“Sandpapergate” - Is the ICC doing enough to combat ball tampering in cricket?

Published 08 May 2018 By: Rustam Sethna, Rishab Lingam

Cricket Bowler Holding Ball

"Sandpapergate", the ball-tampering scandal involving the Australian cricket team was described, among other things, as cricket’s darkest day1. The episode made headlines both within and outside the cricketing world. Opinions were shared, tears were shed2, apologies were issued, and the perpetrators were punished.

That the incident was pre-meditated was probably an aggravating factor; the players conspired to cheat, they carried out the tampering and worse still, attempted to hide it. Sanctions imposed were not for ball tampering per se but rather for conduct contrary to the "spirit of cricket" and conduct which brought the game into disrepute.

Just over a month on from the episode, this article seeks to analyse whether the International Cricket Council (ICC) is doing enough to combat the incidence of ball-tampering in cricket, and if not, whether it should.

Specifically, it examines whether the offence of ball tampering is "proportionate" in relation to other offences recognised by the ICC and whether the ICC has doled out sanctions for ball tampering consistently in the past.

Additionally, it is submitted that ball-tampering is tantamount to cheating in that it involves the manipulation of sporting equipment with a view to gaining a competitive advantage. As such, this article seeks to analyse how similar violations are treated in other sports, namely baseball, American football, rugby, tennis, football and cycling.


In March 2018, Australia embarked upon a 4 match test series versus hosts South Africa.

Each of the teams had won one match each, resulting in a tied series (1-1) in the build up to the famed "episode". On day 3 of the third test match, South Africa had a lead of over 100 runs pushing Australia to a possible defeat.

During the post-lunch session, TV cameras captured Australia’s Cameron Bancroft using a foreign object (later discovered to be a piece of sandpaper) on the surface of the ball. Having seen the footage on the big screen, the Australian coach passed the message on to Bancroft. Bancroft, in a state of panic, dropped the sandpaper through his trousers. When questioned by the umpire, Bancroft informed them that he was polishing the ball with a black piece of cloth, which he then pulled out of one of his pockets.

After the day’s play, Bancroft, along with captain Steve Smith admitted to “changing the condition of the ball”, during a press conference3. The decision to do so was pre-meditated and one that was taken by the “leadership group” of the Australian team.

Following this admission, Australia crumbled, losing all ten wickets in a single session the following day (day 4), losing the test match. Smith and David Warner were subsequently stripped of their respective captaincy and vice-captaincy positions.

In the aftermath of the episode, Smith was charged4 with “conduct contrary to the spirit of the game” and penalised with four "demerit points" from the ICC, equating to a one-test match ban. Warner was charged5 with “conduct bringing the game into disrepute”, and penalised with a fine of 75% of his match fee and three "demerit points" while Bancroft received6 three "demerit points" and a similar fine for “changing the condition of the ball”.

All three players were sent home from South Africa, and subsequently sanctioned by Cricket Australia. Smith and Warner were each sanctioned for one year and Bancroft for 9 months. They were also banned from the then forthcoming 2018 season of the Indian Premier League.

What is ball tampering?

Ball tampering is said to have occurred when a player from the fielding team illegally alters the condition of the cricket ball.

At the outset, it must be stated that while ball-tampering does not guarantee the fielding team success (just as a winning a penalty for his team by "diving" in the box does not guarantee a goal) it does give them a significant unfair advantage7.

A cricket ball is tampered with to achieve what is known as "swing", and in particular, "reverse swing". A ball is said to "swing" when it moves in the air as it approaches the batsman. Generally, a swinging ball is more difficult for a batsman to face than one that (for the most part) maintains its course. Reverse swing is particularly challenging for a batsman to face, as the bowler causes the ball to swing quite late, giving the batsman very little time to react8.

Without delving into the technicalities of how reverse swing is achieved, it is safe to say that successfully bowling a "reverse swing" ball is a subtle and intricate art; and artificially manipulating the condition of the ball helps achieve this outcome. This is why fielding teams are often tempted to resort to ball-tampering – a practice officially recognised as "unfair play" under Article 41 of the ICC Men’s Test Match Playing Conditions, 2017 (“Playing Conditions”)9.

Specifically, under Article 41.3.2 of the Playing Conditions, “it is an offence for any player to take any action which changes the condition of the ball.” However, this general rule is subject to three exceptions; the only circumstances under which changing the condition of a ball would be permissible:

  1. polishing the ball on a fielder’s clothing provided that no artificial substance is used and that such polishing wastes no time;

  1. removing mud from the ball under the supervision of an umpire; or

  1. drying a wet ball on a piece of cloth that has been approved by the umpires.

It is important to understand that what makes ball tampering "illegal" under the Playing Conditions, is not the fact that the condition of the ball is being altered, but rather that such alteration is achieved using foreign substances and/or other illegal methods.

It is commonplace to see players shining a ball using their sweat and saliva or by polishing the surface of the ball against their trousers (as we will see later, baseball prohibits even these practices). However, the use of "artificial substances" to polish the ball, (e.g. mints or lubricants) or deliberately roughening its surface (by, for example, stamping on the ball with the spikes of one’s shoes), is conduct that falls foul of the Playing Conditions and therefore classified as "ball-tampering".

