The history of The Ashes, if gone into with studious detail, is one of the most illuminating subjects. Not only is it a wealth of information about the coming of age, and the stage by stage development of, the great game; it is also a microcosm of the history of the Empire and thereafter the Commonwealth and finally the world.
And through its retelling, we can make an attempt —futile though it may be given the enormous powers of preconceived notions — to unveil the rather ugly facets of the game that existed from eras so distant in past that they seem to exist as pristine, golden days now. Times when cricket and cricketers were supposedly pure, untainted and played the game like gentlemen and all that rot.
We have already written about the way wickets were tampered with, in rather incredible manner, as far back is 1896. In this episode let us try to look at an incident of ball tampering in the days immediately after the First World War, in 1920-21.
It was the first Test series of the leg-spinning immortal character Arthur Mailey. In his brilliant autobiography 10 for 66 and All That, this cricketer-artist-cartoonist-writer sets aside one full chapter about ‘Tinkering with the Rules’. And from the stories he shares, we come to know of several underhand dealings that went on in those hoary days of the past.
Here is what Mailey writes:
“Although it was against the law, I must break down and confess that I always carried powdered resin in my pocket, and when the umpire wasn’t looking lifted the seam for Jack Gregory and Ted McDonald.” Well, Gregory and McDonald were as fearsome a pair of fast bowlers as any. In terms of fear and devastation inflicted on the opponents, they were in league with Harold Larwood and Bill Voce, Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller, Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith, Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson and so on.
Mailey continues that at the time of writing he was as ashamed of the little bits of dishonesty on the field as “a Yorkshireman who appeals for lbw off a ball which pitched two feet outside the leg stump.”
And then he goes on: “Anyhow, I was in pretty good company. One day in Sydney, Johnny Douglas, the England captain, asked me to show him my hand. He held it for a while and then said, ‘Arthur, you’ve been using resin. I’ll report you to the umpire.’
“I asked him to show me his right hand, and looking at the thumbnail I noticed it was worn to the flesh on the outside.
“’You’ve been lifting the seam, Johnny,’ I said. My co-rebel grinned and the matter was dropped.”
Mailey and Douglas shook hands and resumed the game. Both had cheated and the other party knew it.
Resin was officially not allowed. And if his secret stock ran out Mailey used to procure bird-lime that wicketkeepers used to put on their gloves. As he inimitably remembers, “When I ran out of resin, I used to spend a good part of the day shaking hands with Bert Oldfield, our keeper.”
In fact, a lot of strategies used to go into this particular activity. This is what Mailey writes about one of the later tours:
“When after dropping a catch in the slips I asked Herby Collins to move me into the covers, Herby, the shrewdest of all captains, advised me to stay put. ‘You’ve got a better chance of lifting the seams for Gregory and [Stork] Hendry here.’”
Mailey further confesses that he did this without a pang of conscience.
“I allowed myself to break this law without compunction because in lifting the seam I was keeping the ball in its original shape. The stitches on a brand-new ball are perceptibly raised, a peculiarity which allows the new ball to swerve more than an old one on which the stitches have been battered flat.”
The book 10 for 66 and All That was published in 1958. And Mailey provided an insight into the game as it was played in those times as well:
“I know one Australian pace bowler who still lifts the seam.”
He does not name the bowler, but who could it be? Alan Davidson? Ian Meckiff? Gordon Rorke? Or was it the old timer Ray Lindwall?
Whoever it was, it cannot be denied that ball tampering has been an integral and unavoidable part of the game all through history.