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Scuff and buff: on the ball-tampering controversy

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Cricket is a sport, but it is also a code of honour. The phrase ‘it’s not cricket’ refers to any act that is not fair. That it has been called ‘a gentleman’s game’ suggests that it is held to high standards. Yet, like a few other things wrong with the game, ball-tampering remains one of its murkiest secrets. The seemingly innocuous application of saliva and sweat, and more interventionist acts such as pressing chewed lozenges, throwing the ball hard on the surface, the use of nails or abrasive dust from the turf, and in some cases the use of bottle openers have plunged a knife into the game’s heart even as they enhanced many a fast bowler’s ability to extract reverse-swing. This past weekend, Steve Smith’s Australian team went one step further on that road to infamy, prompting its opening batsman Cameron Bancroft to scuff the ball with a yellow tape laden with dirt-granules from the pitch during the course of the third Test against hosts South Africa at Cape Town’s Newlands Ground. The act, caught on camera, and the subsequent admission of guilt by the fielder and Smith have tarred them and their fellow accomplices in the leadership group, including vice-captain David Warner and coach Darren Lehmann. The entire episode has also raised questions about the manner in which a powerhouse such as Australia goes about playing its cricket.

The fracas highlights the perils of wanting to win at any cost, an unfortunate ‘call-to-duty’ that now finds favour in most cricketing units. In fact, ball-tampering has been attempted by most international teams. Responses from ‘guilty’ players have ranged from injured-innocence to grudging acceptance of complicity. In this case, Cricket Australia moved fast, forcing Smith and Warner to step down from leadership roles. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull publicly questioned the team’s approach to the game. And Rajasthan Royals replaced Smith with Ajinkya Rahane as its captain for the forthcoming Indian Premier League season. The International Cricket Council, for its part, imposed a one-Test ban on Smith, and fined him 100% of his match fee. Bancroft got a 75% fine. But is this enough? Clearly no. Not surprisingly, the overwhelming feeling among the game’s greats and the larger cricketing community is that these measures are no more than a gentle slap on the wrist. Bancroft’s act wasn’t a spur of the moment initiative; it was a pre-meditated action thought up during lunch break on Saturday. Smith, Bancroft, Warner, Lehmann and whoever else orchestrated this despicable move deserve firmer punishment. Sadly, a series which South Africa currently leads 2-1 will now be remembered for trash-talk and a nefarious attempt to alter the shape of the ball. Whatever this is, it’s not cricket.

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