Sal(i)vation for the bowlers: The pros & cons

Dr. Ravi Chaturvedi

The outbreak of COVID-19 Pandemic has taken a heavy toll of various facets of human activities. Cricket too did not remain untouched. Cricket has recently courted controversy over use of saliva to keep the red cherry shinning for movement to bamboozle the batsman.

Anil Kumble

The International Cricket Council (ICC) was quick to move and banned the use of saliva to shine the ball. The decision was taken after a panel headed by India’s former captain and ace leg spinner Anil Kumble suggested a temporary ban on the use of saliva in the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In fact, use of any artificial material as a substitute to polish the ball has been declared illegal. Since the affliction affects respiratory system the need for ban saliva use to shine the ball drew the glare of media. A video of Robin Uthappa of Rajasthan Royals applying saliva to the ball after dropping a catch against Kolkata Knight Riders batsman Sunil Narine went viral in the ongoing India Premier League cricket tournament in United Arab Emirates, causing a stirring debate on the topic. 

The problem associated with the ban of use of spit or synthetic stuff is multifaceted and multidimensional. It involves biochemists, physicians, players, cricket administrators and over and above all ball manufacturers.

File photo of a player shining the ball on his trousers

Saliva and spitting is the talk of town these days. There is historical precedence of countries imposing ban on public spitting to curb the epidemic of tuberculosis. Public notice with this effect was a common sight in US, France and England in the late 19th century and early 20th century to combat TB. Many countries have lately banned spitting (including India) in public places. However, its implementation remains a big challenge to the enforcement authorities.    

Biochemists have found on analyses that saliva is secreted by Salivary Glands located in and around mouth and secrete serous saliva which consists of 99.5% water, mucus, white blood cells, epithelial cells, enzymes (amylase, lipase), antimicrobial agents and initiates digestion of, starches and fats. It lubricates the mouth to protect it from drying and helps in swallowing. Various animals have special uses for saliva – some caterpillars produce fibre from silk proteins stored in salivary glands, swifts use their gummy saliva to build nests. Poisonous snakes – cobras, kraits, vipers and others spurt venomous saliva injected by fangs. Camels use salivation for defensive manoeuvre.

Physicians are behind anti-spitting movement. All contagious diseases can be passed from the saliva of an infected person. Consequently, a bowler or fielder suffering from flu (cough/cold) using his saliva to shine the ball can imperceptibly pass on his infection to others. With COVID-19 pandemic taking heavy toll of human lives, the ICC rightly banned use of saliva to polish the ball.  

Since mucus is a critical component of the respiratory system vulnerable to virus attacks. COVID-19 virus thrives and is transmitted through sneezing or coughing, compelling the ICC to ban use of spit to shine the ball. However, Zoologist in the author prompts him to ask why single out saliva. Why not sweat?

Dr. N.K. Chaturvedi, a prominent pathologists feels that the transmission of COVID-19 virus through sweat, faeces and urine is more or less ruled out. However, the quantity of sweat used for polishing the cherry should be minimal to prevent wetting of ball. Even then, fool-proof sanitisation of the dressing room toilets is most crucial requirement of the ongoing IPL in the UAE. 

File photo of Indian captain Kohli applying saliva

Purely in cricketing terms, cricketers do use saliva to maintain the shine on the ball but not really much. They don’t ‘lubricate’ the ball. When one side of the ball is shiny and the other side is rough, the ball swings in the air which gives the bowlers a great advantage in the game. So they shine the ball by wetting it a bit using sweat/saliva and then rub it well on their clothing.

Nevertheless, the ICC Cricket Committee recommendation to prohibit use of saliva to polish ball and disallow use of artificial material has divided opinion within the cricket community on the subject.

Anil Kumble, member of ICC Cricket Committee, feels that saliva can’t be banned permanently but opens door for alternatives. For present, he suggested making bowler friendly playing surfaces. Venkatesh Prasad, ex-Indian speedster is against use of saliva and suggests sweat as an alternative. Wasim Akram, iconic Pakistani seamer of yester years, is hurt on the issue of saliva ban by the ICC as it takes swing out of equation completely while Jasprit Bumrah wants ICC to find alternatives for shinning the ball.

Finally, prohibiting use of saliva to shine the ball has put the ball manufacturers in quandary. This mega industry will ultimately have to ensure that the red cherry behaves as it should continue to help fast bowlers.

To understand the mechanism of a swinging ball, it necessitates finding the method and mode of manufacturing of cricket balls. The ball is made of leather – cowhide. When the initial layer of shiny lacquer wears off, the leather of the ball is exposed, and this leather is manipulated to create reverse swing.

With the game heavily loaded in favour of batsmen, efforts are underway to meet the challenge imposed by ban of saliva to polish the ball. 

Kookaburra ball manufacturers are developing shining wax applicators to shine the ball. Sadly it is against ICCs’ mandate that prohibits use of artificial substance. The manufacturers of Duke ball in England have also evolved a mechanism in their manufacturing. The Duke balls are hand stitched and impregnated with lot of wax. It will now depend on skill of bowler to make it swing. The focal point is the balance between the bat and the ball. Making sporting wickets could be a way out. The demand for artificial substance could be an ideal solution withstanding the ICC mandate. However, call for innovation on the subject is the need of hour.

See also:

Robin Uthappa seen applying saliva on the ball

Anil Kumble says ban on saliva “Interim Measure”

Cricket’s New Normal: IPL in UAE Bubble

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