In the early nineties, the Moin-ud-Dowla Gold Cup tournament was in progress at the Gymkhana ground in Secunderabad. The press box, perched at the opposite end of the pavilion, was a vantage point for sports journalists as we could see the action from a close angle.
In one of the matches, we, a group of five journalists, caught a leading pace bowler of the country doing something unusual with the ball. To be honest, we were a little naïve. We had never come across the word reverse swing. There were the usual pace bowling terms like an out-swinger or in-swinger. Swing is when the ball moves in the air. Out-swinger is to move the ball away from the batsman (to a right-hander) and in-swinger is to bring the ball in (right-hander).
There was nothing much in the morning session but the ball suddenly wobbled in the post-lunch period. It was strange. Tea was called and a player at mid-off, in a hurry, dropped some metal object on the ground. Out of sheer curiosity, we picked up the object. To our surprise, we found that it was the lid of a cool drink. We were stunned and amused. We now regret that we did not have cell-phone cameras or a photographer at that moment. One of the players explained that the ‘opening cap’ was used to scuff the ball on one side to reverse swing it.
No Ordinary Deed
In the infamous Cape Town Test, sandpaper (or was it tape?) was used and it led to the banning of Australians Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft. If the wicket deteriorates, particularly where there is little grass, the ball can reverse swing without illegal methods as the ball travels on gravel surface, which leads to roughness on the ball. The fielder or the bowler rubs the ball on his trousers to keep the shine on one part of the ball and leaves the other half rough to get the reverse swing get going.
This is no ordinary art. It needs a lot of hard work. Former Hyderabad fast bowler P Jyothi Prasad, one of the finest exponents of swing bowling in the 70s and 80s, who had once bowled the legendary Sunil Gavaskar with an in-swinger in a Duleep Trophy match, points out that grip is very crucial. “The bowler has to hold the ball with its seam point towards the slips. A normal delivery will outswing with this seam position. But in reverse swing, with the rough side of the ball on the off-side, the shiny side will be on leg-side. Your wrist should be at a certain degree (preferably at 20-30 degree) towards the batsmen.’’
Prasad adds that it is important not to change the bowling style. “You should not alter your action and one should bowl at a good speed so that it can surprise the batsman.’’
Pakistani pace bowlers were early exponents and masters of this art. Bowlers like Sarfraz Nawaz could bring the ball in with a devastating effect. The secret was passed on to his successors like Imran Khan, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, who mesmerised batsmen across the world.
On a tour of England, the home side was at sea against these bowlers as they bamboozled the batsmen with their reverse toe crushers. There was a lot of hue and cry because the English suspected that the Pakistani bowlers were resorting to ball-tampering. But former England opening legend Geoff Boycott doused the debate when he said: Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram, in 1992, could bowl England out with an orange! They were at their best.
P Harimohan, another Hyderabad fast bowler, points out that no one has a clear idea of reverse swing. “There are various versions and everyone has their own way of doing it. Legally, it is a skill that can be honed by adjusting seam position, angle of delivery and which a skilful bowler can do. But when the ball starts darting in sharply rather late in its trajectory, there is some cause for suspicion as bowlers sometimes resort to unfair and illegal ways to tamper with the ball to gain undue advantage. It needs a lot of skill and adaptability to perfect reverse swing.’’
Caught in the Act
However, eight years later, Younis was ‘caught in the act’ in a limited overs match against South Africa in Colombo. He was the first bowler to be fined and suspended for one match. Match referee John Reid of New Zealand found him guilty of ball tampering.
There were also other controversies that surrounded ball-tampering, including one against Sachin Tendulkar by match referee Mike Denness in Port Elizabeth in 2001. But the recent Cape Town Test has exploded, leading to the banning of the three tainted players.
It was sheer stupidity from Australian captain Smith, who hatched this plot along with Warner and Bancroft, knowing fully well that technology has vastly improved. The Aussies were caught red-handed by South African television, which had 30 cameras in and around the stadium.
