Dubai: March 11, 2020. The coronavirus pandemic had already begun to cast a dark shadow on our lives, but the global sports activities had yet not come to a grinding halt. Bhuvneshwar Kumar, one of India’s main pace bowlers, gave a routine press conference on the eve of their first ODI against South Africa a sudden twist by saying they may refrain from using saliva to shine cricket balls in the series.
The three-match ODI series was eventually called off in view of the potential health hazards to players of both the teams – triggering off a cancellation of all subsequent cricket fixtures, including the Indian Premier League.
More than a month down the line, questions are being raised if using of saliva or spit on the ball – an age-old practice to retain shine on one side of the cricket ball to help it swing in the air – can still be an accepted practice as and when cricket resumes. The impact of the COVID-19 had been so overpowering since then that this subject hardly ever got a mention, but it seems ball maintenance could be on the agenda of the administrators in near future.
Why is the use of saliva – ironically one of the few legal practice of keeping the shine on the ball – being deemed as a hazardous practice in the post-COVID 19 world? Simply, because it’s now common knowledge that the easiest way the disease can spread is when small droplets containing it land on objects that are then touched by a person, who then touches their eyes, nose or mouth.
‘’I don’t think it’s a quirky question. It’s an actual genuine thing to be considered,’’ Jason Gillespie, former Australian pace ace, said at a radio talk show.
"I don’t think anything is off the table. It could be a point where at the end of each over, the umpires allow the players to shine the ball in front of them but you can only do it then,’’ he said.
Pat Cummins, the Australian fast bowler, told the local media that the topic was discussed prior to the Australia-New Zealand ODI at the Sydney last month, which was played behind closed doors.
"It’s a tough one,’’ Cummins said earlier this month. ‘’If it’s at that stage where we’re that worried about spread ... I’m not sure we’d be playing sport and bringing ourselves out of isolation.
"The one-dayer, we made it clear we’re obviously really keen to play, but ... the way we shined the ball didn’t change.’’
Why do bowlers shine the ball?
It’s the prerogative of the fast bowlers to maintain the shine on one side of the ball, which allows that side to remain smooth and shiny. The other side of the ball is left to deteriorate naturally, and it becomes rough and dull due to repeated contact with the pitch and the bat. As per the laws of cricket, the bowler or any of the team members may apply saliva or spit, body sweat or simply by polishing it on their uniforms to keep the shine.
When a bowler delivers the ball, the air passes over the smoother side of the ball much quicker - as per the principles of aerodynamics - than the rougher side of the ball. This creates a pressure difference across both sides of the ball, implying that the ball will swing in the air in the direction of the rough or dull side.
I don’t think it’s a quirky question (any more). It’s an actual genuine thing to be considered
Consistently shining one side of the ball also allows bowlers to get the ball (mainly the red ball with which Test matches are played) to reverse swing as it gets older (usually after 35-40 overs). Reverse swing occurs after both sides of the ball have deteriorated - but the side where the shine has been retained will have less wear-and-tear compared to the side that has been left alone. Now, the rougher side of the ball has become so rough and degraded that it actually passes through the air quicker than the slightly shinier side. This causes the ball to swing in the direction of the shiny side instead.
To use the saliva or not?
The use of various means to retain the shine on the ball – legal or otherwise – had been one of the most contentious issues in world cricket through the decades. The usage of ‘sandpaper’ acquired a new meaning as barely two years back on March 18, the Australian team were in the eye of the storm over their use of sandpaper to scuff up a side of the ball during their Test series against South Africa.
The opinion is divided among two Indian experts on the subject that Gulf News spoke to – while one school of thought feels the use of saliva should be banned if it continues to raise doubts in the minds of those on the ground, another one feels it will be foolhardy to rob the bowler of a few of his legitimate tools of the game.
"It’s time to stop the usage of saliva and just use sweat – as all of us have done – to maintain the shine on the ball. At the managers’ meeting before each game, the match officials should advise the captains to ensure that their new ball bowlers should either use sweat or polish the red ball on their dresses,’’ observed Chetan Sharma, the feisty allrounder who was the first Indian bowler to record a hat-trick in the 50-overs World Cup.
How will be the issue be resolved in case of 50-over games, which is played with two balls these days? "It should be left to two of the bowlers opening the attack – say Mohammad Shami and Jasprit Bumrah in India’s case – to take care of the balls which they are taking from the respective umpires. No other team member should be allowed to play any part on maintaining the shine on the ball,’’ Sharma added.
Ranadeb Bose, a member of India’s tour party to England in 2006-07 and now the pace bowling coach of Bengal, vehemently opposes the suggestion of banning the use of saliva on the ball. "One of the reasons why the new ball bowlers prefer saliva is excessive use of sweat makes the ball heavier and hence, its trajectory may suffer. I see no justification in banning the use of spit just to make the sport safer – I would rather wait to ensure that all the players, officials on the ground are virus-free for cricket to resume,’’ said Bose, an owner of 317 first-class wickets.
"In case of red ball cricket, it’s the job of the bowlers to nurse the ball for 40-50 overs to retain its shine as it plays a significant role in the day’s proceedings. The challenge is lesser in limited overs cricket where two balls are in use and one has to nurse the ball for 10-15 overs. I hope the authorities will think twice before contemplating any such move,’’ Bose added.