‘A pretty boring contest’: Will Covid-19 saliva ban take shine off cricket?

Australia's star bowler Mitchell Starc pictured during a cricket test match against Pakistan in Adelaide on December 1, 2019.
Australia's star bowler Mitchell Starc pictured during a cricket test match against Pakistan in Adelaide on December 1, 2019. © William West, AFP

A coronavirus-linked ban on using saliva to shine the ball has caused widespread concern among cricketers, with Australian paceman Mitchell Starc warning on Tuesday that the sport risks becoming "pretty boring" if ball-tampering rules are not relaxed.

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The International Cricket Council (ICC) is set to implement the controversial ban in June after receiving medical advice that spit poses a Covid-19 transmission risk.

The decision touches on a sensitive and hotly debated issue in cricket: Bowlers traditionally get the ball to move in the air, deceiving the batsman, by shining or polishing one side using sweat or saliva.

Starc, widely regarded as the preeminent swing bowler in the Australian team, said swinging the ball in such a manner was a crucial part of the contest between bowler and batsman.

"We don't want to lose that or make it less even, so there needs to be something in place to keep that ball swinging," he told reporters in an online press conference.

"Otherwise people aren't going to be watching it and kids aren't going to want to be bowlers,” Starc explained.

"In Australia in the last couple of years we've had some pretty flat wickets, and if that ball's going straight it's a pretty boring contest," he added.

Ball tampering

Talk of cricket-ball maintenance has long been a fixture of the sport. It has frequently veered into illicit territory, most recently with the 2018 ball-tampering scandal that saw high-profile Australian players suspended for using sandpaper to rough up one side of the ball and make it swing more.

Anil Kumble, chairman of the ICC cricket committee, said this week that the saliva ban was only intended to be a temporary measure during the coronavirus crisis.

The former Indian Test spinner suggested cricket regulators did not want to open the door to using foreign substances to alter the condition of the ball.

Starc said he understood such reluctance, given the clear rules that exist against ball tampering.

But he said if bowlers were disadvantaged by a saliva ban, they should be given more leeway elsewhere.

Applying wax

The 30-year-old said ground staff could be ordered not to produce batsman-friendly flat wickets, or ball-tampering rules could be changed allowing a substance such as wax could be applied to the ball.

"It's an unusual time for the world and if they're going to remove saliva shining for a portion of time they need to think of something else for that portion of time as well," he said.

This could be achieved either "with the wickets not being as flat or at least considering this shining wax", he added.

Australian cricket ball manufacturer Kookaburra is developing a wax applicator that allows players to shine the ball without using saliva. It has said its “pocket-size sponge applicator” will be ready by June.

However, the new device will require regulatory approval, since cricket rules explicitly state that bowlers cannot use “artificial substances” to alter the condition of the ball.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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