Almanac Cricket: Vaseline and cricket

I learned early how to cheat in cricket.


At 12, I was a junior member of Oak Park’s under 14s.  Making up the numbers, I didn’t bowl all season and batted 10 or 11, depending on who else was making up the numbers.


We experimented with Vaseline and cricket.

At training, my bowling was treated with disdain.  Older kids lined up to bowl to me, either to get me out or decorate my thighs with another bruise.  My teammates taught me how brutal cricket can be, not my opponents.


Our coach, Ash, played for Oak Park’s senior cricket team.  In winter, he also played football for Oak Park.  Admired around the club, Ash was in his 20s.  He liked a drink and a smoke.  Most Saturday mornings he turned up hungover.  The kids waited outside his car to shout g’day Ash to exacerbate his headache.


Ash was a serious coach with hard eyes and an unhappy grimace.  He had a stutter made worse by tension.  Ash was moody most of the time.


Most of my teammates preferred mucking around than improving.  Cricket was a social outing.  They smoked, swore and barely listened to Ash.  The shame of it all was the latent talent.  One teammate is the father of a current AFL player.  Another teammate is related to one of the greatest players and coaches in AFL football.


Our bowlers had pace and aggression.  The batsmen had grit and sharp techniques.  That was at training.  During games, it was different.  After one galling loss, Ash took the team into the clubrooms.  There was no encouragement as he went slowly through the scorecard.  Chasing 60-odd, we’d collapsed horribly.  Ash read the scores, bewildered.  The angrier he got, the worse he stuttered.  One kid kept laughing.  Ash kicked him out of the room.  I remember being scared as his eyes hit mine.  ‘Wato, stop thinking you’re making up the numbers and try harder,’ he said.


I tried harder.  At training, Ash showed his class.  I was making up the numbers, but he encouraged me, adjusting my grip and footwork.  He told me to ignore my teammates if I dropped a catch or misfielded.


Two weeks later, I hit the winning runs, an edge over the slips.  As I walked off the field, my teammates cheered.  Ash was grinning.  He leaned down and spoke in my ear.  ‘You’re not making up the numbers anymore,’ he said.


In our last game before Christmas, Ash taught the team how to cheat.  Ball tampering.  On the morning of the match, I applied Vaseline to my lips.  Ash asked for the container, throwing it to one of our opening bowlers.  ‘Rub some under your arms,’ Ash said.  ‘Put it on the ball.  It’ll help it swing.’


The opening bowler, the father of a current AFL player, didn’t want to do it.


‘Everyone does it,’ Ash said.  ‘The senior team do it.  All teams do it.’  The opening bowler rubbed Vaseline under his arm and threw the container to the relative of a football legend who did as instructed.  Both complained about the stickiness.  It was obvious to me they weren’t interested in cheating.


Colourless and odourless, a thin smear of Vaseline can easily be hidden from prying eyes.  The bowlers did what Ash said.  Vaseline helped keep the shiny side shiny.  I remember picking the ball up near the boundary and seeing specks of dirt and a sliver of grass stuck to one side of the ball.


We won.  No one mentioned it after the game.  When cricket resumed in the New Year, I left the Vaseline at home and took a tube of zinc cream for my lips.  Ash didn’t ask for the Vaseline.  My teammates didn’t either.  Ball tampering lasted one game.  Everyone might’ve been doing it, but we never did it again.


Ash was a batsman, not a bowler.  He must’ve learned the Vaseline trick from a bowler.  It must’ve been happening at district level.  Ash made it sound like the Vaseline trick, though illegal, was accepted.


England bowler John Lever was the first cricketer accused of using Vaseline on a ball during a Test series against India in 1977.  Lever swung the old ball.  England were winning.  Vaseline was first made in 1872.  The first Test was played in 1877.  Oak Park under 14s, in 1982, put Vaseline and cricket together.  Maybe the association is as old as cricket.


All the ways to cheat…


How many ways can a cricketer cheat?  There are seven I can think off.  Cheating is claiming a catch knowing the ball bounced, claiming a runout or stumping knowing the batsman was in, claiming a catch knowing the batsman didn’t hit the ball, claiming the ball wasn’t passed the boundary when it was, not walking after being caught off the edge, match fixing and ball tampering.


Match fixing is the worst.  Few people fix matches.  The rest of the cheating is endemic.  As kids, we learn the spirit of the game.  Accept the umpire’s decision.  Cheat if it works.  Try if it doesn’t.  Everyone who has played cricket has cheated.


As kids, we learned ball tampering tricks.  Fingernails in the seam, tearing the leather when it scuffed, tugging on stitches.  I can honestly say, aside from the Vaseline incident, I never again engaged in ball tampering.  A new coach the next season told us to protect the cricket ball.  Disrespecting the ball is disrespecting the game.


Ball tampering – the outrage…


I love Test cricket more than any other form of the game.  One Day Cricket, T20, the Big Bash, IPL, I couldn’t care less.  Test Cricket is the pinnacle.  No other cricket is as tough or taxing.  Cricketers strive to make their name at Test level.  Since the seventies, the splendour of Test cricket has captivated me.  It still does.


It still will.


Australia’s captain, Steve Smith, cheated.  So did Cameron Bancroft and David Warner.  It was so clumsy, so ill-fated, it seems like a scene out of a B-grade comedy about a district cricket club down on their luck.  It seems made up.  Fiction.  It isn’t.


The outrage is fair.  But ball tampering has been going on since cricket was invented.  Notable cricketers have been sanctioned for ball tampering.  Michael Atherton used dirt.  Faf du Plessis used mints and his zip.  Vernon Philander used his fingernails.  Marcus Trescothick used mints.  Shahid Afridi used his teeth.  Rahul Dravid used mints.  Sarfraz Narwaz reportedly used a bottle cap.  Other Pakistan players allegedly used glue.  That’s what we know.  On it goes.


