Every major cricketing nation, including the relatively isolated islands of the Caribbean that constitute the West Indies has had its sporting calendar wrecked by the outbreak of the dreaded and mysterious coronavirus.
Even as a few facts emerge on the nature of this world-wide epidemic, two aspects stand out about its contagion effect (the same probably holds good for any virus: 1. Behaviour of the virus and 2. Behaviour of host.
The behaviour of the virus is yet to be satisfactorily mapped but something surely could be done about the behaviour of the host, particularly when it comes to sportsperson, specifically cricketers.
Cricket, for long, has adopted the most unhygienic of practices, explicitly when it comes to ‘managing’ the ball. These unhealthy practices seem encoded into the conduct of cricketers right from school and local club levels up to Test match levels. This is probably one of the reasons why players are oblivious to the spread of germs, bacteria, virus and disease.
How do they ‘manage’ the ball?
Well, the modus operandi is to keep one side of the ball dry while lavishing excessive attention on the other side. This involves spitting on that side of the ball as often as possible. Typically the slip fielder spits on it and vigorously rubs that side of the ball on his trouser before passing it on to the gully fielder who further spits on it and repeats the act before returning the ball to the bowler via cover, mid-off and other fielders. Of course all the fielders who come in contact with the ball repeat the spitting process as if it is a ritual. This they do to keep the shiny side of the ball as shiny as possible.
Now the bowler, depending on his art, does more of the same. Typically a spinner would blow into the palm of his hand to keep it dry (thereby transmitting any germs or bacteria) and then licks his finger to get a good finger-grip on the ball.
If all this spitting and licking is not enough, the umpire constantly asks for the ball to inspect it for ball doctoring. In effect the umpires are handling a filthy ball that is constantly spat at by a variety of fielders and bowlers.
The interesting aspect of the game is that the laws (42.3) allows for the polishing of the ball as long as artificial substance is not used. This virtually means that sweat from any part of the body — brow, underarm pit, neck or saliva can be legally applied on the ball.
But even here there are transgressions. Former England opening batsman Marcus Trescothick after his retirement revealed how his team circumvented this law.
He explained that it was his task to keep the shine on the ball with a ‘bit of spit and a lot of polish’. He said that through trial and error he identified the ‘right type of spit’ for the task.
He said that it was common knowledge in county cricket ‘that certain sweets produced saliva which, when applied to the ball for cleaning purposes, enabled it to keep its shine for longer and therefore its swing’.
In his autobiography released after England defeated Australia 2-1 in the 2005 Ashes series he confessed that he found Murray Mints produced maximum saliva for him to do this ‘job’ efficiently.
It is not as though only English players indulged in this sort of activity. There were others too. In fact India’s very own, Rahul Dravid in 2004, was docked 50 percent of his match fees for using lozenges pulled out of his mouth to shine a ball in a tri-Series match against Zimbabwe in Australia.
Of course the usage of foreign substance to shine the ball is banned. Surely it is time that the authorities made a conscious effort to inject hygiene into the sport by extending that ban to usage of saliva and sweat too, especially as the actions of the super stars on live television make an incredibly telling impression on young aspiring cricketers.
Certainly not much can be done about the mingling of spit and sweat, and thereby potentially transmitting bacteria or virus, in contact sports like boxing and rugby. But surely non-contact sports like cricket, tennis, badminton, table tennis, soccer could go the extra mile to clean up some of their potentially germ-transmitting acts.
These include exchange of sweat-soaked T-shirts, shaking sweaty hands, high-fives, hugging, blowing on hands, using saliva on hand or ball, jumping atop one another, yelling into each others’ face, mass jumping into bath and ice-tubs after a game, whole team sharing soap, etc.
The unhygienic acts which can be observed by youngsters must be publicly banned immediately while the others must be curtailed by the team’s adherence to a more healthy culture.
The international sporting calendar might swing back to life sometime in the future. But some of sport, particularly cricket’s appallingly unhygienic practices must be done away with from the grassroots level to the top. The ideal opportunity to inculcate best practices is now, in the time of a world-wide pandemic. Will the authorities wake up?
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