For the casual observer the discussion about cricket-ball maintenance must seem bizarre given all the other issues surrounding the sport: cricket is faced by potential bankruptcy, the necessity of biosecure stadiums and a debate over whether it is appropriate to play in them. Yet in such uncertain times we seem to be just as concerned about the relative merits and dangers of applying saliva and sweat to a cricket ball.
In other sports no one spends much time contemplating the ball. Tennis players can be seen asking for three of them and then discarding one before serving, but the impression is that this has more to do with superstition than anything else. Footballers are not too bothered about which balls they kick. Admittedly England’s rugby players in the 2011 World Cup faced allegations of “ball-tampering”. Two members of the management team – Jonny Wilkinson’s kicking mentor, Dave Alred, and the fitness specialist, Paul Stridgeon – were suspended after England’s 67-3 victory against Romania when they had been found to have illegally switched balls so that Wilkinson could attempt conversions with his favourite. But this was a freakish occurrence.
In cricket there have been arguments about balls for decades. On the 1976-77 tour of India, John Lever was accused of cheating by the India captain, Bishen Bedi, who believed Lever was applying Vaseline to the ball to enhance the shine and keep it swinging. The Kiwis in 1990 admitted to using bottle tops to change the condition of the ball in Faisalabad; Imran Khan once admitted he had used the same implement. Mike Atherton nearly lost his job as England captain after the “dirt in the pocket” affair in 1994; in 2018 Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft did lose their jobs after tampering with the ball – although on both occasions it was the cover-up that really undermined them.
Along the way arguments over the condition of the ball caused the Pakistan team to refuse to take to the field in a Test at the Oval in 2006 and the game was abandoned, while Marcus Trescothick has happily acknowledged the assistance of Murray Mints to make the ball swing during the epic Ashes series of 2005. They aren’t all mad; there is some logic here. Captains and bowlers are desperate to make that ball move in the air or off the pitch. Otherwise they are liable to spend an awfully long time in the field.
Initially that movement was more likely to be achieved by picking the seam. This entailed using the thumbnail to raise the seam, which became so proud that it was far more likely to grip upon hitting the surface before, hopefully, changing direction. There were a few poachers who would become gamekeepers in that era. Ken Palmer, who played in the 1960s and umpired in the 1980s and 1990s, was renowned as a superb, one-handed seam picker. So too was Stuart Turner of Essex, known as “The Whistler” since you could hear the ball with its high seam fizzing towards you when he was bowling. In those days the umpires rarely examined the ball. Bowling just before lunch at Taunton I might spend my time urgently flattening the seam – since the umpires might just have a look at the ball during the interval.
Reverse swing began in the 80s though most of us did not realise it at the time. There was merely bewilderment that Sarfraz Nawaz of Pakistan and Northamptonshire could suddenly make a ball that was 60 overs old start to swing in to the right-handers. I remember being another confused victim, caught at bat-pad in a Test match. Sarfraz helped to educate Khan and the next generation, which included the great Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis. The Aussies became aware of this phenomenon too but, like the English, they couldn’t quite explain it. They said that the ball was “going Irish”, an acceptable phrase then.
Wasim and Waqar soon became the masters of reverse swing and they would educate their county colleagues at Lancashire and Surrey. The ball had to be handled delicately as if it was a precious diamond. One side would be polished, the other had to be bone dry and to acquire an almost dimpled effect. At one county captains’ meeting at Lord’s some “offending” balls were passed around. Mike Watkinson, the Lancashire captain, recognised one of the balls, blushed and quickly passed the box along. When Ian Greig, captain of Surrey and a more brazen character, had a look he immediately bellowed: “Oh yes, that’s one of ours.”
Both Waqar and Wasim were magnificent sights in the early 1990s (I had retired by then) inflicting broken bails and toes in equal measure. Even the best were tormented. The image remains of Graeme Hick coming out to bat in the 1992 series: Waqar knew what he was going to bowl, Hick knew what Waqar was going to bowl yet there was nothing the batsman could do about the perfect inswinging yorker. In time England caught up. During the epic 2005 series it was the ability of Simon Jones and Andrew Flintoff to make the ball reverse swing that began to spook the Australians. Sometimes that movement is barely perceptible from a distance but if the batsmen and bowlers think “it’s reversing” the balance of the game has changed.
This is why there remains this seemingly preposterous debate about ball maintenance as the prospect of some Test cricket this summer grows. We have heard pronouncements from the ICC about the relative risks of applying saliva and sweat. The entrepreneurs of the Kookaburra ball makers in Australia are experimenting with wax applicators to aid the bowlers. And perhaps we will soon witness the resurgence of long hair and the use of Brylcreem, which was famously promoted by Denis Compton and Pakistan’s Fazal Mahmood in the 1950s. Anything to get the damn thing to move sideways.