Reverse swing: cricket’s ball-tampering problem in plain sight

Australia


An Australian bowler is running in. The ball is old, almost 70 overs of use, yet after it leaves his hand it swings, a lot. Swing that doesn’t look like the other swing. Conventional swing is carefree and light, reverse swing is heavy and tracks your stumps. The batsman gets nowhere near and is clean bowled. The bowler was Glenn McGrath, the batsman Courtney Walsh, and the Test was 23 years ago. Australia has been reversing the ball for a long time.

After the first Test of the ongoing series in South Africa, Darren Lehmann spoke to the press. One question was on reverse swing: “Would you say your techniques are acceptable to the ICC?” Lehmann’s reply: “I don’t know, you’d have to ask the umpires and the ICC that one.” He went on to add: “Obviously there are techniques used by both sides to get the ball to reverse, and that’s just the way the game goes. I have no problem with it. Simple.” No problem with it.

He wasn’t explicitly talking about ball tampering, but that was what the general enquiry was really about. Because this is how cricket talks about ball tampering. It smirks, as Lehmann did, it deflects, as Lehmann did, and it puts the ultimate responsibility on the ICC, as Lehmann did.

So when Australia were found guilty of tampering with the ball, David Richardson, the ICC chief executive, said: “As captain, Steve Smith must take full responsibility for the actions of his players, and it is appropriate that he be suspended.” Smith received a whopping one-match ban. Cameron Bancroft wasn’t suspended. David Warner wasn’t charged.

“The game needs to have a hard look at itself,” Richardson added. “In recent weeks we have seen incidents of ugly sledging, send-offs, dissent against umpires’ decisions, a walk-off, ball-tampering and some ordinary off-field behaviour.” Yes, the game needs to have a good long look at itself, because the running of the game helped create this. Richardson has now announced they will look into the penalties on the field, only a couple of decades late.

Where was Richardson when South Africa tampered with the ball three times in four years? What kind of committee did he put into place to see if there was a “systemised problem” (as one umpire told ESPNcricinfo off the record) of ball-tampering in cricket worldwide? Why isn’t money spent on putting one camera in each ground that follows the ball? Even if you didn’t do it for every game, isn’t it worth checking teams who have been caught once or when you get decent information?

When Bancroft rubbed sandpaper on the ball, you heard a lot of Captain Renaults. It was Renault who uttered “I am shocked – shocked – to find that gambling is going on in here!” in Casablanca. So many shocked cricket people, despite ball-tampering being an ever-present. Mark Nicholas, Ian Chappell and Osman Samiuddin have all written in the past that perhaps laws need to flex a little. Shahid Afridi bit a ball, you can buy a Mike Atherton Laundrette shirt online and Marcus Trescothick admitted to ball-tampering – ahem, ball shining – during the holy ’05 Ashes.

This was more captivating than most incidents. It involved a foreign implement that had no place on the ground, the cover-up with the umpires; multiple players were required, it was premeditated, and then what looked like an apology involved even more of a cover-up. Cricket has had a few incidents that has one or two of these elements, but this occurrence had the full house. And it happened in front of a very clear long-lens, making it great news. But if you’ve ever seen reverse swing, you’ve seen the results of ball-tampering.

“Reverse is an art that anyone vaguely involved with cricket knows uses a mix of legal and illegal acts to prepare the ball”

James Sutherland has seen reverse swing his whole life. In 1979 at the MCG, Sarfraz Nawaz took 7 for 1 to destroy an Australia chase. Sutherland’s home ground is the MCG. If he didn’t see the spell (he was 14 then), it’s a famous moment in MCG history that’s replayed many times. Also, Victorians were some of the first non-Pakistani players to work out reverse swing. Max Walker talked of learning legal reverse from fellow Victorian Alan Connolly. Then in the 1990s, Victoria became experts in the art of reverse, partly because the conditions helped them.

Sutherland was a seam bowler for Victoria in the 90s. Not to mention that Melbourne district cricket is known for reverse, and Sutherland played a lot of that. Then there is his son, Will Sutherland, who is now on Victoria’s list. It was Will’s new team’s assistant coach, Mick Lewis who picked up a ball from a boundary, scratched it on the concrete, before handing it back to his team. Lewis was subsequently handed a $2,266 fine.

