Saturday, February 20, 2010

Revisiting the argument for legalizing ball-tampering

A week or so ago, I posted an article on Different Strokes arguing that ball-tampering should be legalized. Reactions to this article were not numerous (I think most of what folks had to say in response had already been said) but I still got some interesting critical feedback (including a post over at Straight Points). I want to think about some of that feedback here because I think the arguments against ball-tampering are good ones and I want to see if there are any good responses. (A reminder: I made that argument because a) the game is stacked against bowlers b) the law is too easy to break and c) it contributed to a poisonous atmosphere of hypocritical name-calling)

One objection runs along the line of "The motivations for wanting to legalize ball-tampering are praiseworthy - that you want to level the field for bowlers - but do you really need ball-tampering to do that? Why not fix things like pitches, the number of bouncers in an over, and so on? Why mess with a well-established law?" I agree with this objection insofar as I think all of those should be done as well. However, the most important potential change, that of leaving pitches uncovered will not be carried out; cricketing boards the world over are not interested in having matches end quickly. Still, there is something to be said for concentrating the most on the quality of the pitches for, as the Eden Gardens test showed, a balanced pitch can result in very good cricket.

Underwriting the objection above is another, more fundamental one. Where does the line get set for permissible ball-tampering? This is a pretty strong objection. Right now, there is a well-established bright line (of sorts): you can't change the condition of the ball. If you want to clean it, give it to the ump. There is a piece of thread sticking out from the seam? Give it to the ump to pick at. The reason I said this is a bright line of sorts is that all players regularly rub in their sweat and any face creams (including suncream) onto the ball's surface. (The whole John Lever-vaseline business seems quaint now when you think that all you have to do in order to get vaseline on the ball is to put some on your face and then rub it onto the ball, or better still walk out for a day's play with some vaseline squeezed out into your pocket and by simply dipping your hands in there once in a while, keep picking up a fresh stock between overs).

But if ball-tampering was to be legalized and bowlers and fielders felt free to pick at the seam or cut the ball with razor blades and so on, then the ball could become pretty badly damaged - not just slightly altered in shape. Would the umpires have to step in then? If so, then what good did the ball-tampering legalization do? Umpires will still be called on to make fine-line judgment calls and inevitably, we would hear the refrain "Umpire X penalizes bowlers from Country Y, but not Country Z". In short, we'd have a schmozzle of a mess, and no one would be happy. Some folks would still be called cheats, others would be called blind (or incompetent or racist).

We could suggest players accept the umpires decision that the ball has become unplayable. But this is too difficult. Players show no inclination to accept the umpires' decisions (hence, the UDRS), and secondly, umpires would come under even more pressure. Would they dare to make a bowling side change the ball in a tight situation? What if the batting side was to complain? Are they being precious or did they have a point?

So, in sum, this is a good argument against the legalization I suggested because while the current situation isn't ideal, the move I was suggesting might worsen things and furthermore, there exist a set of alternatives that could ameliorate the situation I find problematic.

There is only one issue left that I'd like to consider. Which is that I consider the best argument against legalization to be a practical one as above, and not one that is in anyway morally-inflected. That is, as of now, with the laws as they are, and with the decks stacked as they are, I don't consider a ball-tamperer to be a cheat. A rule-breaker, yes, but only one who does so as a means of redressing an unfair imbalance. He breaks the law, but does not deserve the moral opprobrium that is heaped upon his head. Were he to do so when pitches are fairer, when the game of cricket has reconfigured its notion of "deception" to not just apply to bowlers, then I might be more inclined to that judgment. Or if he were to be called a cheat, then he is only a cheat in one dictionary sense of the term: "to influence or lead by deceit, trick, or artifice".

"Deceit, trick, artifice" or terms like them were all used liberally when the googly made its appearance as well. In cricket's lexicon, switch-hitting is clever and inventive, but a bowler's deception is not. Cricket still needs to reconfigure its notion of what is fair and not when it comes to judging the actions of bowlers and batsmen.

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12 Comments:

OpenID offcutter said...

The argument about where you draw the line for ball tampering is good. However, these people should realise that batsmen are clearly crossing the line when making their bats bigger and bigger!

Perhaps the most reasonable way to redress this balance is to not change the ball after 34 overs and put in extremely strict guidelines for bat manufacturers so that we don't see massive caveman clubs like what Yuvraj Singh uses. It will also avoid abominations like the Mongoose to get into int. cricket. There should also be a specified minimum length for a boundary from the pitch to all sides of the boundry. 85m would be very good.

8:27 PM  
Blogger achettup said...

How far away are we from the day when a new ball will be picked for every over / 2nd over / 5th over - and perhaps it will initially happen in the reverse order - so that playing conditions are "standardized"? It happens in virtually every other sport, I remember seeing a show on baseball where they described how the new baseballs are put in mud/dirt and tossed about until they meet the acceptable condition for play.

Ball tampering in my opinion should be banned. Instead, create sets of standardized balls which different bowlers can use when they come on to bowl, maybe only one type per over. The spinners get the balls roughed enough to give them sufficient grip, the pace bowlers can choose between new balls and those which are ideal for reverse swing. The only way this can happen is if the administrators of the game recognize that the best cricket is played when both batsmen and bowlers have the best of conditions to their favor - creating good balance.

I simply cannot see anyway to effectively control ball tampering (other than regularly changing the ball), as you correctly say if you were to legalize it where would you set the limits and how soon before someone questions those considering the precedent set when the laws were changed to allow it in the first place?

