Spit-and-polish: Challenges of enforcing saliva ban as cricket mulls new-normal measures

  • R Kaushik
  • April 29th, 2020
  • 11:46:20 IST

Post the COVID-19 pandemic, as and when we reach that stage, what will be the new normal? That’s the question paramount on the minds of the global populace, still searching for answers to completely arrest the sweeping spread of the coronavirus that has already claimed upwards of 200,000 lives.

What’s for sure is that life as we have lived it will never be the same again. To what extent things change will depend on topography, mindset and attitudes; suffice to say that inter-personal contact will undergo seminal shifts, at least in the immediacy of a return to near-normalcy.

Cricket must look to weed out all unhygienic practices from the sport including the method of shining a ball. Sportzpics photo

Using saliva to polish the ball is a sub-conscious exercise, almost second nature. It’s become muscle memory. Sportzpics

It’s inevitable that sport will also witness the shifting of literal goalposts. Particularly in focus will be team and contact sports, though even non-contact disciplines such as swimming and tennis too will not be immune to the seismic shifts that will shake up the very fabric of what used to be.

Tennis has already experimented with, and temporarily cast aside, doing away with the practice of ball-kids fetching sweaty towels to and from the players. The trial at the Next Gen ATP Finals in Milan in November 2018, necessitating players to walk across to towel racks to wipe the sweat off their faces and limbs, received mixed reviews from the protagonists. Ironically, no one seemed inclined to get the opinions of the ball-kids themselves, for whose protection the towel racks were actually introduced.

It has been reported in the last few days that cricket authorities might well contemplate outlawing one of the longest standing constants in the sport, the use of saliva to ‘maintain’ the cricket ball. That’s both understandable and prudent; even before this current scenario, the use of saliva from different players on the same orb of destruction appeared unhygienic, if not ‘pretty gross’, as former Australian paceman Jason Gillespie put it. And yet, saliva has been as integral to cricket as a bat and the ball itself, as stumps and gloves and abdomen guards and pads.

Even without exactly knowing why, we would apply saliva to cricket balls when in school, and not just on the one side as is required to maintain the imbalance that facilitates shine and thus swing. It’s what we had seen our heroes do, either in person or on television. Gradually, as we understood the dynamics of the use of that natural produce, several of us in the same team rigorously followed the principle of maintaining the shine on one side of the ball, never mind if it didn’t exactly produce the wicket-taking results it was designed to do.

Those who have graduated to international cricket have inevitably spent at least a decade, if not more, using various age group levels as stepping stones to higher honours. To them, using saliva to polish the ball is a sub-conscious exercise, almost second nature. It’s become muscle memory, so to speak. If there is a new legislation in place that bans the use of saliva, will they be able to cope with unlearning what they have learnt over the years? How much of an effort will it take to consciously keep reminding oneself, at the very beginning if not later, to resist taking the hand towards the tongue?

“It won’t be easy, that’s for sure, but it can be done,” says Venkatesh Prasad, the former India swing exponent who has served as the bowling coach too of the national team. “In the beginning, it will be a big struggle. You have to constantly be aware, should we reach that situation, that saliva can no longer be used to work on the ball. Is the use of saliva another example of muscle memory? Yes, and no. It’s different to, say, bouncing the tennis ball X number of times before serving. That’s a routine, it helps calm you down, gather focus, get into rhythm. Using saliva to keep the shine is another matter altogether; it actually has a say in how the ball can behave, and is a particularly significant tool on flat tracks where reverse-swing can be a huge asset.”

Prasad feels that despite their substantial track record of shining the ball, international players might be able to desist from using saliva. “The greater focus must be on age-group cricket,” he insists, “where the risks could be larger.”

It’s no surprise to hear Prasad the swing bowler espousing the virtues of saliva. “Sweat can probably help you retain shine to an extent, but sweat by itself isn’t enough because it doesn’t have the viscosity of saliva,” he points out. “So while you might have a one-side shiny ball, that side won’t be as heavy as it would be if you used saliva, which in turn could rule out reverse-swing.

“I fear that a ban on the use of saliva might sound the death-knell for swing bowlers, conventional and reverse. The onus will then shift to the fast men; India could be at a disadvantage because speed has never been our traditional strength, even though we have a current crop of bowlers capable of hustling the best batsmen in the world. You look at what happened in hockey, for instance. India, and the Asian teams, were immediately at a distinct disadvantage when the surface changed from natural grass to artificial turf.”

It has been suggested that teams be allowed to use an agreed upon artificial substance under the supervision of the umpires to maintain the shine and attempt a level-playing field between bat and ball. The ethicality of such a move, however necessary it might be deemed, will be debated furiously. Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft in particular will, whether they see the humour in it or not, perhaps chuckle mirthlessly at the irony of it all, having served bans of various durations for the use of sandpaper in the Cape Town Test against March 2018 against South Africa. To have legislated ‘ball-tampering’, which by definition is the use of artificial substances to alter the condition of the ball, is something they might find extremely difficult to come to terms with.

Prasad is adamant that artificial sources of ball-shining should not be encouraged. “How is that any different from doping?” he shoots back. “Taking drugs is a performance-enhancing attempt. So will be the use of non-natural means to shine the cricket ball. How can one be illegal and the other acceptable?”

All this, of course, is work in progress. The ICC’s Cricket Committee, headed by former India skipper Anil Kumble, and the MCC’s World Cricket Committee will deliberate on this matter in due course, guided by medical experts. It will take a great deal of work before, should the authorities decide to do away with saliva, it’s decided what artificial substance(s) can be used on the varying brands of the red cherry which all have unique characteristics.

But hey, what about spitting itself? On one’s hands, as Ricky Ponting used to, or on the field of play itself, like a majority of the players do. Won’t that saliva contain potential dangers, too? Just asking.

Updated Date: April 29, 2020 11:46:20 IST

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