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Why some ball tampering offences are more serious than others

By Andrew McGee, James Duffy and Andrew Garwood-Gowers - posted Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft, the Australian cricket players who have been found guilty of ball tampering, have now been handed hefty bans. Yet some might wonder why other instances of ball tampering have not been punished so severely.

Some commentators are comparing apples and oranges when contrasting the punishment meted out to the Australian players, with that given to other cricketers in the past for ball tampering.

Those other players were charged by the ICC, but not their own cricket boards. The Australians have also been charged by their own cricket board for bringing the game into disrepute. This is partly because of the strong reaction of the Australian public.


The latest ball tampering incident occurred during day three of the third test match between Australia and South Africa. Cameron Bancroft attempted to change the condition of the ball by scuffing it with sandpaper.

In the wake of this scandal, there has been much interest in what "ball tampering" actually is, and debate about how widespread it is. Simply put, ball tampering is a pejorative term which refers to a player changing the condition of the cricket ball in a manner not permitted by the Marylebone Cricket Club's (MCC) Laws of Cricket.

Historical incidents of ball tampering have been mentioned in the media over the last few days. Current South African test captain Faf Du Plessis was charged in 2016 with ball tampering, having used a mint to help shine the cricket ball with his saliva. Du Plessis was found guilty of ball tampering, but was not banned

Previously in 2013, Du Plessis was found guilty of ball tampering when rubbing the ball against the zip of his trousers in a Test match against Pakistan.

From England's Michael Atherton in 1984 who applied dirt in his pocket to the cricket ball, to Pakistani Shahid Afridi who was captured by television cameras biting the ball, to South African Vernon Philander scratching the ball with his fingers, ball tampering has taken on many guises across different continents.

But why are some forms of alteration, like polishing the ball, not considered changing its condition, while other forms, like scuffing, are? And why are some forms of ball tampering considered more serious than others?


Why players try to alter the ball: what's permissible and what isn't?

The starting point for answering both questions is the MCC Laws of Cricket. These state that "it is an offence for any player to take any action which changes the condition of the ball" (Law 41.3.2). However, they permit a fielder to polish the ball on his clothing provided that no artificial substance is used (Law

So, shining the ball per se is not considered ball tampering – provided it is done in a particular way.

Although they can polish the ball, they are not allowed to scuff it. Scuffing the ball has a similar effect to polishing it – it will deviate in the air, making things difficult for the batsman.

Why are the players permitted to polish the ball, but not to scuff it?

Arbitrary distinctions and rules

The distinction between different ways of altering the ball, some allowed and some not, is as arbitrary as the convention that cricket should be played with 11 players rather than 10.

Ultimately, there is no rhyme or reason for either convention.

But, rightly or wrongly, they are the rules.

Introducing a "foreign object"

A convention has developed where players may use sweat or saliva to help polish the ball. But if the saliva is altered (ie through mints – think Marcus Trescothick, 2005 Ashes and Murray Mints), or if players are using hair gel, lip balm or sunscreen to polish the ball, then that crosses the line into ball tampering.

Using foreign objects to treat the cricket ball is prohibited on the basis that nothing extraneous to the game should be introduced to it. On this basis, a foreign object is not like the use of teeth, saliva, or fingernails on the ball.

Players are normally allowed to use the materials available to them in the course of the game – but only to shine the ball. Teeth and finger nails, though not extraneous to the game, are used to scuff the ball rather than polish it. But scuffing is (rightly or wrongly) illegal. Dirt – likewise not extraneous to the game – is also used not to shine but to scuff the ball. Saliva, by contrast, is used to shine the ball. Since shining is allowed, the use of saliva is permitted as it is not extraneous to the game.

One reason why Du Plessis's conduct in 2016, though illegal, was not thought as serious as Steve Smith's or Afridi's (in 2010), is that Du Plessis was using a foreign object to do what he was already allowed to do without the use of a foreign object: polish the ball. In Bancroft's case, there is a double transgression: he used a foreign object (the use of sandpaper), and he scuffed the ball, and both are illegal.

In Afridi's case, although no foreign object was involved, he did alter the ball illegally, because the objective in biting the ball is to scuff the ball up. The difference between Afridi and Du Plessis is that Du Plessis thought that he was bending but not breaking the rules, whereas Afridi would have known that scuffing the ball (by biting at the seam) was breaking the rules.

Premeditated cheating

The outrage surrounding the current Australian team's ball tampering stems from an additional layer. It is the deliberate pre-meditated cheating, and a failure to come fully clean, which has shocked the world.

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About the Authors

Andrew McGee obtained his PhD in philosophy from the University of Essex in 2001 and is senior lecturer in the Law Faculty at QUT. He has published on a number of philosophy and legal issues in leading international philosophy and law journals.

James Duffy is a lecturer in the QUT Faculty of Law and holds degrees in law, commerce and psychology. He researches in the field of psychology and the law, and dispute resolution.

Andrew Garwood-Gowers is a lecturer at the Faculty of Law at Queensland University of Technology. He was educated at Cambridge University and the University of Queensland. Andrew’s research lies at the intersection of international law and international relations, with a focus on international security.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Andrew McGee
All articles by James Duffy
All articles by Andrew Garwood-Gowers

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