Suspicious of the late reverse swing, former South African fast bowler, Fannie de Villiers, now a commentator, laid the trap along with cameraman Zotani Oscar. Their plan worked perfectly and Bancroft was caught for ball-tampering with a piece of ‘sandpaper’.
The incident has snowballed into a big controversy. The Australians are being called cheats. As per Cricket Australia chief James Sutherland’s version, the act involved these three players. Coach Darren Lehmann and others were absolved of the charges.
Smith and Warner got the junior player (Bancroft) to scratch one side of the ball with yellow tape with in-graded gravel, which is an illegal act. He hid it in front of the pants once the cameras in front of the stands caught him. He and Smith pretended that it was just a soft black cloth.
The senior players thought of this idea together. “We spoke about it and to get advantage,’’ said Smith after the match. This was organised cheating from top of the team. The question is did it go higher. Questions have been raised on Lehmann’s role. Was the coach not part of the team decision during lunch to swing the ball more as the team was losing?
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called it an outrageous act. “Our cricketers are role models and cricket is synonymous with fair play.’’ But many players feel that the one-year ban for both Smith and Warner is too harsh. The players also lost multi-crore contracts with IPL as the BCCI also banned them for a year.
Former leg-spin legend Shane Warne took a more nuanced view when he said, “there is no way you can condone it … but the jump to hysteria is something that has elevated the offence beyond what they actually did. Maybe we’re at a point where the punishment just might not fit the crime.”
Swinging it their way
• Normal swing occurs mostly when the ball is fairly new. When the ball becomes very old — around 30 or more overs old – it stops swinging. This is when bowlers, legally, shine one side of the ball. Conventional swing is when the ball swings in the air towards the side with the rough surface
• Reverse swing is the opposite when the ball swings towards its shiny side. This means a natural out-swinger in the conventional sense (swinging towards the rough side) would become an in-swinger and vice versa. Scientifically, the holes in the ball on one side allow the wind to push the ball inside and make it travel faster
How does tampering help swing
• Applying smooth substances like vaseline (lip balm) or sweetened saliva to the smooth side of the ball
• Smooth side becomes smoother, thus creating more pressure difference between the smooth and rough sides
• Using cork, rubbing the ball on the pitch or using spikes on boots to scuff up the ball
• Rough side gets rougher and creates more pressure difference between the smooth and rough sides
• Picking at the threads of the main seam or ‘lifting’ the seam by nails makes the seam more prominent, thereby helping in conventional swing
• Picking at the quarter swing helps reverse swing as the gap in the cover makes the moisture go deeper and that side gets heavier, thus facilitating reverse swing
• New Zealand’s Chris Pringle admitted to ball-tampering against Pakistan in Karachi in 1990 after taking 11 wickets
• England captain Michael Atherton was caught on camera taking dirt off the pitch, putting it in his pocket and using it on the ball against New Zealand in 1994
• Waqar Younis of Pakistan became the first cricketer to be suspended for one match for ball-tampering by New Zealand match referee John Reid in the one-day match against South Africa in 2000
• Match referee Mike Denness called out Sachin Tendulkar for ball-tampering during the second Test against South Africa at Port Elizabeth in 2001
• Pakistan’s Shoaib Akhtar was banned for two one-dayers for scratching the surface of the ball during a game against New Zealand in Sri Lanka in 2003
• Rahul Dravid was caught on camera applying lozenge on the ball while playing Zimbabwe in a one-day international in Australia in 2004
• Umpires Darrel Hair and Billy Doctrove penalised Pakistan team for ball-tampering against England in 2006.
• Stuart Broad of England faced accusations of ball-tampering when he appeared to step on the ball with the boot spikes during a Test match against South Africa in 2010
• Shahid Afridi of Pakistan was banned for two one-day internationals after appearing to bite the ball twice against Australia in Perth in 2010
• Faf du Plessis of South Africa was fined 100% of his match and given three demerit points for ball-tampering during the second Test against Australia in 2016