So, I’ve been wondering about this ball tampering stuff, and in different directions. Let me share some of that with you.

First, though, the usual fine print. Steve Smith, Cameron Bancroft and David Warner cheated, simple. They are going to pay for their deeds, also simple. We might argue over how light or severe the penalties are and should be, but that they must be punished is beyond question.

So let’s put that aside and focus instead on the questions this episode raises.

For me, they begin with this: what, exactly, is ball tampering? Or maybe, what isn’t ball tampering?

I ask because of that utterly familiar—totally uncontroversial thing—that bowlers have, since the game’s earliest days, done to cricket balls: shine them by rubbing them on their (the bowlers’) trousers. Note that I have no objection to this. Yet think about it: players who shine a ball like this are deliberately, measurably, visibly changing the ball’s attributes. They do it because they want the ball to behave a certain way. If they didn’t shine it, it would not behave in that way.

So how is this different from what Bancroft was doing? Why is shining the ball legal, but picking at it with sandpaper or sticky tape not?

Ah, I’ve heard, but sandpaper is an extraneous object, an artificial substance not usually found on a cricket ground. Ah, but bowlers have always polished the ball. Ah, but we can’t compare a pair of trousers to a piece of sandpaper!

But actually, why not? Consider: rubbing the ball on your pants is OK, but rubbing the ball on the zipper of your pants is not. Rubbing the ball on an object in your pocket is also not OK, but applying sweat from your forehead on the ball before rubbing it on your pants is. Applying a bit of your spittle on the ball before rubbing it on your pants is OK, but sucking on a sweet beforehand so your spittle changes composition and increases the chance of the ball to swing is not.

What is the logic that covers all this? In fact, which of these constitutes ball tampering? All? None? Some?

Obviously, Bancroft is not accused of shining the ball on his trousers. He did something apparently much worse: rubbing the ball with sandpaper. But I haven’t figured out: why is it much worse? Why does one attract not even a glance, but the other is scandalous?

Maria Sharapova was banned from professional tennis after she failed a drug test for meldonium.
Maria Sharapova was banned from professional tennis after she failed a drug test for meldonium.

This has obvious parallels to taking drugs in sports. Remember what happened to the tennis star Maria Sharapova? She had been taking the drug meldonium as a medical treatment for years, she said. But in December 2015, it was declared a prohibited drug effective 2016. She claimed she didn’t read the notice forbidding its use and kept taking the drug. What do you know, during the January 2016 Australian Open, she took a routine drug test and failed it because of the meldonium. Her punishment? Like the Australian cricketers this week, a ban from the sport for several months.

When Sharapova returned to pro tennis last year and was offered wild card entries into tournaments, several other players were angry. When they had stayed clean and had to battle for their tournament slots, they wanted to know: why should this “cheat"—some used that very word—get a wild card? Now Sharapova is famously unpopular in the women’s pro circuit and, undoubtedly, some of this anger has to do with that. But the episode raises questions nevertheless.

If we take her at her word, she was taking a drug she believed was still legal. Does that make her a cheat? If it “enhanced" her performance in some way, should she have been taking it even if it was legal?

But also, let’s suppose she did read the notice and knew meldonium was illegal in 2016—and cheated anyway. Punish her, fine. But what is the line between meldonium on the one hand and, let’s say on the other, a nasal decongestant she might use before hitting the courts to clear her sinuses so she can breathe better and play better? After all, both are drugs. Both “enhance" her game. Why does one attract not even a glance, but the other is scandalous?

And you could ask the same question about so many other things that an athlete might use to “enhance" her performance: glasses or contact lenses, laser eye surgery, a sweater against the cold, knee surgery, steroids to bulk up muscles, better shoes, shrieking with every shot, an aluminium cricket bat (or a heavier, or a smaller, or a thicker one)…certainly you can add to that list, and then certainly you must ask: why should some of those be OK, but the others get you labelled a cheat?

Ivan Lendl, one of the best tennis players in the world through the 1980s, used to fill his pocket with sawdust before his matches. As he played, he would regularly dip into his pocket and rub some of the sawdust onto the grip of his racquet, so that he could grip it better. Let’s understand: here’s a man using an artificial substance not usually found on a tennis court to let him do things with his racquet that his normally sweaty palms would not allow him to do. Yet, nobody thought to censure Lendl. But arguably, after all, he was “racquet tampering". Should his sawdust efforts have attracted opprobrium, like ball tampering does in cricket? Why not?

Lendl’s sawdust efforts even look like something Bancroft once did. After this ball tampering scandal broke, someone dug up a short clip in which Bancroft seems to put sugar in his pocket. The implied questions here: why would he need sugar in his pocket? To eat? Or to help him roughen the ball? Whichever it is, compare to this clip of Lendl loading up on sawdust and then using it.

Professional athlete puts sugar in his pocket, he attracts suspicion. Professional athlete puts sawdust in his pocket, no big deal.

No doubt you think I’m making foolish comparisons. Maybe so. The point is simple: without the sawdust, Lendl believes he may lose his hold on his racquet on a shot. Thus the sawdust “enhances" his game. Why is it legal? (For the record, I think it should be.)

But if you still think it’s a foolish comparison, so be it. Put it down to my wanting to give you something to think about. And here’s one more comparison.

During a Test match against Sri Lanka in 2014, South Africa’s Vernon Philander was accused of ball tampering. During a Test against South Africa in 2001, India’s Sachin Tendulkar was accused of ball tampering. Philander was fined and that was that. The accusation against Tendulkar, revered hero to a nation, raised the hackles of the BCCI and hundreds of millions of Indians and was even discussed in an outraged Lok Sabha.

I leave you with two clips. Philander and the ball, 2014. Tendulkar and the ball, 2001.

What’s the difference?

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