Yesterday, the Prime Minister ruled out the imminent return of recreational cricket because it is a “natural vector” of coronavirus. This surprised me because I thought COVID-19 was caused by bats. I’m going to get my coat.
While the announcement left many disappointed (not to mention outraged), there is no doubt that the use of saliva to wipe balls is an area of concern in cricket at all levels. So what can you do? William Buckingham investigates…
Michael Atherton writes in The Telegraph that Covid-19 could mean the end of neutral refereeing. It got me thinking, what other aspects of cricket could permanently be changed by Covid-19? Fan social distance? English training team downturn? Maybe now, but these probably won’t be permanent changes. However, hygiene in cricket, like neutral umpires, could change forever.
Let’s be clear, using saliva on a cricket ball, no matter how effective it is at making the ball bounce, is not a hygienic practice. Picture this: you’re playing in the middle, there’s a penalty, the keeper pats the ball into the first slide, throws the ball into extra cover; Extra Cover licks fingers, spits on ball, wipes , and the ball is thrown to you; you in turn lick your fingers and smear some saliva on the ball to polish it. Then you put your fingers back to your mouth and keep hitting the ball, then use your forearm to throw the ball at the pitcher – not to mention that you’ll be blinded by the pitcher if you’re not hitting waist height.
All of these are common practices, right? Yes, but not particularly hygienic. You put your finger (just touching a ball covered with extra covering) in your mouth. This exposes you to all kinds of germs—not something you want in a global pandemic.
So what can cricket do? When cricket resumes, it seems reasonable to simply ban the use of saliva. But how does this affect the game? While sweat (also used to make the ball shine) is not banned, bowlers worry that a game without saliva will mean a game without motivation. In the words of Mitchell Starc, this makes for “a pretty boring game.”
But will it? Ian Chappell and others have controversially suggested that ball tampering should be legalized during the pandemic to ensure a fair balance of racquets and balls. However, there are fears that this will normalize the scam. Therefore, it has also been suggested to temporarily replace our saliva with “wax”.
Kookaburra (makers at the forefront of “wax” innovation) group managing director Brett Elliot describes the product Kookaburra is developing as a “pocket sponge applicator” that allows players to “apply a thin layer of wax, which can then be Rubbing and polishing in the traditional way”.
If the wipes I’ve been using in socially distanced nets for the past few weeks can work reasonably well, surely a bunch of scientific cricketers with a little cash can make this wax work. Maybe this could even become a permanent replacement for saliva in these unprecedented (*crinch) times. If kookaburra “wax” accurately reproduces the effect of saliva on cricket, why should we go back to the less hygienic ptyalin-and-polish method?
With Covid-19 showing us the need for better hygiene in many areas of life, cricket could change forever. I think many cricketers will think twice before drooling over cricket in the future. Cameron Bancroft may even be trying to position himself as ahead of his time. “You can’t get Covid from sandpaper, man”.
Likewise, the relative simplicity of using saliva, as one would expect to polish a ball with a wax sponge (or some other substitute), allows us to quickly revert to our old habits. Saliva is readily available. wax? less. Additionally, referees may be required to supervise the use of “artificial substances”. That’s far from ideal for gamers — though I do wish there was a level of trust present.
But maybe that’s just overthinking. For decades, cricketers have used a variety of substances to secretly make their balls glow, including sunscreen and sugar in candy and chewing gum. Why not ban saliva and let cricketers keep using it? They might find other ways to swing the ball or make better use of the tools they already have.
If the main problem with salivaless cricket is keeping the balance between bat and ball, surely there are other ways to help the bowler? For example, a groundskeeper can simply leave more grass on the field. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s better than no crickets at all.
However, there is one more problem. Saliva isn’t just used to polish balls. In fact, it’s very important to other aspects of the game as well. For example, many finger spinners rely on saliva for grip. They will often lick the tip of their index finger against the top of the bucket to help them grab and “snatch” the ball. Removing these, as trivial as they may seem, can drastically affect the quality of slow bowling.
So while social distancing during a cricket match shouldn’t be much of an issue, banning saliva creates some problems. The habit (and ease) of using saliva may make enforcing the ban more difficult.
As I said, definitely worth a try. We live in imperfect times, so we cannot expect perfect cricket during a pandemic. Cricket without saliva, and even the prospect of umpires rubbing the balls against each other with anti-life wipes, is certainly better than no cricket.
If we want our game to work in a COVID-19 world