Late one October evening in 1990 during a long net session at Faisalabad towards the end of New Zealand-Pakistan Test series, master batsman Martin Crowe swung the ball miles in the air. It was to prove an eureka moment for his team that had been blown away by reverse swing of Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram in the first two Tests. It would also open the eyes of the world to magic that would unfold when a cricket ball was doctored – half battered, half sparkling. It would even open a can of worms.
On that trip, before he magically transformed into Sultan of Swing for a day, the late New Zealand legend had got repeatedly conned by Akram. During the second Test, Crowe would play for the inswing and the ball would go the other way. He was clueless. It wasn’t something that happened too often to the deep thinking cricketer with flawless technique.
Trust a New Zealander to get inquisitive, get to the heart of the problem and find a solution. During the same inning, Crowe would dead-bat a leggie Abdul Qadir delivery to his feet, pick the ball and have a close look at it. To his horror he saw that the leather on one side of the ball was badly mutilated. In contrast the other hemisphere was broadly untouched and shining. After the game, the Kiwis would experiment at their training session. They would use bottle caps to produce a Made in New Zealand designer ball.
And when even the most-unbowler looking Kiwi on the tour party, the burly opener Mark Greatbatch, would follow Crowe and give the ball the shape that the two Ws did, of course minus the pace, the great Pakistan secret was out.
In years to come, umpires and broadcasters would keep an eagle eye on the fielding side trying to scratch up the ball. Sandpaper, blades, tin caps, zippers, dirt hidden in pockets would become the exhibits in many ball-tampering investigations. They would also be objects of embarrassment that would reduce men to tears.
Gradually, as the scrutiny intensified, it would become tougher to damage the ball but polishing it with spit would remain a legitimate ploy. Every team would have designated ball-shinners. Keeping the ball unsullied and sparkling also wasn’t an all-clean operation. Players would adulterate the spit to get the extra shine on the ball so that it contrasts with the coarseness, natural or man-made, of the other side and thus be conducive for reverse swing. Gums, mints and lozenges would be to the cricket ball, what cherryblosom was to leather shoes.
The ball-tampering law was among many ambiguities of this ancient English game. The definition of infringement was different on either side of the seam. The ICC remained broad-minded towards sly shining but had zero-tolerance for scratching it. One was considered a white-colloared crime that would get a rap on the knuckle but the other was day-light robbery that got ignominy and bans.
And then Covid happened and inadvertently the rules evened out. Spit would become a four-letter word. The ongoing India-England Test at Edgbaston happens to be the second anniversary of the spit-ban. It has been the period when bowlers have only used sweat to shine the ball and they aren’t too happy about it. Interestingly two English bowlers playing the Test – James Anderson and Stuart Broad – have seen a drop in their strike rate. It could be age or conditions but it also could be spit. The new rule allows the fielding side to use sweat to shine the ball but not lick the fingers and transfer the saliva on it.
Anderson, after his early impact with the new ball, would struggle on the opening day of the Test. India would go from 98/5 in 28 overs to 338/7 in 73 overs. Reverse swing was conspicuous by its absence. There was no mid-inning excitement among the bowlers, the moment when the ball was battered enough on one side to do the kind of tricks the two Was made famous never came. The Indian batsmen did get out but unlike Crowe they were clueless about which way the ball would move. Without the saliva treatment, the ball didn’t quite have a mind of its own.
The two best exponents of the fascinating art of moving the ball have expectedly been pro-spit. Even during the pandemic, Akram didn’t mind being border-line politically wrong. The bowler in him emphasised that without the use of spit it was not possible to move the ball. “The ban will make bowlers robots, coming and bowling without swing,” he said.
Just before the India Test, Anderson mentioned spit while joining the chorus of criticism directed towards the 2022 batch of allegedly soft Duke balls. His lament hit headlines in the wake of the unusually tall scores around the county circuit.
“It’s tough [for bowlers] especially as we are playing on good pitches and these balls aren’t doing a lot,” Anderson said. “Potentially it could be that [lack of saliva making the ball not swing as much] but I’m not sure it’s ever going to change, certainly in the foreseeable future, because of the Covid situation. Speaking to bowlers after the game they would like that [saliva] to be allowed but I can’t see it happening.”
The masters dismiss the ICC-recommended alternate for spit, the sweat, with contempt. Akram again. “Sweat alone was unlikely to generate swing as in some countries it was too cold. Sweat is just something of an add-on, a top-up. Too much use of sweat will leave the cricket ball too wet,” he says.
Scientifically how different is pure and uncontaminated spit and sweat different from each other. What is the reason that bowlers’ prefer saliva over sweat?
Bringing science into the debate will help understand yet another cricketing complexity. Reading two text book definitions shows that Akram’s explanation doesn’t have strong legs. Spit and sweat are exactly the same.
Sweat is a liquid made from 99% water and 1% salt and fat. Saliva is made of 99% water and 1% of digestive enzymes, uric acid, electrolytes, mucus-forming proteins, and cholesterol. It’s bizarre and unscientific to concur that it’s the 1 percent that makes the ball reverse.
Chew on it while watching the swing bowlers in action at Edgbaston, ideally with a gum, mint and lozenges in the mouth.
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National Sports Editor
The Indian Express