On goes the outrage.  Smith, Warner and Bancroft broke a nation’s heart when they broke the spirit of the game.  To put things into perspective, the calamitous attempt at altering the ball didn’t work, the umpires didn’t change the ball and the outcome of the game wasn’t altered.


That is irrelevant.  It was the intent.  To willingly cheat.


Cricketers have cheated for 141 years.  They will forever.  Competitive spirit and all that jazz.  Whatever.  Cheat how you like.


The problem for Smith, Warner and Bancroft isn’t that everyone else has tampered with a cricket ball at some point.  The problem for Smith, Warner and Bancroft is no Australian cricketer has previously been busted for it.


This is a first, and that is why the outrage remains.  Australia’s people have never had to deal with cheating like this.  We don’t know how to deal with it.  We don’t understand why we have to deal with it.  No one understands why.  Another problem Smith, Warner and Bancroft have is no one will ever understand why.  The match was already lost.


Why cheat?  Why destroy everything Test cricket stands for?  Why destroy a nation’s psyche?  Why try to ruin Test cricket?


Why why why?


I can’t remember being this disappointed about cricket since Trevor Chappell rolled a ball along the ground, because his brother and captain said so.


A year ban for Smith and Warner is harsh but fair.  Bancroft, with nine months, is lucky it wasn’t more.  Smith might play Test cricket again.  Warner and Bancroft might not be so lucky.


Will they want to play Test cricket again?  I hope so.


Australia is the only country to suspend players for ball tampering.  All other nations have adhered to ICC sanctions.  Atherton, Afridi, De Plessis, and everyone else who tampered with a ball are lucky.  Cricket Australia is the first to set the standard.  Where all other nations have ignored ball tampering, they must now adhere to the same standard.  The ICC must follow Australia’s example.  Stamp it out.


Change the rules.  Umpires inspect the ball after each over.  Only the bowler can shine the ball.  Players must empty their pockets in front of the umpires before entering the field.  Ban pockets.  Mints, chewy, and lollies are banned.  Set the rules.  Reset the spirit of the game.  Reset the spirit of a nation…


At the end of Oak Park’s season in 1982, Ash shook my hand and smiled.  ‘You could’ve played in the under 12s this year,’ he said.  ‘We needed you so I never told you.  I hope you learned something.’


I did.  I learned cricket is a hard game.  I learned to improve, despite making up the numbers.  I learned to cheat and didn’t like it.  My teammates didn’t either.  In cricket, we learn to cheat as kids.  We need to learn better.  Cheating makes the game harder.  It makes life harder.


About Matt Watson

My name is Matt Watson, avid AFL, cricket and boxing fan. Since 2005 I’ve been employed as a journalist, but I’ve been writing about sport for more than a decade. In that time I’ve interviewed legends of sport and the unsung heroes who so often don’t command the headlines. The Ramble, as you will find among the pages of this website, is an exhaustive, unbiased, non-commercial analysis of sport and life. I believe there is always more to the story. If you love sport like I do, you will love the Ramble…


  1. Peter Fuller says

    Thank you for a very thoughtful and temperate consideration of this issue. My interest in cricket is much less than in football, and that engagement has declined over the past ten or so years, and I’ve barely played the game. However, I recognise the truth of your reference to the history of interference with the ball. Keith Miller’s autobiography “Cricket Crossfire” has a special place in my heart. Iirc it was the first book I received as a present and the first book which was mine. In it Keith mentioned using finger nails to raise the seam. At the end of an over the umpire queried him, and he offered a rather unconvincing criticism of the quality of modern manufacturing. Keith recounted that the umpire gave him a rather sceptical look, but took no further action.

    I admire your attitude to the whole subject of cheating. I think the way people conduct themselves on the sporting field is a good indicator of their morality. One tends to distrust the player – teammate or opponent – who bends the rules and conventions of the game beyond breaking point, in other aspects of life where you might encounter them. From my own point of view, the problem with winning by foul means is that you haven’t won at all.

  2. Good one Matt. I particularly liked your concluding para. I found to my cost that I could ‘cheat’ and get away with it. The longer I got away with it, the more I rationalised that it wasn’t that bad. It was, and then my life came crashing down. Best thing that ever happened to me. I wish the same for the 3 Test men.
    One of my passions is bio’s of “famous” people whose second acts were better. Al Gore; Leonard Cheshire; John Profumo; Ian Sinclair; Churchill; Lincoln. Their failings and weaknesses in their first act seemed to drive their second. What doesn’t kill you……………

  3. Well written Matt. It’s good seeing a nuanced article acknowledging ball tampering, bad behaviour is not limited to the Australians. Tedious reading about cheating being a natural direction for the hard way Australians play the game.

    That old saying, ‘it’s not cricket’, needs to remain in the dustbin of history. Reading of cricketing clashes
    from the cusp of the 19th/20th century where gambling, payments for amateurs , of course the legendary WC Grace, through the 20th century body line, mankading, racism, shows there’s always been a sordid side to the game. Again the Australians are not the only, nor the worse perpetrators.

    Having Sachin Tendulkar’s initial comments condemning the Australians was sickening; don’t do as I do, so as I say. I believe he’s been more balanced in his follow up. The ACB has taken a strong stand. Smith will return, the others, it’s debatable.

    Matt, it’s good seeing an article with context, rather than just another lambasting the Australians.


  4. Punxsa-and-the-rest-of-it Pete says

    Ball tampering rife? This clip is startling

  5. Hey Punxsa-and-the-rest-of-it Pete,
    At 4:20 of that video, Pat Symcox rubs the ball under both arms, exactly where our bowlers were told to put vaseline.

Leave a Comment