Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 10 July 2020

CORONAVIRUS

Will coronavirus take the shine off one of cricket's great oddities?

The days of polishing the ball with spit and sweat look set to be over, and Kookaburra's wax applicator solution could give batsmen the edge

Teams will have to take a look at their ball-shining methods once cricket resumes. AFP
Teams will have to take a look at their ball-shining methods once cricket resumes. AFP

Whatever the standard of cricket being played, the red stripe emblazoned down the front or back of a bowlers’ trousers is worn like a badge of honour all summer long.

For the likes of Jasprit Bumrah, Pat Cummins or Jofra Archer performing in the Test arena, the bright streak is inevitable during days spent in the field, and the hundreds of occasions that they plod back to the beginning of their long approach.

For children trying to emulate their heroes, it is a sign that they are serious about their game – and a claim that they know what they are doing.

During a match that is just 10 or 20 overs long, you’ll often see a 12-year-old frantically rubbing the ball in an effort to exercise that extra notch of non-existent swing that simply cannot be found from a 60kph ankle-grubber of a delivery.

And for the club cricketer, it is often a sign of the star bowler. Certainly in English conditions it is one of those nagging medium pacers who opens up from one end, and continues bowling unchanged, albeit off an ever-shortening run-up, to the conclusion of the innings, and will then lead his teammates off the field with closing figures of 23-7-45-5 or similar.

Meanwhile, those who turn up with the previous weekend’s red-stripe slacks are quickly the target for some typical sportsman banter: “Washing machine broken?”

Such trouser tales could however be a thing of the past thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.

Among the many strands of sporting life that is set for change is the cricketing oddity of rubbing the ball on one’s trousers. For those not in the know, it is done to make one side of the ball shiny so that it swings in the air as it approaches the batsman.

Spit is applied to the ball, or sweat during the months when it is warm enough to obtain, and then the rubbing begins.

The health concerns from cricket’s authorities, and players, is understandable during these times given the ever-rising death toll around the world.

Wahab Riaz is the only Pakistan fast bowler who knows what he is doing, according to Aaqib Javed. Andrew Couldridge / Reuters
Pakistan's Wahab Riaz wipes sweat on the ball. Andrew Couldridge / Reuters

As it stands, the decision-makers at the International Cricket Council are yet to make any concrete calls, although in Australia, the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS)’s protocols for the return of sport in the country specifically rule out the use of saliva and spit to shine the ball.

A potential solution has arisen from Australian equipment manufacturer Kookaburra, which is developing a wax applicator that could minimise the risk of coronavirus transmission.

The innovation involves applying wax to the ball via a sponge – a move which would go against the current laws that prevent using artificial substances on the ball.

"This could be available within a month,” Kookaburra group managing director of the brand, Brett Elliott, told PA News recently. “However, it has yet to be tested in a match conditions as the ability to complete real trial matches at the moment is inhibited.

"It may not be something we need to make forever, it's designed to get cricket back and give administrators time to make decisions. Nobody was calling out for this 12 months ago so maybe it is more of an interim measure."

The ramifications on cricket could go well beyond not needing to urgently wash the cricket whites the night before a match.

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Administrators will be pondering rulings such as how much wax can be used, how many times it can be applied, who applies it and whether the amount differs depending on the format of the match?

Then there is the potential effect on the behaviour of the ball to consider.

Would it swing more with the aid of an artificial substance? Or would it nullify the threat of the game’s great swing bowlers such as James Anderson. How will reverse swing function as the ball gets older?

It could be a leveller for bowlers who have suffered so much in modern times against batsmen using ever-bigger and more powerful bats.

But, should the ball swing more, would the achievements of the wax-era bowlers then be diluted compared to their predecessors? Another 100 Test match wickets from Anderson may be felt as an easy ride and in turn raise the admiration of pre-wax swingers such as Wasim Akram.

It is an argument along the lines of the pre and post covered pitches periods – and one that will hopefully only be short-lived.

Australia’s Cummins has already voiced his concerns at the prospect of playing without any form of shining.

“Why everyone loves Test cricket is because it has so much art to it. You have swing bowlers, spinners, you have all these different aspects that make test cricket what it is,” he said in an interview with his IPL team, the Kolkata Knight Riders.

“I think if you can’t shine the ball, that takes away swing bowling, that takes away reverse swing bowling and I just don’t want to give batsmen another reason to score runs.”

SOUTHERN HIGHLANDS, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 13: Australian Cricketer Pat Cummins poses with his cows while in isolation at his property on April 13, 2020 in Southern Highlands, Australia. Cummins, who is due to commence his record-breaking Indian Premier League deal worth 155 million Indian rupees ($A3.2m), has been home isolating at his property south of Sydney due to the COVID-19 epidemic. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)
Pat Cummins with his cows while in isolation at his property in Southern Highlands, Australia. Getty Images

Cricket, though, has shown it is able to move with the times. The days of buckle-up pads and umpires trusted to make the final decision out in the middle are fading memories. Technology has moved in both on and off the pitch.

But aside from concerns over the appeal of the Test format, it has and continues to evolve to provide entertainment.

If it means that people around the world can get back out and play the sport, then a period of less or extra swing will be a minor compromise.

“Can I have the wax please, umpire?”

Updated: May 12, 2020 09:07 AM

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