By Suresh Menon
Neither the sheer stupidity of his act nor its Chaplinesque humour can detract from the seriousness of Shahid Afridi’s ball-chewing antics on the cricket field. To assume that with a dozen live cameras focused on play, the Pakistani captain would be able to get away with ball tampering (regardless of his pathetic attempt at covering his mouth while chewing, doubtless as he learnt in finishing school) throws a question mark over his intelligence.
Not since Chaplin made a gourmet meal of his shoes in Gold Rush has feasting on unexpected objects looked so hilarious on the screen. Chewing on leather in a movie is funny; chewing on leather in a cricket match with the aim of helping a fast bowler is ridiculous. The only thing more ridiculous is the ICC’s gentle rap on the wrist of the player who has been in trouble before for trying to alter the condition of the pitch illegally.
The ICC has banned Afridi for just two matches. Its official communiqué states: “The Pakistan captain was observed in the act of changing the condition of the ball during Australia’s innings without the permission of the on-field umpires.” So that was the problem then. Bad table manners. He should have asked the umpires first. “Mr Umpire, could you please pass the ball please; I always carry a salt shaker in my pocket. You never know when the opposition is 35 runs from victory with five overs remaining, and your fast bowlers might need some help.”
I can think of a whole list of reasons for lowering the boom on Afridi. Firstly, for his sheer stupidity. Then for bringing the game into disrepute. For destroying equipment. For ignoring dental hygiene. For altering the shape of the ball and providing it with unnecessary grooves. Yet, one will do: For cheating. And it is no use claiming, as he has done, that everybody does it.
In keeping with the original foolish act, he has given us a foolish reason for doing it. “We were losing and our fast bowlers needed help.” Should this man be allowed to lead his country again? Obviously not. But he might emerge as a national hero for his late-match stunt, as someone willing to give risk his teeth and his career in the national cause.
The ICC’s response is comparable to a dentist’s asking the patient to do nothing more than gargle with a mouthwash when the call is for extracting a couple of teeth without the benefit of an anaesthetic. For this was the same Afridi, who, in 2005, took advantage of a stoppage in play in Faisalabad to apply a furious boot to scuff up the pitch. On that occasion (although he didn’t say it) he was attempting to help the spinners, himself included, in England’s first innings. Obviously this man who cares nothing for television cameras and even less for the spirit of the game has a range, even if he is a natural candidate for a remake of Dumb and Dumber.
“Everybody does it” is a weak argument. By implication, Afridi is saying two things: that he sees nothing wrong in gaining an unfair advantage, the only crime being that he was caught, and that he has continued to cheat through his career but got away with it. Neither does him credit.
When a repeat offender is allowed to get away with a rap on the wrists as Afridi has been, the ICC itself brings the game into disrepute. There was no ambiguity about the intent of his act – Afridi himself has clarified what he did and why he did it.
Perhaps teams now accompanied by physical trainers, coaches, managers, computer analysts, psychologists, might need to carry a moral guide too. Someone who can teach the players to tell right from wrong. Some individuals need such advice more than others. Clearly Afridi is one of them.