England captain Alastair Cook is adamant England’s bowlers can reverse swing the ball because of their skill and hard work.
Cook insists it has nothing to do with anything sinister such as illegal ball- tampering or scratching the leather.
But the furore — blown into the open by former England captain Bob Willis after days of muttering and rumour — is the last thing Cook needs as he approaches a must-win Champions Trophy match against New Zealand.
Just when everyone thought all the problems were piling up exclusively in Australia’s dressing-room, here is a curve ball for the England team.
The problem started when umpires Aleem Dar and Billy Bowden changed one of the two balls in the 26th over of Sri Lanka’s successful run chase at the Oval on Thursday evening.
Cook was patently livid — because he and his bowlers believed the ball was reaching the optimum condition to start reverse swinging.
When asked whether he was angry, Cook replied: “The ball was changed because it was out of shape. That was the umpire’s reasoning.
“The umpires make those decisions, so you have to accept them. Sometimes you don’t think they are the right decisions but there’s not much you can do about it.”
Certainly, it is unusual for the umpires — rather than the fielding team — to change the ball because it has lost its shape.
Now fast bowling legend Willis, speaking on Sky Sports, has alleged one England player has been illegally damaging the ball with his fingernails. It is an incendiary claim. SunSport yesterday contacted two of the match officials on duty at the Oval.
Both refused to clarify why the ball was changed and instead asked for media enquiries to be directed to the ICC.
An ICC spokesman said: “The umpires and match referee cannot talk about specific incidents during a tournament.
“But our understanding is that the ball was changed because it went out of shape.”
James Anderson is England’s king of swing — reverse and orthodox — and his talents have been honed by years of practice in the nets.
But reverse swing has been considered something of a dark art ever since the ball was changed during a one-day international between England and Pakistan at Lord’s in 1992.
At The Oval in 2006, Pakistan refused to play on and forfeited a Test match because umpire Darrell Hair was convinced they tampered with the ball and awarded five runs to England. Players even stood in the witness box and attempted to explain reverse swing during a libel case involving Ian Botham and Imran Khan in the 1990s.
Balls reverse swing when one side is smooth and the other rough and dry.
The seam acts as a rudder and the air turbulence around the sphere can cause it to swerve alarmingly.
So bowlers want balls to scuff and soften quickly because they become more likely to reverse swing and more difficult to hit.
Teams use many tactics to accelerate the deterioration of the ball — such as bowling cross-seam deliveries and fielders deliberately landing the ball on old pitches adjoining the main strip when throwing from the boundary.
Umpires have warned players from several teams about that trick during the Champions Trophy.
Players sometimes suck sweets before applying saliva to the ball. Captain Cook normally maintains the ball for England in Test matches because he has very dry hands, while Essex batsman Ravi Bopara has been handling it regularly for England during this 50-over tournament.
Last week, umpire Dar was seen speaking to Bopara during the final match of England’s one-day series against New Zealand at Trent Bridge.
And former Aussie speedster Dirk Nannes, working as a summariser for BBC Radio, suggested sweets were brought out to Bopara by the 12th man during Saturday’s victory over Australia in Birmingham.
In 2009, former England player Dermot Reeve accused Bopara (right) of ball-tampering during a domestic match in New Zealand — a claim that was strongly denied.
Reverse swing is fundamental to England’s game plan.
They gained it against the Aussies at Edgbaston last Saturday — and won by 48 runs. They did not gain it against Sri Lanka — and lost by seven wickets.
On Thursday, Dar used a hoop to check whether the ball was out of shape.
One member of England’s management team said yesterday that the ball went through the hoop — which is why Cook was so angry as it showed the ball was still in good shape.
But England fielding coach Richard Halsall claimed the ball did not pass through the device.
An England spokesman said last night: “Alastair Cook explained after the match that the umpires told him the ball was changed because it was out of shape.
“We have nothing more to add. Other than that, it is a matter for the ICC.” (Courtesy The Sun)