn puritanical that such unsightly episodes garner international attention.

This unhygienic spell has swept the gentleman’s game for over four decades, maybe five. Great players have come under the dirty spell. Their hands are soiled, unclean and filthy, their hearts impure. So with Australia in the eye of the storm in South Africa, I will hold forth not on the moral decline but more on the falling cleanliness levels in the sport. Aussie captain Steve Smith, vice-captain David Warner and Cameron Bancroft were sent packing for tampering with the ball —  that cherry-picking, licking and rubbing routine that spectators have gotten used to on the field and consider sophisticated. All this while it never occurred to cricket lovers to cry foul as long as the perpetrators evaded the law or their respective boards threw their financial clout around to bail them out. Let me be clear: cheating has been part of the game, at different levels — from match-fixing, to spot-fixing, to tampering with the shape and shine of ball for some extra swing, or reverse swing (like the latest incident when sandpaper stuck on a tape near the unmentionables was used to scuff one side of the ball by Bancroft).

Tweakers or spinners want the ball dry and rough for better grip while seamers and quickies prefer the cherry gleaming and smooth for extra pace, lift and movement. Reverse swing, we are told, was pioneered by Pakistan and perfected by other sides. It entails scuffing the ball to swing it the other way and take down the opposing batsman. Now suck on that lozenge and consider the unpalatable truth about the game that I was once passionate about during my school years until poor eyesight prevented me from spotting the ball early and OCD gripped me with fear about contracting some nether world infections.

People tell me that swimming is the most unhygienic sport with all those body fluids drowned in those laps of competition as competitors gulp down buckets of water while gasping for air in the throes of victory. But I disagree and believe with all my heart that the spit and polish gameplan that has defined cricket for decades is soiling its reputation as a clean sport. It’s worse than the incidents of cheating that the faithfuls have come to accept under the International Cricket Council’s laws.

Think about it. The muck is literally passed around among teammates. Here’s a scenario: The ball is first tossed to the captain from the boundary, who strokes it with the sweat on his brow, then tosses the leathery, gooey thing to a fielder at square. Another round of intense rubbing near the thigh follows — a manly spectacle. Disgusting. There’s more. Anotherr guy near point spits on it, chews harder on the gum and liberally coats the projectile with more saliva. The ball’s back with the bowler who continues the rub-a-dub. He picks at the seam before giving it another shine. Ah, he remembers he needs to nibble or bite on the leather (like Shahid Afridi during a T20 match against Australia eight years ago) for some extra movement to deceive and beat the batsman. “I shouldn’t have done it. It just happened. I was trying to help my bowlers win a match, one match. There is no team in the world that doesn’t tamper with the ball,” said Afridi back then. That shocker summed it up for me. All teams were in the thick of the action to gain an unfair advantage with their body fluids.

You may think of me as an oddball following this sweat-and-swing narrative. But this is serious spit and you need to wake up and realise how literally dirty the game has become. Law 42(3) says the ball can be shined legally, but without an artificial substance — like sweetened saliva from gum. Mud may be removed from the ball under the supervision of the umpire, and it can be dried with a towel. In his book, Coming Back to Me, former England opener Marcus Trescothick, who suffered a burnout brought on by depression, and quit the game early, speaks of a spitting culture in the team that made them sultans of swing in the early to mid-2000s. He particularly liked the sweetener in a brand named Murray Mints which gave his saliva extra oomph, he claims in the book. It worked well on the field during the ball-varnishing process. Marcus didn’t run into major problems with the cricketing police for his infractions. Other notables like Mike Atherton, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Imran Khan, John Lever were caught but got away with a rap on the knuckles. They were ahead of their time in that respect.

It’s never too late to clean up the sport in body and spirit. Go ahead, slap a ban on me for watching cricket or taking to the field after reading this. Derisively brand me a high priest of hygiene but that won’t stop my newly-luanched campaign to make the sport that I once loved finger-licking good again.

Allan is a history and news buff who loves a good debate


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