Cricket

Published on November 25th, 2018 | by Arunabha Sengupta

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Ball Tampering ban: Keith Miller, Arthur Mailey and a lot of unflattering history

🕓 Reading time: 6 minutes

This is not another article highlighting why the continuing ban of the three cricketers by CA is close to ridiculous. It is just to point out that knee-jerk reactions hinting at self-righteousness with an absolute conviction that ball tampering ‘brings disrepute to a gentleman’s game’ is just about as superficial an evaluation of cricket as possible….. 

The India-Australia showdowns in the past two decades have been mouthwatering extravaganzas, perhaps the one cricketing rivalry that can justly claim to rival The Ashes in every parameter other than history.

And now, because of Cricket Australia’s stubborn refusal to lift the bans on Steve Smith and David Warner, along with Cameron Bancroft, the thousands of cricket fans waiting with bated breath for the next edition of this contest will be served an ersatz, watered down version.

The pigheaded punitive measure is supposedly for the benefit of cricket. Laughable really.

This is not another article highlighting why the stance of CA is close to ridiculous. Abhishek Mukherjee has already dealt with that in detail.

It is just to point out that knee-jerk reactions hinting at self-righteousness with an absolute conviction that ball tampering ‘brings disrepute to a gentleman’s game’ is about as superficial an evaluation of cricket as possible.

There have been many who have tried to argue that ball tampering is evil. I am not here to judge whether it is so or not. I will stop at the fact that it is not allowed by the laws of the game. And yes, people indulging in such acts should be punished by ICC according to a pre-defined code of conduct.

The penalising, on the other hand, should not be carried out by a ‘holier-than-thou’ cricket board, who, it can be argued, is at the root of most of the nonsense carried out by the Australian team in recent times.

But such incidents, as I stated above, spring forth innumerable unresearched laments about the pristine past of the gentleman’s game which the uncouth modern generation of cricketers is destroying in their soulless zeal to win at all costs.

Not only facebook fans with their protracted social-media powered worldview, or desktop journalists with a strong disinclination to put in more than two minutes of thought into each article. Even reputed publications have fallen prey to this trend.

In fact, in Sydney Morning Herald, one supposed prize-winning writer lamented about such behaviour of Australian cricketers. The writer specifically attacked Warner, citing that the then Australian vice-captain had said that Ashes was like War. According to the writer, and, as we will see, ironically so, Warner was a poor student of history. He summarised that Warner was wrong because: “The brilliant all-rounder Keith ‘‘Nugget’’ Miller, a pilot and World War II hero, once refused to bowl flat-out on a dangerous pitch at an English opponent (a former airman).” The author was obviously of the view that Miller would never have stooped to such ungentlemanly acts such as ball tampering.

It is this rosy retrospection around the mythical reputation of certain characters that becomes annoying to the actual students of history.

First of all, Miller was not as great a War Hero as is made out to be. In his detailed research on the Victory Tests, Mark Rowe has discussed how Miller’s War experience was very limited. For all the hype around his words “Pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse, playing cricket is not” and his image as a dashing hero, an airman who played cricket for fun; most of his War was spent training for action.

He went on just two missions, one of them a ‘spoof patrol’ organised for a beginner, more of a decoy for the enemy. The flight was logged as ‘uneventful’. The second and last mission was shorter but slightly more eventful, and Miller had to bring his aircraft back to the base with the tanks liable to drop at any time.

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Two missions, that too when the German air-force were on its last legs. That as all the war Miller saw. He never had a Messerschmitt up his arse. Someone like Ross Stanford, another cricketer for the Australian Imperial Services, saw 20 times as much action. Unlike Miller, he was not a self-mythologist and did not brag about it.

And for all his words about Messerschmitt and War, Miller never shied away from bowling bumpers at the bodies of batsmen. Even at Len Hutton, knowing fully well that Hutton had a shortened left-arm because of a war-time training injury.
The reason was simple. He wanted to win at all costs. Just like the modern cricketers.

So much for his refusal to bowl flat out. Wisden once also listed the casualties incurred due to Miller’s relentless short-pitched bowling alongside his comrade-in-arms Ray Lindwall.

