When the first grainy television stills of Cameron Bancroft emerged, first fiddling with a piece of unidentified yellow material against the ball, and then elegantly stuffing down it his trousers, public outrage rang out loud and clear.
‘Ball-tampering’ is just about the dirtiest phrase in cricket, and as Australian captain Steve Smith sat calmly before the cameras and admitted that he wasn’t ‘proud’ of using an illegal tactic, cricket fans worldwide bayed for blood. Ball-tampering, the argument went, is in contravention of both the laws and of that mythical beast, the Spirit, of the game. The crime is wicked, the guilt proven, the penalty should be harsh. When Cricket Australia announced that Smith and vice-captain David Warner have both received year-long bans from the game, with a nine-month ban awarded to Bancroft, no-one seemed to think the punishment unfair. In fact, any outrage expressed was directed towards the fact that only three players had been punished. Justice, for the good upstanding citizens of cricketing morality, had been done.
Or had it? When it comes to the dirty world of ‘ball-tampering’, the laws of cricket are an absolute mess. According to law 41.3.2, ‘It is an offence for any player to take any action which changes the condition of the ball.’ So far, so good.
But scroll down to subsection 126.96.36.199 (oh so numeric, such precision), and we find that ‘A fielder may, however, polish the ball on his/her clothing provided that no artificial substance is used and that such polishing wastes no time.’ How many times have you seen a fast bowler spit on vigorously onto the shiny side and polish it against his trousers? Thousands, right? And what is his intention in doing so? To produce reverse swing by, *deep breaths please everyone*, changing the condition of the ball! It is a perfectly legal tactic according to the 188.8.131.52 – saliva is about as inartificial a substance as you get – but it clearly contravenes 41.3.2.
So if the James Andersons and the Stuart Broads of this world are breaking one pretty fundamental law of the game every time they approach the wicket and facing zero consequences for it, why should Smith and Warner get a 12-month ban for breaking two?
But say we choose to ignore the silliness of trying to impose any kind of punishments on the breaking of self-contradictory laws, and admit that since the Australians clearly disregarded two rules here, they should face the appropriate punishment. Well, then the laws specify exactly what that punishment is – five penalty runs. Five whole good ones. The kind of five you can earn in the space of, say, one ball. Oooh, how severe.
Admittedly, the laws do go on to say that ‘the umpires together shall report the occurrence… to any Governing Body responsible for the match, who shall take such action as is considered appropriate’ and it is within that spacious vagueness that Cricket Australia can justify its actions.
But we are talking about an ‘appropriate’ response to an offence that the on-field umpire would punish with the equivalent of letting the batting side run between the wickets five times. In the context of a Test match, five runs is effectively meaningless. And yet banning the Australian captain for an entire year is considered appropriate.
Some have argued that the premeditated nature of Bancroft’s rule breach make his, and the team’s, offence far more serious. It is the difference, if you like, between a first degree and second degree ball-tampering. But that is a ludicrous argument, because the nature of ball-tampering means it is always premeditated. When a fielder decides to mess with the ball, it is conscious and deliberate, whether he has decided to do it two minutes ago, or in the dressing room at the lunch interval. No one sees red and ball tampers – it is just not a crime of passion.
A more powerful argument is that harsh penalties for ball tampering follow a long precedent. In 1994 Mike Atherton was infamously fined £2,000 for using dirt – artificial substance? – in his pockets to keep sweat off the ball during a Lord’s Test against South Africa. Most recently, Faf Du Plessis was found guilty of applying minty saliva to the ball – artificial substance? – and was fined his full match fee.
But large fines are no equivalent to 12-month bans for wealthy Test cricketers with time-limited career spans. And some cases have not proved as clear-cut as they initially appeared: in 2006 Pakistan were forced to forfeit a Test against England after umpire Darrell Hair ruled they had been doctoring ball, but only because they refused to return to the field in protest against the decision. The team was subsequently cleared of all wrongdoing by an ICC tribunal, and Hair was banned from officiating international matches.
So why has this latest saga produced such a flagrantly disproportionate set of punishments? Perhaps because it directly involves the captains, who should bear the responsibility of ensuring their team stick to the rules. But then again, Atherton was captain back in 1994, and £2,000 is suddenly starting to look like a fairly small price to pay.
I think it is at least in part due to the fact that it was caught on camera. There is something fundamentally offensive about watching Bancroft clumsily but utterly shamelessly mess about the with the Kookaburra. The players and the pundits may have long been aware of the level of ball tampering that goes on in quiet corners of cricket pitches worldwide, but not until now have the fans had to confront it with their own eyes.
But while getting caught makes Bancroft more stupid, it doesn’t make him any more guilty. Of course, you could have predicted a ludicrous punishment from the moment the Australian Prime Minister decided it was in his job description to make a statement about a couple of young men breaking some rules in a game played with a ball and a few oddly shaped sticks. Grow up Cricket Australia – these are cricketers, not criminals.