There is a thin line, in sport as in life, between pushing the law and breaking the law. Ball tampering at the moment is turning out to be an art in lingering right on that fine line, although it has no business to be there.
Cricket is the only sport played across three different formats. From bat and ball to the 22-yard pitch and the ground dimensions and conditions, everything is flexible within a range. That is why it is one sport which is extremely dependent on conditions, of pitch, of weather and sometimes even of outfield.
Ignoring ball tampering as a minor offence in such a scenario is ironic considering the number of ways in which it virtually manhandles the letter of the cricket laws.
The recent South Africa-Sri Lanka match has come to a conclusion. In the end, South Africa romped home in style.
Sri Lanka can only save the series now and South Africa can win it with just a draw in the second Test, keeping their impressive away record intact.
However, bluntly put, it is a tainted victory.
South Africa pressed forth the advantage in the first innings largely on the back of a Steyn five-for, three of which came in a spell of five overs with a ball that was eventually used for 97.2 overs, the same ball Vernon Philander pleaded guilty of tampering with.
It would be ridiculous to believe Steyn wouldn’t get those wickets if the ball weren’t tampered; such is his greatness and was his track record even in sub-continental pitches. However, one can never be sure if the tampering didn’t accentuate the devastation wreaked.
In modern day Test cricket, that is extremely competitive compared to what it was two decades ago, a lot is at stake.
Bats are bigger, edges broader and grounds so small, a good edge can send the ball sailing over the boundary. The other side of the argument is a law that doesn’t sternly punish the culprit not nearly sternly enough if we told you, 75 per cent of the match fee was what Philander was docked for pleading guilty.
Would that be the same punishment doled out to a bowler who deliberately bowls a no ball, read match-fixing? How is tampering the ball to make it more favourable for bowlers any smaller a crime?
How is it worthy of such a pardon or a feeble punishment by modern day standards, where international cricketers are generally rich?
Between the need and the repercussions, bowlers don’t have much to lose when they tamper with the ball and a lot to gain, especially on pitches that almost look like a cement graveyard for the bowlers, with an extra topping of tar to deal with.
If involvement of a top class bowler like Philander isn’t ringing bells at the top echelons, then there is surely something amiss. Whether it is addressed as a crime or a sign of frustration that should be mollified is up to the decision makers.
Interestingly, another series between England and India, could be taken as a classic example, of what needs to be done in cricket. The solution sometimes is so beautifully simple, one wonders why it isn’t followed all the time.
In two Tests, from Trent Bridge and Lord’s, the cricketing world is seeing the difference between what a good pitch can do to the state of Test cricket. The Lord’s curator has produced an ode to cricket, nearly as perfect a pitch as is possible in test cricket, rewarding batsmen and bowlers all through the match and filtering out average performers.
With pitches like this, ball tampering can easily be weeded out. After all, why would a bowler like Vernon Philander, who can move the ball both ways from the corridor of uncertainty, resort to tampering when the pitch gives him enough assistance?
At the same time, the laws need to be less blurry and more decisive when it comes to doling out punishment for an activity that goes against the spirit of the game. Docking match fees definitely doesn’t cut it and if a clear message needs to go out to the players, it has to be something they would fear.
If two consecutive yellow cards in football can get you a suspension, there is no reason why cricket shouldn’t follow suit and raise the stakes!