The incident cited by our ‘prize winning’ author is purely anecdotal, rather than a rigorous example. Miller had his bone to pick with Bradman, and often refused to do what his captain said just because of the personality clash.

But the Miller image for cricketing spirit is mythologised so much that it is almost taken as gospel nowadays.

Now, let us turn to ball tampering.

Already in these pages, we have shown how old a concept it is. We have shown how Arthur Mailey and Johnny Douglas indulged in this act in 1920-21. Mailey later wrote: “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 … Anyhow, I was in a 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.”

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Mailey and Douglas shook hands and resumed the game. Both had cheated and the other party knew it. When the resin ran out, Mailey used bird-lime off Bert Oldfield’s wicketkeeping gloves.

Ball tampering is that old.

As we will see, it is even older!

Significantly!

When in 1932-33, during the Adelaide Test of the Bodyline series, Maurice Leyland accused Bert Ironmonger of using resin, the latter produced an injured look and said, “As if I would do such a thing.” Having said that he put his hand in his pocket, pulled out a handkerchief, waving it furiously. Clouds of resin floated out in the atmosphere.

These were the glorified saints of the glorious past of cricket. Mind you, in the timescape, I am still far away from the revolution in cricketing aerodynamics brought about in the 1980s by Pakistan.

And if people argue that the charge is against brainwashing young Bancroft into indulging in a dishonest act, and Smith and Warner being the perpetrators, let me point out that the legendary Warwick Armstrong was the captain of Australia in 1920-21, and Mailey was playing his very first series.

Now that I have recounted for the umpteenth time that ball tampering is an old practice (not that it will help, people will keep believing about the pristine past anyway) let me turn to Miller.

In 1953, Miller was spotted lifting the seam during the Headingley Test by umpire Frank Lee and sheepishly blamed it on the ‘cheap balls we are getting nowadays’. According to Miller,  “Frank gave me what is known as an ‘old-fashioned look’. He didn’t believe my explanation.”

That was not Miller’s first foray into ball tampering. He had been doing it all the time.

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In the Victory Tests of 1945, much touted for the sporting spirit shown by the two sides in the wake of the Second World War, Miller had learned the craft of ball tampering from the Derbyshire seamer George Pope. Thoroughly bald, Pope never went into the field bareheaded. And the reason was not vanity. The inside of Pope’s cap would be heavily greased with hair oil which he would proceed to rub on the ball before every over.

Miller, more abundantly blessed in the sartorial department, turned to Brylcreem. There was more than just dash and grooming in the tousle-haired look. It helped him swing the ball.

So much for the glorified War hero playing cricket for fun.

That is not all. In 1948-49, a poem appeared in The Times, with leg-spinner Doug Wright being the protagonist. This was after the bowler had been reprimanded by an umpire on the tour to South Africa.

As finger-bowls would be denied

To cricket’s fastidious soul,

So Wright claims right upon his side

And having licked his finger, bowls.

So, when was the first time the condition of the ball was changed?

One can never be sure, but I can point out the first recorded instance. It was in 1806. Yes, no misprint or typo there.

Billy Beldham, Robinson and William Lambert played Bennett, Fennex and Lord Frederick Beauclerk in a single-wicket match at Lord’s. (Incidentally, these matches were played for huge stakes, and a lot of betting and fixing took place in those ‘pristine days’). Beauclerk looked like winning the match, when, according to Reverend James Pycroft in The Cricket Field:

“His lordship had then lately introduced sawdust when the ground was wet Beldham, unseen, took up a lump of wet dirt and sawdust, and stuck it on the ball, which, pitching favourably, made an extraordinary twist, and took the wicket.”

Yes, once again, this happened in 1806.

Ball tampering is old. Very old. And near mythological superheroes like Keith Miller indulged in the act shamelessly.

It would be a good idea, for the scribes, literate or otherwise, as well as the administrators, to be aware of these historical facts before jumping to snap-judgements in the bustle of the day.

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About the Author

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Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and the author of Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of The Ashes. He tweets @senantix.



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