Letter From India: Pakistan, Cricket And An Uproar

Connoisseurs of the rarified sport of cricket still speak in whispers of the scandal, 34 years ago, when an Englishman was accused of rubbing Vaseline into the ball to make it swerve more. That affair pales by comparison with the uproar in Australia this week when Pakistan's captain was caught on camera biting a cricket ball like an apple. Ball-tampering is considered the worst form of skullduggery in the so-called Gentleman's Sport. The loudest protests have come from Pakistan's arch-rival, India.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Let's stay in stay in South Asia for our next story. The region is home to legions of incurable cricket addicts. One of those fans is NPR's correspondent in India, Philip Reeves. From time-to-time he sends a letter attempting to explain various facets of this complex sport. This morning: an unusual cricketing scandal.

PHILIP REEVES: I often find people who know nothing at all about cricket think it's a slow and formal game whose players drink a lot of tea and generally behave like guests at one of the British Queen's garden parties. If you belong to this category, you'll be surprised to learn of the crucial role played in cricket by spit. Yes, by human saliva and also sweat.

Cricket balls are made of leather. Bowlers - pitchers, as you would say - use their spit and their sweat to shine the ball. If you polish one side but not the other, it helps the ball swing. This makes it harder to hit, like a curve ball in baseball. You often see bowlers earnestly polishing the ball in their pants. By the time they hurl it at the batter at up to 95 miles an hour, the ball's suffused with a cocktail of bodily liquids.

Under the rules of cricket, the so-called gentlemen's game, this spit ball is perfectly legal. It's not legal though to polish the ball with artificial substances or to alter its surface - for instance, by scratching it. And youre certainly not allowed to do what a man called Shahid Afridi was caught doing the other day.

Afridi is one of Pakistan's best cricketers. He's a fiery player from the Khyber Pass in the tribal belt close to Afghanistan. Fans call him Boom Boom Afridi because of his ability to wallop the ball harder and further than most other players.

On Sunday, during a game against Australia, Boom Boom was caught on camera biting the ball as if he was eating an apple. Pakistan was heading for defeat. This was the fifth and final game in a series in which Pakistan had lost all four previous games. Boom Boom was obviously desperate. To make matters worse, he was Pakistan's captain.

In cricket, ball tampering is seen as one of the lowest forms of skullduggery. There've been similar scandals before when players were caught scouring the ball with dirt or bottle tops or even candy. Thirty-four years have elapsed since the notorious Vaseline incident, when an Englishman was accused of polishing the ball with Vaseline. Cricket connoisseurs still haven't forgotten it.

But Afridi's ball biting is the most brazen act of tampering in the game's history. It's caused uproar. India's media fell on it gleefully. Such an enormous blunder by the captain of arch-rival Pakistan was too good to pass by. I lost count of the number of times one Indian TV channel ran and reran footage of Afridi with a ball in his mouth, while various pundits held forth, some of them demanding Afridi be banished from cricket forever. Headline writers have been, well, having a ball. Afridi's bitten off more than he can chew, they crowed.

The international cricket authorities were far more forgiving. Afridi apologized and was banned for just two games. See, cricket is a gentleman's game, even if the gentleman occasionally bite.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi.

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