Bancroft’s plaster saga reminiscent of the Vaseline controversy of 1977

By Kersi Meher-Homji

Enough is written on the infamous Cape Town ball-tampering episode masterminded by Australian captain Steve Smith with his advisers and executed by fielder Cameron Bancroft.

However, this controversy reminded me of the Vaseline controversy involving England’s fast bowler John Lever in the third Test against India in Chennai on 15 January 1977.

John Lever had made a dream Test debut in the first Test in Delhi in December 1976 with figures of 7 for 46 and 3 for 24 and England had won by an innings. But the next month in the third Test in Chennai he was in news when it was alleged that he had used Vaseline on the ball to help it swing.

The Vaseline incident happened on the second day of the Test just as India’s innings was coming to a close and he had taken five wickets. He was reported by umpire Judah Reuben that he was carrying on his person a strip of surgical gauze impregnated with Vaseline. The umpire considered this to be a breach of Law 46.

The MCC management conceded that there was Vaseline on the strip of gauze but explained that on a hot and humid day both Lever and Bob Willis suffered from smarting eyes due to perspiration running into them from the forehead. On the advice of team physiotherapist, Bernard Thomas, they went out wearing the gauze strips to divert the trickle of sweat away from the eyes.

There were two explanations for the presence of a gauze strip on the ground. Umpire Reuben said that it came adrift while Lever was delivering the ball. The team management claimed that Lever found it a hindrance and discarded it himself.

Former Test great and the MCC manager, Ken Barrington, agreed that there was a technical breach of the law governing ”˜fair and unfair play’ but the offence was completely unintentional. At a press conference the following day, Barrington and skipper Tony Greig stressed that the gauze strips were not worn until after lunch and by then the England team had made such inroads into the Indian innings that such unfair methods were unnecessary.

Greig recalled that incident later.

“What happened was that John Lever had a habit of taking sweat from  his  brow, which is perfectly legitimate as long as it is only sweat. However, he did mix the Vaseline-impregnated gauze with some of the sweat on his brow, because he had this habit of going straight across his brow. So purely by accident, he found himself with a slippery hand and, as a result of that, he decided to get rid of that gauze. He took it off his eyes and put it down at the base of the stumps in front of the umpire. This was picked up by the umpire who recognised that it was a foreign substance and of course that’s how it got out of control.

“There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this was an inadvertent mistake by our physiotherapist and that we weren’t, in any way, trying to pull the wool over [India’s captain] Bishan Bedi and his team’s eyes. In fact, had we been doing that then why would Lever put the gauze down at the base of the stumps? So that’s basically what happened.”

Bedi added fuel to the fire by stating that even after the Delhi Test when Lever had captured ten wickets he had suspicions that a polishing agent of some kind had been used.

Greig forcefully denied this allegation saying, “Bishan Bedi was under a tremendous amount of pressure at that time because the team was 2-0 down, and after that Test match 3-0 down. There was plenty of speculation whether he would hang onto the captaincy. He was, I think, grasping at straws at that time. In any event, the explanation from Kenny Barrington and me, and indeed the response from Lord’s got behind my explanation that this was a mistake. I am quite happy to admit right now that it should never have happened, but it did, and there is nothing much we could do about it.”

Despite all the criticism heaped at Australia’s skipper Steve Smith ”“ and justifiably so ”“ at least he was honest in owning up. Can we say the same about the England team 41 years earlier?

To quote Bedi this week, “What happened in the ”˜Vaseline’ episode then was not quite cricket and what happened now in Cape Town is not cricket either! Different times do not necessarily mean one act of crime was bigger or smaller…but yes with technology ruling the roost and forty odd cameras swooning on every little detail on the field the modern cricketer is definitely more vulnerable.

“During the Vaseline saga only I was vulnerable with the BCCI literally bowing before the Imperial Cricket Conference. Remember both England and Australia had a right of veto then? And Indian Board officials were mere crumb pickers then. Well, let’s just leave it at that because I’m not enjoying digging graves!”

Well spoken, Bishie!

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