May 29, 2020

There is a simple alternative to using saliva on the ball

We are already closer to seeing cricket on our television screens than we might have thought two months ago.

Understandably, there is concern for the balance between bat and ball, because a biosecure environment means that the condition of the ball cannot, for the moment at least, be altered or improved with the use of a bodily substance - saliva, for example.

In the bigger picture, post Covid-19 and beyond, a reasonable argument says let bowlers do to the ball as they wish, but not with the help of an outside influence. Shine it, scratch it, scuff it, pick it, wet it, rub it in the dirt till the sun goes down but not with bottle tops, pen-knives, sticks or stones. And no sandpaper. Imagine the sale of mints to upscale the saliva, and the growth of fingernails amongst the fraternity.

This column has previously supported greater leeway for the players in the conditioning of the ball, partly with tongue in cheek and partly because the fractious debate that has surrounded ball-tampering does the game no service. For what it's worth, I think it ridiculous that fielders cannot deliberately throw the ball in on the bounce, thus distressing the leather and setting up the possibility of reverse swing. In short, I'm all for swing any which way. Cricket is poorer without its art form.

To secure an immediate future for the swinging ball in these Covid-19 days, we must find an alternative to bodily fluids that is fair to all and sure to make a difference. Perhaps there is an answer before our eyes and one that might even provide a solution to the ongoing debate because, ideally, we don't really want everyone tampering with the ball. To police scratching, scuffing, picking, wetting and rubbing would be difficult and almost certainly inconsistent. If there is a better solution out there, let's examine it.

How about the umpires each carry a small jar - or pot, call it what you will - of wax, polish or cream, like a little jar of lip salve, that is available to the players at any time and maybe carried during an over by any one player who has licence to use it on the ball. As schoolboys we used dubbin to care for the leather on our football boots; as adults, we polish our shoes with it and they come up a treat. The ball manufacturers must surely be able to supply a substance that looks after and shines a cricket ball. It is in their interest to do so, for these days everyone grumbles about the ball and the fact so few of them seem to swing anymore.

This should not be a substance to make the ball perfect, just one to help. Given that more than a month remains until the first cricket is played, there is time to experiment and practise with a couple of substances put forward by the various manufacturers. Even if an agreeable conclusion is too soon for this English season, it can be incorporated soon after.

Swing is the thing. To achieve it, the ball must be pitched on a full length which opens the game to its many elements - most of them in attack. Batsmen who flirt with the drive have risk at the back of their mind; bowlers who sense opportunity add close fielders to the fray, which, in turn, creates gaps elsewhere.

There is little better than Jimmy Anderson, slips and gullies in place, making the ball talk: three outswingers and then the inswinger - boom! Got 'im! Anderson's skill level is high, while the results he achieves from it reflect 10,000 hours and more.

There is something compelling about what he does. From behind the arm, the ball appears momentarily suspended, allowing the viewer to appreciate its flight path before the last split-second change of direction that homes in on the target. Wonderful summer swing, nice and late and breathtaking in its effect. Remember Wasim Akram? In he would skip, all rhythm and timing, to deliver at 90 miles per hour and whoosh, in the ball would hoop and over went the hobs. Remember Kapil Dev and Malcolm Marshall? Dale Steyn and Zaheer Khan? Of course we do.

Swing is a temptress and swing at speed is a killer. Swing surprises, shocks, disappoints and delights. It is worth the experiment to preserve swing during Covid days and beyond. We are all tired of tampering tales.

Yes, swing is exciting but its practicalities are complex. No one really knows either why a ball swings or when: one day it does, the next it doesn't. Is it the batch of balls, the size of the ball, the weight of the ball, the seam, the atmospheric conditions, moisture in the pitch or otherwise? These are the materials. The workman's duty is to deliver the seam upright and therefore he must release the ball with his wrist behind it. Some hold the ball firm and deep in the hand; others gently hold it at the tips of their fingers. Some have their thumb under the ball and set lightly upon the seam; others have that thumb alongside the ball, resting on the leather. Experts swear by theories and other experts tear them apart. Sideways action to bowl outswing, front-on to bowl inswing? Not necessarily, proved Marshall and Akram, who both, like Anderson, were masters of the art. Scientists analyse the hell out of swing. Coaches search for its holy grail. Bowlers spend more hours on swing than in the bar. Ask Stuart Broad, who had it, lost it and found it again to torment David Warner last summer.

Then there is reverse swing: still swing, of course, but with the ball turned 180 degrees in the hand so that the movement occurs against the conventional method. Usually, the ball swings to the direction of the rough side of the ball. With reverse, it reverses itself. Bowlers who shine one side of a new ball, scratch, scuff or wet one side of an old ball. The more damaged the leather, the better. On the parched playing surfaces of the subcontinent, reverse swing is a must. In England in May, forget it.

Why does the reverse method swing later? Search me. Why do the great reverse-swing bowlers practise a slightly lower arm at the point of delivery? Search me. Why does reverse inswing move more than reverse outswing? Search me.

There has been a court case about reverse swing. There has been a Test match called off and awarded to the batting team because of reverse swing. There have been diplomatic incidents because of reverse swing. It is a thing mistrusted and a thing of jealousy. When the old ball tails in, travelling most of the pitch before its snake-like strike, a class fast bowler can barely contain his excitement. Who wouldn't want a piece of that?

Once upon a time the brand new ball would swing, full stop. There is no difference to the condition of either side of the ball, so no change in its balance. Perhaps the proud seam is the perfect rudder, canting this way and that, but if that was the case then, why not now? In fact, these days the new ball rarely swings until the lacquer wears off. It's all a mystery, new ball and old.

Two little jars of wax, polish or cream could do the trick. For now, for sure. Maybe for all time. Simple plan: each team receives the same supply to use as they wish. When it runs out, it's back to the drawing board - to the spinners and reversers - just as it ever was. Worth a try.

- Mark Nicholas | Cricket presenter on TV and writer