Cricket BallThe International Cricket Council (the “ICC”) confirmed on Tuesday 22 November 2016 that Faf du Plessis, the captain of the South Africa cricket team, would be fined 100 per cent of his match fee and given three demerit points for applying an artificial substance to the ball during the fourth day’s play in the second Test between South Africa and Australia in Hobart.

Du Plessis was charged by ICC Chief Executive David Richardson after television footage appeared to show du Plessis using saliva to shine the ball, with a mint in his mouth.

Following representations from both parties and hearing evidence from the umpires (as well as from MCC Head of Cricket John Stephenson), Andy Pycroft of the Emirates Elite Panel of ICC Match Referees found du Plessis guilty of the offence.  That decision was based in part on the evidence of the umpires, who stated that that they had not seen the evidence at the time and that, if they had, they would have acted immediately.  Mr Stephenson also confirmed the view of the MCC that the television footage appeared to show an artificial substance being transferred to the ball.

As a result, du Plessis was fined 100 per cent of his match fee and given three demerit points.  If du Plessis reaches four or more demerit points within a 24 month period, those points will be converted into suspension points and he will be banned.

Du Plessis’ conduct was therefore treated by the ICC with the utmost seriousness.  Yet is sucking a mint while playing cricket such a crime?

The first questions to answer are why du Plessis may have acted as he did and why the ICC deems his conduct so problematic.

In respect of the first question, cricketers commonly hold that sugar, much like dark clouds above, helps bowlers swing the ball.  While there is no evidence that sugar has this effect, it is commonly believed that sugary saliva helps create a better shine than normal saliva and when one side of the ball is shiny and smooth, that leads to reverse swing.  Reverse swing is a notoriously difficult art to master and, when executed properly, it can be an invaluable attacking tool for a team to use.

Given the potential advantages of a swinging ball, the laws of cricket and the regulations implemented by the ICC seek to prohibit any ball tampering that does not occur other than by natural means.  The purpose of such prohibition is in essence to provide a level playing field, where the bowler’s skill (or the batsman’s lack thereof) is the ultimate determiner of the fall of wickets.

As such, unlawful ball tampering constitutes an offence under Article 2 of the ICC Code of Conduct.  The offences set out in Article 2 are split into four levels; each level warrants a different set of sanctions, with ball tampering constituting a Level 2 offence.  Article 2.2.9 states that it is an offence to change:

“…the condition of the ball in breach of Law 42.3 of the Laws of Cricket as modified by ICC Standard Test Match, ODI and Twenty 20 International Match Playing Conditions clause 42.”

Law 42.3 of the Laws of Cricket states that:

“(a) Any fielder may

(i) polish the ball provided that no artificial substance is used and that such polishing wastes no time.

(ii) remove mud from the ball under the supervision of the umpire.

(iii) dry a wet ball on a piece of cloth.

(b) It is unfair for anyone to rub the ball on the ground for any reason, to interfere with any of the seams or the surface of the ball, to use any implement, or to take any other action whatsoever which is likely to alter the condition of the ball, except as permitted in (a) above…”

Those rules are supplemented by the guidance which is set out at Article 2.2.9 of the ICC Code of Conduct:

“Any action(s) likely to alter the condition of the ball which were not specifically permitted under Law 42.3(a) may be regarded as ‘unfair’. The following actions shall not be permitted (this list of actions is not exhaustive but included for illustrative purposes): (a) deliberately throwing the ball into the ground for the purpose of roughening it up; (b) applying any artificial substance to the ball; and applying any non-artificial substance for any purpose other than to polish the ball; (c) lifting or otherwise interfering with any of the seams of the ball; (d) scratching the surface of the ball with finger or thumb nails or any implement.

The Umpires shall use their judgment to apply the principle that actions taken to maintain or enhance the condition of the ball, provided no artificial substances are used, shall be permitted. Any actions taken with the purpose of damaging the condition of the ball or accelerating the deterioration of the condition of the ball shall not be permitted.”

(Emphasis added).

In short therefore, a player may use any non-artificial substance, i.e. bodily fluids (within reason, one would hope), to shine the ball.  However, the use of any artificial substance, either to enhance the condition of the ball, or to deteriorate the condition of the ball, is strictly prohibited.  The Code of Conduct and the Laws are clear in this respect.

Article 7 of the ICC Code of Conduct sets the sanctions that are applicable to a breach of the Code.  For a Level 2 offence such as ball tampering, the range of possible sanctions includes the imposition of a fine of between 50 – 100% of the applicable match fee and/or up to two suspension points.  In the case of the imposition of a fine and/or one suspension point, the player in question will be allocated three demerit points.  Where the player is given two suspension points, the number of demerit points allocated to him/her will be four.

In view of the sanction imposed upon du Plessis, it is clear that the ICC does not take charges of this nature lightly.  Yet the response to the charge from the international playing community has been rather different.  Former England captain Nasser Hussain described the incident as a “storm in a teacup” and stated that:

“Cricketers chew gum.  Is that going to be illegal now?  They take on energy drinks during play.  Does this mean anyone who takes on liquid at a drinks break is forbidden from shining the ball from now on?  What about putting sun cream on and then using your sweat to shine the ball?”

The Australian captain, Steve Smith, stated that:

“Every team around the world shines the cricket ball.  I have seen Faf’s comments and I make it very clear we haven’t come out and said anything about Faf or about how he was shining the ball or anything like that.  We along with every other team around the world shine the ball the same way.”

This general discontent with the rules and regulations in place was summed up by du Plessis, speaking for the first time since the sanction:

“There are two ways of looking at it, either ball-shining or ball-tampering.  For me, if you talk about ball-tampering, that is something that’s wrong.  It’s picking the ball, scratching the ball.  Shining is something that all cricketers would say is not in that same space.  It’s something all cricketers do and I think there will be a lot of emphasis after this incident on where the game is going and what the ICC is going to do about it…It’s a massive grey area.”

As presently drafted, the ICC Code of Conduct and the Laws of Cricket do not appear to be sufficiently nimble to deal with the cricketers’ perceived distinction between ball-shining and ball-tampering.  However, it may simply be the case that the ICC disagrees with the approach taken by the players.  If that is the case, then it will continue to enforce this rule, and the players will simply have to suck it up.