When reverse is the best gear

“Our bowlers didn’t get a single delivery to reverse but the whole South African attack bowled spells of reverse swing. That’s something we can learn from,” grumbled Michael Clarke after Dale Steyn had ripped the St.George’s Park test match open on Sunday.

It didn’t look or sound inflammatory but in the days to come his words will become isolated from the context in which they were delivered and accusing fingers will be pointed in the direction of the Proteas. Not by Clarke or his team but by column writers and bloggers, attention seekers.

When the subject of ball ‘manipulation’ was first raised in a South African change room, there was a strong consensus that it was wrong and should not be attempted – it was cheating. Bob Woolmer was the coach at the time and his all-conquering Warwickshire team had become known on the English county circuit as the ‘Trebor Boys’ because of the mints they sucked and used to create an artificial layer of ‘varnish’ on one side of the ball.

Woolmer had played during an era in which Imran Khan admitted to using bottle tops to scuff the ball and experimentation with everything from sun cream to Vaseline on the ball was commonplace. It wasn’t legal, of course, but umpires were hardly empowered to take action – even if they knew what they were looking for.

By the time Woolmer took charge of the Proteas in 1994, reverse swing was an established phenomenon in international cricket and he believed South Africa were naive (and handicapped) if they did not employ it.

There are legal ways and there are illegal ways of getting the ball into the right state for it to swing so late and with such devastating consequences as Steyn produced in Port Elizabeth. One side needs to be as rough and – crucially – as dry as possible. The other needs to be polished with a combination of sweat and saliva, both of which can be legally applied to the ball because they are naturally occurring.

Nothing artificial can be used to alter the condition of the ball. The days of using bottle tops are long gone – 28 television cameras have seen to that! Several Proteas players were seen regularly applying sweat and saliva to one side of the ball and, as will no doubt be pointed out, that moisture could very easily come with a little sugar or sun cream.

BUT – the umpires check the condition of the ball after every over and these days they know exactly what they are looking for. Kumar Dharmasena and Richard Illingworth both played cricket at the highest level and had lengthy domestic careers. As soon as they saw how much the ball was swinging, they would have been extra diligent.

The truth is far more mundane. There are eight pitches on the square at St George’s Park. One of them, right at the end, was re-laid with soil from Pretoria in an effort to produce a surface with more pace and bounce. It is much harder and more abrasive than anywhere else on the ground. Perhaps the ball landed there more often than was normal when South Africa were in the field. Nothing wrong with that.

The most important reason the Proteas were able to achieve what they did, however, is the same reason most sports teams have success – bloody hard work. Faf du Plessis is the unsung hero of that final day, the designated ball polisher. He had the ball in his hands far, far longer than any other player, working tirelessly, uncomplainingly and with almost aggressive energy to produce leather shiny enough to put a smile on a drill instructor’s face.

Ball tampering during a test match is all but impossible these days. Knowledge, discipline and relentless hard work is what it takes. Not every team has those qualities.


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