Abhishek Mukherjee, cricketsoccer’s prolific writer, brings to you the words, verbal or written, almost never intended to be pathbreaking quotes in the history of cricket in this fascinating series…….

Quote: “You’ve got a better chance of lifting the seams for Jack Gregory and ‘Stork’ Hendry there”

By: Herbie Collins to Arthur Mailey, sometime in the 1920s.

No, ball-tampering is not a recent phenomenon – although almost every instance of penalties imposed on cricketers has happened in the 21st century. Of course, television cameras have played a major role in identification. That is an advantage that was not in practice previously – though Shahid Afridi’s chomping did not really demand a close-up shot.

Ball-tampering has been there for some time now. Cricketers have tried to alter the shape of the ball. Let us check some incidents from the 20th century – even from an era when cricket was, if we go by popular notion, a “gentleman’s game”.

Also read: Cricket history in quotes, part 17: “I think the time has arrived when the county cricket season should be closed”

Michael Atherton was caught by the television camera in 1994, but the most famous (chronicled) incidents took place during the 1990-91 series in Pakistan. Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis unleashed reverse-swing on New Zealand. Martin Crowe recalled in Out on a Limb how a discarded ball used by the Pakistanis “bore no resemblance to a cricket ball.”

New Zealand were already 0-2 down and one Test to play. They decided to experiment with an artificially roughened ball and were astonished to see the ball swinging the other way.

Chris Pringle, who had debuted earlier in the series, now carried a quarter of a bottle cap with a corrugated edge on to the ground and applied it generously. The umpires never bothered to inspect the “grooves and lines and deep gouges” on one side of the ball.

Michale Atherton doing a bit of work on the ball. Image Courtesy: MSN
Michale Atherton doing a bit of work on the ball. Image Courtesy: MSN

Pringle led the rout with 7 for 52 and 4 for 100 but was outclassed by Waqar (7 for 76 and 5 for 54). New Zealand lost again, but they now knew how to make an old ball move, that too the other way. Pringle later went on to chronicle everything in his controversial autobiography Save the Last Ball for Me.

Well over a decade before that, in 1976-77, John Lever was accused of using a Vaseline-doused gauze strip at Delhi in India after Ken Barrington convinced the organisers to use a local brand of balls. Indian captain Bishan Singh Bedi expressed his feelings (“disgusting that England should stoop so low”), but nothing came of that.

John Lever, the man and the strip. Image Courtesy: ESPNcricinfo
John Lever, the man and the strip. Image Courtesy: ESPNcricinfo

Reverse swing was being improved upon by Sarfraz Nawaz roughly around this time. But ball-tampering predates reverse-swing. In the early days, the ball was smoothened to enhance conventional swing.

But the story of ball-tampering goes back decades before that. Roughening the rough side was probably not as common as applying resin (or something similar) to polish the smooth side was definitely a common practice. Lifting the seam was another.

In the Sydney Test of the 1921-22 Ashes, England captain Johnny Douglas confronted Arthur Mailey, and a most singular conversation followed. Douglas asked Mailey to show his hand. Upon inspection, Douglas told: “Arthur, you’ve been using resin. I’ll report you to the umpire.”

But Mailey was never one to back down. He asked Douglas to produce his right hand, had a close look, and responded: “you’ve been lifting the seam, Johnny.”

They had a laugh over it, and that was that. In fact, a newspaper reported the next day: “Douglas and Mailey appear to be good friends again. They were shaking hands out in the middle yesterday.”

Barring Pringle, few have confessed as candidly to ball-tampering as Mailey in 10 for 66 and All That, arguably the greatest ever autobiography was written by a cricketer.

Mailey defended ball-tampering. He pointed out that it was only fair that fielders were allowed to use resin as wicketkeepers applied birdlime on their gloves all the time for the ball to stick. For the uninitiated, resin is a “synthetic organic polymer used as the basis of plastics, adhesives, varnish, etc.”, while birdlime is a “sticky substance spread on to twigs to trap small birds.”

In other words, both objects could be used to smoothen surfaces.

Mailey, typically assigned the job of tampering with the ball, often went to Bert Oldfield while fielding if he ran out of resin. Oldfield, one of the greatest stumpers in history, was also among the gentlest. “Bert Oldfield was a such a gentleman he might have kept wickets in the gloves in which he married,” wrote The Age of him.

It would be wrong to label Mailey and Oldfield, two gentlemen in every sense of the word, as cheaters. As we shall see, they believed in what they were doing, and made little effort to hide. And anyway, they were not the only ones involved in ball-tampering.

Arthur Mailey. Image Courtesy: Cricket Country
Arthur Mailey. Image Courtesy: Cricket Country

On one occasion, Mailey dropped a catch in the slip cordon. Not feeling very confident about his catching, he requested captain Herbie Collins to move him to cover.

But Collins, one of the shrewdest brains cricket has seen, had other ideas: “You’ve got a better chance of lifting the seams for Jack Gregory and ‘Stork’ Hendry there.” So Mailey went back to performing dual duties in the slips.

If you are wondering how lifting the seam would help, think of a new ball, where the seam is pronounced. The seam flattens out as the match progresses. Lifting the seam obviously negated the flattening of the seam.

But how did Mailey (and presumably his contemporaries) really feel about ball-tampering? Let me quote Mailey verbatim from his book: “The question of whether or not the seam should be lifted or resin used should be left to the umpire to decide. If his inspection of the ball reveals no damage, what right have the legislators to interfere? Seam-lifting and resin-dusting preserve but never destroy.”

In other words, Mailey never bothered about the law. If anything, he questioned the law – and did not hesitate to do that in print.

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