Reverse is an art that anyone vaguely involved with cricket knows uses a mix of legal and illegal acts to prepare the ball. Not all reverse swing is illegal, but much of it is.

This is a skill passed down from player to player. No, let’s write that a different way: because Shield players are Cricket Australia (CA) employees, this is a skill passed down from CA employee to CA employee, and has been for generations. Sutherland was a former seam bowler from the Aussie epicentre of reverse swing. And he has been employed by CA as a coach, commercial manager and CEO for 20 years. Unless Sutherland lived his entire life in a bucket of sand he carries with him, he knows about about the legal and illegal methods of reverse swing.

Corporations and their leaders often look the other way when they know things might be happening that they don’t want to know about. Plausible deniability: denying knowledge, and ultimate responsibility, for actions carried about by people below you in the company because of a lack of evidence. In many cases, companies and executives actively look the other way, to maintain their “innocence”. Why go looking for proof that might damage your job or your company? Organisations cover up, look away, and do whatever they can not to hurt their brand.

The new corruption of sport is not doping; it is sporting bodies not actively looking for the state-sanctioned systems that bring drugs in, and only reacting for positive tests. Sports have shown time and again they cannot be trusted to self-regulate. Blood testing only made its ICC debut in last year’s Champions Trophy, for instance.

Ball-tampering is mostly policed by TV producers, not cricket itself. The authorities know about it, it’s been impossible to miss since the 1992 World Cup. The Bancroft example was so big because it was in HD and performed by an inept comedy pantomime cast, but no one can be shocked at the tampering itself. When you allow teams to do this for years with no real sanctions, you can understand – while still not condoning – the players doing it.

They look around and think, everyone is doing it. Imagine trying to win regular Test matches if you are the only team not reversing the ball. Rarely does a series go by without one side accusing the opposition. You see Dasun Shanaka get a slap on the wrist, Faf du Plessis elevated to the full-time captaincy after two offences and Victoria not losing their Shield title for tampering. A quick risk-versus-reward from a tired and frustrated player, or player group, and they might go for it.

This is not just a mistake of these few players; this is a systemic failure of cricket. Everyone saw the results of cheating and no one went looking for the source.

It might change now, but Sutherland’s words – which he has been choosing exceptionally carefully – don’t suggest that. When asked if CA would investigate the allegations that Australia used sandpaper at Port Elizabeth, before they were caught at Cape Town, Sutherland said: “Not at this stage. But from our perspective, if there are credible allegations, and there is evidence to come to light, we have powers under our code of conduct to investigate that or any other matter.”

Why does the evidence need to come to light? Why aren’t they searching for the truth? This instance was uncovered by a few cameramen; it didn’t require an army of investigators. The rumours alone during the Ashes should have been enough to send off their integrity officers to look into it. Not to mention it could have been looked into any time over the last 20 years Australia has used reverse swing. And it hasn’t.

Smith, Warner and Bancroft are guilty of tampering with the ball, and then worse, the fumbled cover-up that followed; breaking CA rules repeatedly. But can they have been the only guilty parties? Reverse swing is a team effort; everyone needs to know the plan to ensure it works (even if they didn’t know all the methods used). Then there are the coaches and administrators. Lehmann left it to someone else, Richardson (and the ICC) made it a slap on the wrist, and Sutherland ignored it until a TV crew made his sponsors nervous. They, and many others not named, have overlooked historically systemic tampering.

In a perfect world, you would clean up the game if you thought there was a problem. In an imperfect world, you often just ignore the dirt and pretend it is clean until proven otherwise. Then act surprised and act harshly on the offenders. Cricket – and most of humanity – does this again and again.

When asked about Lehmann’s culpability, Sutherland said “I’ve got no doubt that he feels some sort of personal responsibility for that. We all do.” No s***. All CEOs should be aware of how reverse swing works by now.

For ball-tampering, you get at most a one-match suspension. For repeatedly trying to lie and cover up your ball tampering, you get a one-year ban from your board, but if you have failed to notice tampering for generations, you get to be the person who hands out the bans and keeps their job.

To paraphrase Lehmann: before this, cricket had no problem with it. Now they do.



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