English uproar over ball hits Pakistani team low and inside


September 09, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- Are Pakistani bowlers throwing spitters? Are they gouging the ball? Are we dealing here with sour grapes? Neocolonialism? Or something far, far worse in Britain's hallowed game: dirty cricket?

To hear Wasim Akram tell it, the English are either sore losers or sour ex-imperialists.

"There was a certain amount of fair rivalry on the English side building up with every match they lost," he said last week. "But the fact of our being a former British colony certainly added to the racist feelings against us."

Mr. Wasim is a bowler (cricket's equivalent of a pitcher) for the Pakistan national cricket team. He's furious; he's indignant. He and his teammate and fellow bowler, Waqar Younis, have been accused of doctoring the ball during a recent match between Pakistan and England at the Lords Cricket Grounds, a tabernacle of English cricket.

The controversy developed after one of the umpires took the ball out of play during the match and thereby fueled suspicion that something might have been done to it. The umpire didn't say why he did this; he is not required to explain.

The removal of the ball had no discernible effect on the bowling. England lost the match, and how. Their batsmen were mowed down by Messrs. Wasim and Waqar. So decisively were they disposed of that one of England's players, Allan Lamb, complained to the newspapers. The Pakistanis, he alleged, had fiddled with the ball.

This, he said, accounted for what was described as the "late swing" that was so devastating to the England team and put them down almost one after another.

A late swing is not what an American, familiar with baseball's terminology, might suppose it to be. It doesn't have to do with the batsman, but with the bowler. It means the ball comes off the ground and turns sharply toward the batsman, too close for him to be able to do much with it.

"It was definitely exceptional," said David O'Leary, a London literary agent who is an ardent fan of cricket and schooled in its mysteries.

Mr. O'Leary watched the match in question, on Aug. 22 and 23, and though he is not prepared to endorse Mr. Lamb's accusations, he did say that such a "late swing is very unusual indeed."

"They [Mr. Wasim and Mr. Waqar] are very fast bowlers, but this is very difficult to do with a clean ball. Some people say it can be done; some say it can't," he said.

Ken Lawrence, a spokesman for the Test and County Cricket Board, is among those who believe the Pakistanis have the stuff to do what they did. "They are the kind of bowlers who wouldn't have to doctor the ball," he said. "They could bowl down the England team without it."

A cricket ball is comparable to a baseball. But in cricket, the ball has to bounce on the ground before it reaches the batsman. This reduces the ball's velocity, but since the bowler is allowed to run 30 to 40 yards before he releases the ball, he can still put a lot of heat on it. With cricket bowlers and baseball pitchers alike, speed is the best thing to have.

And when the ball hits the ground it does not always come up straight, but in unpredictable trajectories, in a "swerve" or a "swing." This, in baseball, we used to call "junk" and now we call "finesse." Here they have no name for it, though some bowlers can make the ball behave more unpredictably than others. "They swing it," said Mr. Lawrence.

Messrs. Wasim and Waqar, the deadly duo from the far-flung and dusty cricket pitches of Karachi, Lahore and beyond, apparently can swing it best of all.

Like baseball, cricket is invested with subtlety and infinite finesse. But it is more venerable. The first reference to it in England was in the 13th century, and presumably it antedated that. Oliver Cromwell played cricket. So does Britain's current leader, John Major. It was one of England's gifts to the world, along with a variety of other games, such as soccer and rugby, now played internationally.

Unlike baseball, however, cricket carries with it a certain code of behavior. What Mr. Lamb did by complaining to the tabloids was not beyond the pale, but definitely it was not cricket.

"It is not normally done," said Mr. Lawrence. "He did it for a very large amount of money. And he will be punished for it. That is understood."

He also said that the controversy raised by his allegations will go no further. No determination will be made public regarding the state of the ball. The International Cricket Council "does not intend to reveal anything further."

The code of cricket, it seems, demands that one take one's lumps in stoic silence. "We used to be such good losers," said Jane O'Leary, the literary agent's wife. "We showed the world how to lose. Now I think we've lost that."

Which is to say, the English still lose -- repetitively to Pakistan, it seems -- but no longer do it with the grace of former years.

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