Monday 15 March 2021

tamper (the play in it)

‘The playing of the game is the playing of the game with that object, and the object of the game is therefore in part always to undertake a forensic trial of the object’s possibilities. One plays with the object in order to put its properties and possibilities in play, to discover and determine what play there is in it’ (Connor 2011: 123)

‘The children seem to be fighting, but they are merely learning to inhabit their country’ (Barthes 2007: 47)

My contexts here are in my own past: a childhood playing sport with genuine pleasure and commitment, while never really taking it fully seriously. I still conceive of it as a joyous folly, a kind of absorbing, immersive absurdity (1). As Steven Connor suggests in A Philosophy of Sport, sport is ‘triumph and disaster; everything, nothing; important, unimportant’ (Connor 2011: 48). The initial trigger for this revisiting of aspects of my past from over 40 years ago came in a file of school reports (from the ages of 5 to 18) handed to me by my father with a sigh about 18 months ago. These distilled, haiku-like assessments of a child’s abilities and aptitudes are illuminating and rather troubling in their fragmentary and elliptical account of an education in the 1960s and 1970s, its expectations and ‘tamperings’, its stratifying of different orders of ‘knowledge’, its explicit reiteration of what is valued and privileged, of what constitutes ‘success’ and ‘failure’, and the extraordinarily partial perception and construction of a young self-in-process. Clearly I was failing to understand that particular ‘game structure’, its rules and protocols. Ultimately the reports offer a litany of disappointment at my apparent lack of interest and attention in most classes (apart from art and music), with far too much staring out of the window, dreaming, chatting, an approach that is deemed altogether ‘maddeningly casual and easy-going’. They include this Latin report at the age of 9: ‘He has tried all the spivvish tricks, and has only now discovered that work is the best solution’ (what tricks were they?); and a despairing summary comment from the headmaster when I was just 11: ‘At present he is rather a stupid and idle boy. Despite our best efforts, I’m not sure we will ever be able to save him’. These failings are consistently offset and partially mollified, it seems, by my rather pointless sporting prowess – for example, this from a report on ‘games’ at the age of 12: ‘David is an expert thrower and an accurate bowler of considerable skill, but he lacks discipline and is not capitalizing on his gifts’ … (2).

In what follows, in part I am interested in reclaiming and valuing something of what the choreographer Alain Platel has called ‘suppressed virtuosities’ - redundant, devalued or forgotten techniques, currently functionless embodied skills or areas of expertise: in my case, in particular between the ages of 7 and 18, eye-hand coordination, and a peculiar aptitude for play with a variety of balls, bowling, throwing, catching, kicking, hitting, as well as an array of fairly esoteric techniques for ball tampering in cricket matches. Also in the back of my mind hover some attributes prized in the aesthetics of Italian football. Of the three vital ingredients required for the most accomplished football players and teams, Italian aficionados suggest that the unruly passion of English football lacks all three. These qualities are: technica (technique, skill); fantasia (the ability to do unpredictable and surprising things with the ball, inspired instinct, imagination, flair); and furbizia (cunning, guile, slyness, a tactical bending of the rules, aspects of gamesmanship).
‘He obviously enjoys acting – on and off stage!’ (School report, aged 16)

Cricket is a game of infinite repetitions, and attenuated discontinuous rhythms - long periods of apparent low-level activity (or even non-activity) and sudden flarings of intensity, in a durational game structure of great complexity that enables significant ‘play’ and unpredictabilities within that structure (including, for example, its porosity to the material effects of weather, cloud cover, wind etc.). For Steven Connor, like all ball games it is ‘a choreographed meteorology of speeds and durations’ within which the ball acts as ‘the switcher and transmitter of these speeds’ (Connor 2011: 77).

Over a period of about eleven years, I spent a significant amount of time during the spring and summer months playing school cricket as a medium-paced ‘swing bowler’ or ‘seamer’, a specialist in the production of unpredictable movement, swerve and bounce. As a bowler, one endeavours to set up the conditions for unpredictability, always projecting an object both related to and independent from you on a forward trajectory into the future, towards the ludic, agonistic encounter with the anticipatory and reflex skills of a batsman. My particular abilities, which remain at some level wholly mysterious to me, were ‘late swing’, a sudden alteration in the rate of change of the ball’s trajectory, amplified bounce or ‘kick’ off the pitch’s surface, and a cut-back off the seam at the moment of the ball’s striking the pitch, suddenly redirecting the ball in a different direction from that of its original swing through the air. To paraphrase Connor, the aim of this particular game was to play with your opponent by trying to prevent them from playing (with) you (131).

