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Comment: Du Plessis, lollygate and the airport scuffle: needless faff over a trivial issue

The Guardian The Guardian 22/11/2016 Geoff Lemon

Call it incongruous. With Australia’s Test team collapsing more often than Christopher Skase, the chairman of selectors firing himself out the airlock with a soundless scream, and the new panel announcing the team’s middle-order stability and agility problems would be solved by a T20 opener who fields with sandwiches in his pocket, you’d think this would be a time for the nation’s cricketing attention to be introspective.

Instead, we’ve spent the last few days watching camera crews chase Faf du Plessis around public places as though he’d just ripped off some pensioners with a dodgy construction job that was making Aussie kids fat.

The alleged crime committed by South Africa’s temporary captain was to eat a delicious sweet of some variety. Mint was the early consensus, though it could equally have been a milk bottle, unless he’s the type to sort the jelly beans by colour, or he bit off the gooey parts from a liquorice all-sort. I don’t know, I’m not the dietician.

Given his public commitment to romancing his bowlers, it’s only considerate that Du Plessis should keep his breath fresh. But in the end the potential mint scored him an ICC disciplinary hearing. Technically a player may “polish the ball provided that no artificial substance is used”. Faf’s possible use of sugary spit to induce swing was deemed worthy of investigation.

Admittedly, video of the incident looks straightforward: he’s chewing something, sticks his fingers in his mouth, then rubs the ball. But even if appearances don’t deceive, a ball-tampering charge for lolly-munching is pure confection.

For one, this is standard cricketing practice. Anyone who has seen a gum advertisement knows that chewing produces spit. They also know that animated coffee cups are on a warpath to ruin your teeth, but that’s a scandal for another day. Players the world over need spit, and many share the idea that certain chewables imbue it with magical powers. Some talk of jelly babies. Some go for snakes. Australian grade cricketers insist on red frogs, though perhaps they’re just responding to an All Kids From the Nineties Will Remember This listicle.

Faf du Plessis is facing charges of ball tampering during the second Test between South Arica and Australia in Hobart. © EPA Faf du Plessis is facing charges of ball tampering during the second Test between South Arica and Australia in Hobart. Marcus Trescothick freely admitted to passing his cordon time in the 2005 Ashes giving the ball a patina with refreshing pastilles of the Murray variety. Almost nobody, including ICC representatives, seemed to care. Trescothick got an MBE for his spitty prowess, and while that wasn’t the first ever story about a queen and a slipper, it did mean he founded a new Royal mint.

In the end, so what? Players are only allowed to treat the ball with natural substances, so sweat and spit get the tick. (So would earwax, snot, belly-button gunk, tooth decay, and a range of other excreta, but you’d have to do all the bowling yourself and no one would field for you.) Fine in theory, but if there’s sunscreen on your skin, you can get it on the ball. Run your hand through your gelled hair. Rub fingers on your balmed lips. Use leather polish as beard oil if you’re really keen. And if you can eat on the field, said food can get on the ball. In a strange workplace where colleagues jointly spit on a common object, there’s no way to regulate against it.

In any case, there’s no evidence that any of these substances makes a difference. Cricketers claim that sugar swings the ball, but they also swear that clouds swing it despite the lack of meteorological backing, or that dark red balls swing more than lighter ones, or that burying a desiccated llama foetus under the stadium will please Pachamama.

Want to credit Trescothick for the 2005 boilover? He used the same tactic in the 2001 Ashes when England lost four Tests. South Africa destroyed Australia so quickly in Hobart there wouldn’t have been time for manipulation to take effect. In the end, having superior bowlers and batsmen tends to outweigh their choice of on-field snack.

Hashim Amla fairly described Du Plessis’ charge as a joke, but there has followed an unfunny nastiness to how the story has been taken on – an undercurrent of wanting to cut down the team that’s beating the home side.

The charge didn’t come from an on-field umpire, but well after the match when Fox Sports pushed the footage around. Over the next few days, two television news crews were kept from Du Plessis by security. The first story of a reporter being “manhandled” at a hotel didn’t take off, but the crew at Adelaide airport scored better.

Both crews work for Australia’s cricket broadcaster. This means they have full access to press boxes, press conferences, and all media updates. They can call South Africa’s media staff any time, or speak with them at training and tour matches. They would have been told the same as everyone else – that Du Plessis couldn’t comment until his ICC hearing was over, and that provided he wasn’t banned, he would give a captain’s press conference the day before the Adelaide Test and complete his usual TV obligations before play.

In which case, chasing Du Plessis down the street was purely for show. There was nothing to learn, no illumination to reveal. They had been told he wouldn’t answer questions. The intent, at its most modest, was some filler vision of a man evading the media. Embattled captain refuses to comment, you know the drill. Or at its juiciest, it might draw a scuffle, maybe a full barney, even a captain losing his rag and telling the crew exactly what they could do with his minty balls.

Of course good reporters don’t just follow schedules and do as they’re told. If pursuing public officials about scandals of substance, that’s outstanding. But for a visiting sportsman, who has already set a clear timeline, on such a trivial issue, it was wholly unnecessary. As someone from the host country, it’s embarrassing to have visitors treated this way.

All this over a mint. Perhaps it’s about whipping up interest in the third Test, so a disaffected public will switch on to the day-night showpiece despite the series being decided. But the nature of South Africa’s on-field achievements is where the attention should be, and to suggest a bit of sugar takes the shine off them is way too fresh. Three winning tours to Australia in a row is among the rarest of feats, and the touring side remains 2-0 in front, with the chance to deliver the first visiting whitewash on these shores. They may well suggest the detractors suck on that.

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