So the novel coronavirus has gotten us to admit that one of cricket’s most reflexive actions, that of spit shining the ball, is pretty gross. The ICC Cricket Committee’s recommendation, prohibiting the use of saliva to shine the ball, adds another wrinkle to this skewed, strange ‘new normal’ we will soon live in. Bowlers will be frothing at the mouth over the news, unable to use said froth for anything constructive. But just how big an impact will this make? After all, the use of sweat to shine a ball is still allowed.
Let’s visit the cricket lab and put the elements under the microscope. The basics first, starting with the ball. The ball is made of leather. Cowhide, to be precise (yes, that might be news for some, and make a few animal lovers and vegetarians uncomfortable). When the initial layer of shiny lacquer wears off, the leather of the ball is exposed, and this leather is manipulated to create reverse swing.
So why have the ICC singled out spit, not sweat?
Spit, or saliva, is made up of 98 percent water, with a few enzymes that help digestion, some electrolytes, but critically, mucus. Since we’re all WhatsApp experts on the novel coronavirus by now, I’m sure you see the problem: mucus is a critical element in the respiratory system, which is the part of the body the virus attacks, resides in and is transmitted through (a sneeze converts everything in our mouths, including the mucus, into aerosol, which is how the virus spreads). This is why the ICC’s medical officer made the recommendation he did. A ball on which saliva is being used is basically the super-spreader version of ‘guy walks into a bar’.
Sweat is a substance that is produced by the glands in our skin. For the virus to reach there, and so be transmitted by sweat, would take a pretty serious infection, by which point a patient is not likely to be on a cricket ground. Which is probably why the ICC’s medical officer has said that the chances of transmission are remote enough for the use of sweat to not be outlawed just yet.
Just how will this impact cricket? For this we need to understand that there are two different approaches to getting the ball to reverse: one involves sweat, the other involves saliva.
In the sweat-based method, sweat is applied to the shiny side of the ball, and not the rough side. It is not used to polish the ball really, it is used to soak it. The leather absorbs the moisture, which to some extent helps smoothen any scuffing. The other side, the rough side, is allowed to naturally deteriorate, and left dry. Reverse swing, when the ball swings in the direction of the shine, is obtained because the shiny side of the ball is heavier, so the ball dips in the air. It is much like bowling with a plastic ball taped on one side. The shiny side here is a misnomer; it is less about shiny and rough and more about wet and dry. It is less about aerodynamics but more about physics. As a cricketer who used to sweat a lot, this was my preferred way to gain reverse swing with an old ball.
It has its downsides though. Loading the ball with sweat on one side makes that side soft. The other side is softened up as well, by being allowed to deteriorate. The outcome is a ball that looks like it’s been chewed up by a dog who has been trained to drool only on one side. This isn’t good for getting some surprise bounce, of speed off the pitch.
The saliva based method is based more on polishing than soaking. When saliva is used to shine the ball, the ball is immediately rubbed against the trousers. This removes the excess moisture from the ball, but the other elements of saliva - presumably the mucus- provide a slickness that helps in the shining. That slickness enables vigorous shining on trousers, which creates friction and heat without much wear. The heat helps activate some of the fat in the leather, as well as grease that has been used in the process of making the ball. All this helps that side of the ball shine, like a car that’s just been waxed. The other side is left completely dry, and allowed to naturally wear down. This creates two surfaces that behave very differently in the air: air moves faster past the smooth side, creating low pressure, and slower past the rough side, creating high pressure. This pushes the ball towards the shiny side, creating reverse swing, without compromising on hardness.
Method two is now as good as history, at least in international cricket. It will take a while for players to get out of the habit of reaching to their mouths, an action which is second nature to designated ball shiners within teams (yes, we have those, typically players like me who sweat a lot, or those like Alastair Cook who don’t sweat at all). But will this leave bowlers at even more of a disadvantage? I think so.
Just as COVID-19 has forced us to accept one reality, it might be time to look at another. Manipulating the ball is a part of the fabric of the game. It’s not going away. And just like with contraband, regulation can be more effective than prohibition. The ICC’s press release says nothing about artificial substances being used on the ball. According to ESPNCricinfo, the Cricket Committee said, ‘artificial substance on the ball amounts to ball-tampering under the existing laws of the game, the committee felt bending the rule right now would lead to complications.’ Artificial substances being allowed in internationals opens the floodgates for more creative manipulation of the ball at lower levels, where there are no cameras to track every player, and less vigilant umpires.
But I’m sure it is a conversation that is being had in corridors, and in labs and factories already being tested (Kookaburra have said they are working on creating a wax that will help bowlers shine the ball). Perhaps the Cricket Committee want to see how bowlers adapt, and just how big an impact the lack of saliva makes, when cricket returns. Fair enough.
Paramount to any discussion is the balance between bat and ball. Perhaps pitches being more sporting is a solution. I’d welcome that. But if it turns out that the lack of saliva endangers reverse swing, then artificial substances should be considered. It will be just another sign of our ‘new normal’.
The author is a former India cricketer, and now a journalist and broadcaster. She hosts the YouTube Channel, ‘Cricket With Snehal’, and tweets @SnehalPradhan
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