11:16 PM  
Blogger Golandaaz said...

Haven't followed this debate in any detail but I am often intrigued by the comment, "the game is stacked against the bowler". If that's one of the motivations for legalizing what is today called "ball tampering", it is important to define at least in generic terms, when will the condition be met, when cricket is considered an "equal opportunity employer" for bats and balls.

Is it 3 r.p.o and a strike rate of 20 balls per wicket?

The reason batting strike rates and run rates are trending upwards is due to a variety of things. shorter boundaries, better bats, flat pitches, fielding restrictions and shortening of the overs in a game.

Ball tampering is unlikely to tilt the scales. Another thing especially in T20 is to make the price of a wicket dearer and ensure your best bowlers skills can be maximized....

For example....Only 5 batsmen bat. And you can bowl your 20 overs using only 2 bowlers. A version of this can be extended to ODIs.

That was the game becomes specialized...specialized batsmen, bowlers, fielders and w/k

8:43 AM  
Blogger Samir Chopra said...

Ofcutter(Thiru): Indeed, why is bat-enhancement OK when ball-enhancement is not?

I need to look into what current guidelines for bats are to see what bat-makers are taking liberties with.

Also, I imagine setting minimum lengths for boundaries might be hard, given the varying sizes of grounds but 85 meters doesn't sound too bad.

2:33 PM  
Blogger Samir Chopra said...

Achettup: I imagine the different-balls-for-different folks :) idea might be a little difficult. I do quite like the idea of letting the ball deteriorate and the various juggleries that are required of captains when deciding which bowler to bowl. Incidentally, I would also be happy if umpires started to look at the other way at the deliberate bouncing of the ball into the ground (its a calculated risk, you can't perfectly control which side hits the ground) to scuff up one side.

2:36 PM  
Blogger Samir Chopra said...

Golandaaz: I think that tipping point will become evident in the results/draws ratio. For my money, there is no reason (other than weather or some desperate rearguard actions) why a game of cricket should not end in five days if bowlers have a fair chance. I think ball tampering would tilt the scales for a bit - witness the troubles batsmen have when the ball starts to swing.

I think one version of your idea should definitely be implemented in ODIs: remove the overs restrictions from bowlers. Let captains use their best bowlers for as long as they want. This will soon get rid of the bits-n-pieces types and make it harder to score runs.

2:39 PM  
Blogger Shridhar Jaju said...

Want to have balance between bat and ball in a match? Here are a few suggestions:

1. In ODIs, increase the bowling restrictions from 10 overs per bowler to 12. Do the same in T20 - from 4 overs to 5. This will ensure that the better bowlers are allowed the more overs.

2. In Tests, make the new ball available after 60 overs. If there is reverse swing on offer, captains can always take it later. If there is no reverse, and there is little assistance for the spinners, the new ball can be used to attack.

Both these changes can be accepted without tweaking too many laws. They will also be acceptable to most.

3:09 PM  
Blogger Samir Chopra said...

Shridhar: Thanks for your comment.

I agree with the first one. Indeed, you will notice that in one of my replies above, I go even further and suggest bowling restrictions be removed altogether.

As for the second, it has been tried before - back in 1948. Then, a new ball was made available after 55 overs. The Aussies touring England were surprised; their attack included Lindwall, Miller and Johnston. They thrashed England 4-0. But I agree with you anyway. It would work well.

5:52 PM  
Blogger Jonathan said...

I agree that the main argument is practical.

However, there is a difference between changing laws to advantage bowlers, and suggesting that doing so outside the laws is any less cheating. After all, the bowlers on each team are still subject to the same laws. Having said that, I'm not happy with the emphasis on "cheating" every time certain laws are broken anyway.

Lifting bowling restrictions is interesting - it might improve the quality of bowling over a match, but it would also lead to changes in selection, with shorter tails and fewer bowling spots to go around.

10:46 PM  
Blogger Samir Chopra said...

Jonathan: Thanks for the comment. The rhetorical arsenal unleashed against bowlers' bag-of-tricks has always seemed a little excessive to me.

I think the change in bowling restrictions in ODIs would be very interesting. For instance, we might see more attacking fields if captains think they can get wickets from their best bowlers.

8:14 AM  
Blogger Golandaaz said...

The scales have tilted batsman-wards is due to multiple factors. Similarly what I am saying is that we will need multiple tweaks on the bowling side to seek equilibrium. So just ball tampering or eliminating over limits is unlikely to work towards the end you seek. but certainly a good start.

I am still unconvinced about legalizing ball "tampering". Certainly innovations are needed how balls are engineered. But it needs to be controlled and managed outside of an Atherton smuggling dirt and an Afridi biting it. Just like batsmen have a choice of bats to choose from, perhaps each bowler shows up with his balls. Ooops....

All manufactured to standards (weight, size, color, material, etc) but allows manufacturers enough room to "tamper" may be in how it behaves in the air

In most cases today, it seems bowlers no longer have the skills to swing the ball, conventionally when it is new. Hence they resort to tampering which affords exaggerated movement in the air. It has an air of "cheating" to it.

12:53 PM  
Blogger Samir Chopra said...

Golandaaz: I wonder if balls with raised seams could be made?

Incidentally, one change in recent years that I'm happy about is that more umpires are getting LBWs right. The Hawkeye effect seems to be real. And of course, line-decisions are all correct now (except for the very rare ones).

8:33 AM  

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