Learning from baseball to deal with ball tampering in cricket
Hard-core cricket fans may look away now. For the remaining three of you still reading this column, I have a little exercise in speculation.
Why do cricketers tamper with the ball? Because it helps to change the way the ball behaves. And why do they do this? Because a livelier ball presumably gives the bowling side a slightly better chance at unsettling, perhaps even defeating, the batting side. Why is ball-tampering prevalent to the extent that it is? Because tamperers feel, and with good reason, that they have a sound chance of getting away with it. And why is this? Because there are only two plausible ways of catching someone in the act of tampering with the ball: You either witness it first-hand at the ground, or you apprehend them in the act of tampering on camera.
So how does one go about creating disincentives for ball tampering? You could institute harsh punishments, point cameras at each member of the fielding side for the duration of the innings, or fall back on some combination of hope, honour and prayer.
But there could be another way. Why not nip the whole thing in the bud? Why not make it virtually impossible to hide an act of ball tampering? How? By changing the cricket ball every time it gets dirty or shows signs of wear and tear.
Gasp. Outrage. Attack on the soul of the sport. Please feel free to take a moment.
This idea might sound outrageous. But that change is exactly what happened in 1920. Not in cricket, but in baseball.
Uptil the 1920s, ball tampering was, in a manner of speaking, an unavoidable part of baseball. In 1908, pitcher Russell Ford accidentally invented what later became known as the emery- or scuff-ball. During a practise session, Ford threw a ball against a wooden post, leaving scuff marks on it. When he threw the ball again, the ball moved erratically. Soon, pitchers all over America were subjecting baseballs to all kinds of torture. Over time, they began to get better, and more blatant, at it. Pitchers began to wield a whole repertoire of what some call “freak pitches”.
Baseballs were soaked in saliva, stained with tobacco juice, rubbed with mud, and even brutalized with knives, sandpaper and emery boards. All this at a time when baseballs were used over and over again until they nearly fell apart.
Imagine the plight of the batter towards the culmination of a baseball match. In the fading light of unlit stadia, batters had to deal with soft, battered, stained balls that not only moved erratically but were also often impossible to even see.
It should be no surprise, then, that by 1919 baseball had turned into a notoriously slow scoring game in which pitchers dominated batters. Entire seasons would go by in which the average combined score in a baseball game would be less than four runs.
It also became a dangerous sport. In August 1920, Raymond Chapman of the Cleveland Indians was hit on the head by a pitch during a game against the New York Yankees. Chapman fell to his knees, blood pouring from an ear, and died 12 hours later. He had been hit by a deformed, stained baseball. Some witnesses later said Chapman had probably not seen the ball at all. He appeared to stand motionless as it hit him.
Chapman’s tragic demise was the last straw. Baseball instituted several rule changes, not the least of which involved the ball. First, pitchers were no longer allowed to discolour or damage the ball in any way. And second, umpires were asked to change the baseball as soon as it showed sign of wear. Together, this ensured that the ball not only moved less erratically but also remained visible to the batter at all times. By all accounts, it was a paradigm shift in baseball, one that not everyone took to with enthusiasm. Indeed, administrators had to make several accommodations. For instance, pitchers who already routinely used spitballs—pitches in which one side of the baseball was coated with saliva—were allowed to continue doing so.
Unsurprisingly, scoring rates in baseball began to shoot up—so much so that 1920 is considered an inflexion point in the history of baseball. The period before it is called the dead-ball era. And the period after these rule changes is called the live-ball era, with its cleaner balls, and higher scores. Emblematic of this period is the emergence of Babe Ruth and his home-run records.
The change this has brought to the game-time use of a baseball is quite astonishing. In the dead-ball era, the average baseball was used for over 100 pitches. Today, baseball games can routinely eat through 100 balls each, with the average ball rarely lasting half-a-dozen pitches. Over the last three decades, especially, umpires have become extremely sensitive to any ball damage or scuffing. Balls that hit the ground with almost any kind of force are discarded immediately. Balls hit into the crowd stay there.
A far cry from the bad old days when the audience was expected to throw every ball back. So that the pitcher could subject it to all kinds of horrendous, persistent torture.
So imagine, then, if cricket were to make a similar rule change—that every time the ball shows any sign of damage, wear or scuff marks, it is immediately replaced, thus instantly removing all incentive to tamper with it. Sure, it could have a long-term impact on scoring rates in Test matches. But what if the rule change helps, as it has done in live-ball era baseball?
Surely it is worth a shot? Of course, accommodations can be made during the transition period. Maybe we could let the current Australian squad tamper with the ball if they want.
Déjà View is a fortnightly conversation on history. Read Sidin Vadukut’s Mint columns at www.livemint.com/dejaview
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