In all ball sports, the nature of the ball is paradoxical: inanimate and animate, object and subject, it seems to move in and out of its own agency; and in its passage and exchange, its status as intermediary, it weaves relations and constructs complex entanglements and intersubjectivities. The cricket ball’s structure comprises smooth leather surfaces on two halves of a sphere, with a raised, stitched seam encircling it; in this way, uniformity is combined with an element of unpredictability (Connor 2011: 138). The physical mechanics of swing (the ball’s ‘movement’) are intimately related to the transformation of the ball in time, its mnemonic registering of its histories of contact and collision, the biographical traces of what happens to happen to it; for ‘the cricket ball is designed to soak up accidents of all kinds’ (142). Over time its flawless, smooth surfaces roughen and soften slightly, the seam loosens and becomes uneven, and the object assumes a ‘lunar asymmetry’ (ibid).  In some ways, the ball mirrors the pitch itself, a ‘sphere, as it were, rolled out’ (139), a flattened and extended smooth surface that in itself becomes worn, marked and damaged over time by the contingencies of the game; it decays into ‘a scarred cartography of accidence’ (59). This gradual entropic deterioration of the idealized, immaculate integrity of two of the game’s core structural elements – ball and ground – is actively assimilated within and exploited by the game structure of cricket; and this growing material imperfection serves to compromise predictability and thus multiply the possibilities for a bowler keenly aware of the game’s intimate imbrication in processes of change over time.

According to articles 2.2.9 and 42.3 in the laws of cricket (sections concerning the alteration of the condition of the ball in the International Cricket Council’s formal ‘Code of Conduct’), the bowler and fielders are permitted to clean and polish the ball, sustaining its shine. They are prohibited, however, from using any other aids apart from bodily fluids – sweat, spit – and their own clothing (ICC 2017). One side of the ball is polished and carefully maintained, while the other is allowed (or caused) to deteriorate, therefore creating increased drag - ‘turbulent flow’ - on that side during its movement through the air as it travels along the line of the seam; in this way, the friction on the rougher hemisphere produces a bending of the line of flight – the swerving movement of a ‘curve-ball’.

‘Ball tampering’ is a term that refers to illegitimate means of gaining advantage by accelerating the deterioration of the condition of the ball, thereby unfairly interfering with the ‘orderly’ aerodynamics and legibility of its trajectory, and increasing swerve and unpredictability. There are long histories of tampering, documented since at least 1918 (see for example Birley 1999: 217, 316); and whenever it is exposed, it is decried as ‘not cricket’, ‘not playing the game’. In professional contexts it results in substantial fines and penalties. For example, the England captain Mike Atherton was seen on TV using dirt in his pocket at Lords in 1994; the Pakistan captain Shahid Afridi was captured on camera biting the seam in a match against Australia in 2010; and the wonderfully named South African bowler Vernon Philander was caught gouging the ball with his nails in 2014. In 2016, Faf du Plessis, the South African captain, was fined his entire match fee from the second test against Australia when TV images revealed him applying sugary saliva from a sucked mint to the ball. Most recently, during the fourth Ashes Test in Melbourne, Australia, in late December 2017, the England bowler Jimmy Anderson was recorded by Channel 9 TV cameras running his fingernails along the quarter seam of the Kookaburra ball, although any intentional ‘foul play’ was subsequently denied and dismissed by England officials as ‘Pommie-bashing’ gamesmanship.

In my early teens I was taught how to ‘work the ball’ (we never used the term ‘tamper’) by a warm, funny Yorkshireman who was the school cricket coach, a retired England and county cricket player celebrated as a canny, unreadable swinger and seamer. I was a sweet sucker and sugary polisher, although the ball was sometimes scuffed or further shined covertly by a couple of frotteur teammates in the field on its circuitous route back to me. I think I conceived of this as just part of the game and its tactics, an amoral adolescent understanding and play-ful acceptance of furbizia: a minor amplificatory tweaking of the ‘give’ in structure, the craft in ‘crafty’, and the meaning of ‘in mint condition’ …

Tampering techniques aim to produce subtle modifications of the game’s core object. Typically there are three core modes of tampering – picking and lifting the seam, roughening one side of the ball, and shining the other with concealed materials. Less commonly and more mysteriously, marking or scuffing the surface of the pristine, polished side, or picking, lifting and fraying the finer quarter seam that bisects that unblemished hemisphere, can also produce what is known as ‘reverse swing’. An inventory of tampering tools might include: for polishing and shining, Vaseline (concealed on one’s trousers, forehead or a handkerchief), lip balm, hair gel, sunscreen, saliva from sucking sweets; for roughening and scuffing, trouser zip, studs, dirt or gravel, or throwing the ball into the ground; and for lifting seams, finger nails, penknife, nail clippers, metal bottle top, zip. Each of these interventions has to be realised invisibly, and gradually, so as not to attract undue attention. The umpires have the right to inspect the ball at any time, to verify its integrity and the credibility of its gradual wearing and minor deformation as part of the game’s material knocks and frictions; and indeed they can decide to replace the ball with one of similar age and condition prior to tampering if the ball in play is deemed to be excessively damaged.

So tampering involves deception, simulation and disguise, discreetly and necessarily concealed within a performed and illusory pretense of playing by the rules and ‘playing the game’, while incrementally introducing a kind of sinister deviation in the predictable and orderly, a swerve of difference in repetition. Steven Connor suggests that cheating in such contexts is an affront to sport’s claimed ontology. For, he proposes, ‘sport is in its essence zealously non-symbolic and unillusory’, and its function is ‘to provide a place and an occasion from which all possibility of simulation has been scorched away, and in which one can be sure that whatever happens will reliably and irreversibly have happened’ (Connor 2011: 175). In some ways, perhaps there is an echo here of those absolutist claims made for performance art as manifest action and event, the actual happening of the ‘real’, in contrast to the subterfuges, shapeshiftings and tawdry pretense of a particular (and limited) conception of theatre, with its purported privileging of the underhand over the manifest, of seeming over being.

Two months after submitting this text for publication, ball tampering briefly became the focus of the international media, and triggered the performance of a great deal of indignant moral outrage, as if the fact that such tactics could be at play within the game of cricket was the most unforeseen and alarming of revelations. During the third Test match between South Africa and Australia in Cape Town in March 2018, television cameras and live-feed monitors in the stadium picked up Australia’s Cameron Bancroft rubbing the ball with a mysterious yellow object that he then concealed, with comically inept sleight-of-hand, down the front of his trousers. Approached by the umpires, Bancroft showed them a dark grey sunglass pouch from his side pocket, and no penalty was imposed at that time. However the close-up images of Bancroft’s actions had been widely disseminated, and the heightened media attention prompted an immediate investigation. Subsequently Bancroft and Australia’s captain Steve Smith admitted that in fact there had been an attempt to interfere with the ball’s condition, using sand paper as an abrasive tool, and that the tampering plan had been hatched during a lunch break by a ‘leadership group’ within the Australian camp. Formally charged with improper conduct by the ICC, Smith and Bancroft were heavily fined. In the wake of the players’ admission, the Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (‘it beggars belief’) and a range of international commentators publicly condemned the players’ actions, and a formal investigation was undertaken by Cricket Australia. Ultimately Smith, Bancroft and David Warner, the Australian vice-captain (a notoriously aggressive competitor, and the apparent instigator of the tampering plan) were found guilty of cheating, lying and bringing the game into disrepute; they were sanctioned with lengthy bans from all international and domestic cricket. In addition, the Australian coach Darren Lehmann resigned. On their return to Australia, all three beleaguered players gave tearfully apologetic press conferences to the international media, in which they spoke of their shame, their failure as ‘men’, ‘leaders’ and ‘role models’, and their commitment to forthcoming reviews of the team’s culture and the conduct of professional sportsmen.

1. An earlier version of this material was presented as part of ‘The Things They Do’, an event curated by Joe Kelleher and Nicholas Ridout at the Barbican, London in July 2016, in response to the major retrospective exhibition by Ragnar Kjartansson at the Barbican Gallery.
2. A decade before my arrival, Derek Jarman attended the same secondary school. In his bleakly withering account of its educational ideologies and disciplinary regimes, he characterizes his experiences there in terms of ‘a vicious fraudulent gentility’ that ‘masks a system of bullying and repression, coupled with a deliberate philistine aggression towards learning and intelligence, which are only acceptable if saturated with the muddied values of the rugger pitch … The aggression carries over into many aspects of the teaching which serves not only to enlighten but to repress. A systematic destruction of the creative mind, called ‘education’, is underway … A subtle terror rules, thoughtfully preparing us for the outside world. I feel threatened, isolated and friendless – I’m hopeless at all the communal activities, particularly ball games’ (Jarman 1984: 51-2). Like Jarman, I found refuge in the astonishing openings and relative freedoms offered by the very same art teacher, an inspirational enthusiast and mentor to many ‘failing’ elsewhere; unlike Jarman, I was fortunate to be able to find other pleasures and enduring friendships in the complicities, physical release and escape that sport allowed, for some.

Barthes, Roland (2007). What Is Sport? (trans. Richard Howard), New Haven: Yale University Press.
Birley, Derek (1999). A Social History of English Cricket, London: Aurum Press.
Connor, Steven (2011). A Philosophy of Sport, London: Reaktion.
ICC (International Cricket Council) (2017). ‘Regulations – Playing: Code of Conduct for Players and Player Support Personnel – Effective September 2017’, ICC Rules and Regulations: KeyDocuments, accessed 10 December 2017.
Jarman, Derek (1984). Dancing Ledge, London: Quartet Books.

1. Seam: photo David Williams 
2. Old hand, new ball (‘whispering death’): photo Sue Palmer
3. A tampering toolkit: photo David Williams

First published in Performance Research 23: 4-5, 'On Reflection: Turning 100', October 2018: commissioned text for special 100th double issue of the journal