As such, the use of sandpaper by Bancroft is not one of the three permissible methods to change the condition of the cricket ball. That it was pre-meditated further aggravates the situation.

Sanctions: have ball tampering sanctions been administered consistently?

Although unfortunate, the Australian ball-tampering scandal does not come as a surprise. Cricket has witnessed a number of ball tampering incidents over the years – both proven and alleged.

The sanctions in most cases are either a fine of a certain percentage of the player’s match fees or a ban of one match; sometimes both10 - an easy let-off for cricketers considering the gravity of the offence. Given the recurrence of similar "episodes" in the past, it is surprising that the ICC have not taken a stronger stance on the issue. The following examples of sanctions imposed against high profile players over the past two decades demonstrate that although consistent, the ICC ought to take ball-tampering more seriously:

  1. Michael Atherton, 1994

In the “dirt in the pocket” affair, Michael Atherton, the then captain of England was caught on camera reaching into his pocket and applying an illegal substance on the ball in a match against SA. He claimed that he was simply using the dirt to dry his hands. He was subsequently fined £2,00011.

  1. Waqar Younis, 2000

Pakistani fast bowler Waqar Younis was found guilty of ball tampering in a one-day international match against South Africa in 2000. He was fined 50% of his match fees and suspended for one match12, becoming the first player to be suspended for ball tampering. Interestingly, Moin Khan, the then Pakistani captain was only reprimanded for “allowing the spirit of the game to be impaired”.

  1. Sachin Tendulkar, 2001

During the second Test match of India’s tour of South Africa in 2001, match referee Mike Denness found Sachin Tendulkar guilty of “acting on the ball13. Tendulkar was given a suspended ban for one Test Match and he was also fined 75% of his match fees. However, the International Cricket Council (ICC) later cleared Tendulkar of ball tampering charges and stated that he had merely cleaned the ball without the umpire’s permission 14.

  1. Rahul Dravid, 2004

Rahul Dravid was found guilty of rubbing the ball with a cough lozenge in a match against Zimbabwe. He was later fined 50% of his match fees15.

  1. Shahid Afridi, 2010

In one of the most bizarre incidents of ball tampering, Shahid Afridi was caught on camera biting the ball. He later claimed that he tried to smell it16. He was subsequently banned for two T20 internationals17.

  1. Francois Du Plessis, 2013

Du Plessis was caught on camera rubbing the ball against the zipper on his trousers in a test match against Pakistan. The umpires added 5 runs to Pakistan’s total and changed the ball18 because of his actions. Du Plessis was also fined 50% of his match fees.

  1. Vernon Philander, 2014

South African bowler Vernon Philander was found guilty of ball tampering in a test match against Sri Lanka. Philander was charged with "serious misconduct", under Article 42.1 of the Playing Conditions, "scratching the ball with his fingers and thumb", and he was fined 75% of his match fee19.

  1. Francois Du Plessis, 2016

In a test match against Australia, Du Plessis was caught on camera rubbing the ball with saliva from a mint. He was found guilty and fined his entire match fees20.

These incidents may be differentiated on grounds of being "spur-of-the-moment" decisions. The pre-meditated nature of Sandpapergate ought to have been an aggravating factor. However, had it not been for Cricket Australia’s swift intervention in dishing out stricter sanctions which last for 1 year in the case of Smith and Warner and 9 months for Bancroft, it is likely that under the ICC’s more lenient regulatory regime, these players would have been back on the pitch in the not-so-distant future.

How does ball tampering compare with other offences in cricket?

The ICC Code of Conduct for Players and Player Support Personnel, 2017 (“ICC Code of Conduct”)21 recognises an array of offences which are subject to sanctions in the form of suspensions, reprimands or fines, or any combination thereof.

Offences are categorised ranging from "Level 1", being the least serious, to "Level 4" being the most serious.

Some offences are common across all 4 levels, such as conduct that “is contrary to the spirit of the game” or “brings the game into disrepute” and are sanctioned based on four varied degrees of severity, namely minor (Level 1), serious (Level 2), very serious (Level 3) and overwhelmingly serious (Level 4)22.

Other offences are specific to their respective categories; so for example, excessive appealing is a "Level 1" offence, with the more serious, intimidating and violent conduct being classified as "Level 3" and "Level 4" offences.

Ball-tampering, surprisingly, is a "Level 2" offence. To put things into perspective, other "Level 2" offences include, without limitation:

  1. Throwing a ball… in an inappropriate and/ or dangerous manner;

  2. deliberate attempt to distract striker;

  3. deliberate distraction, deception or obstruction of batsman;

  4. bowling of dangerous and unfair short pitched deliveries;

  5. bowling of dangerous and unfair non-pitching deliveries;

  6. bowling of deliberate front foot no balls;

  7. time wasting by any Player or team;

  8. batsman stealing a run.

This means that a player who (for example) throws a ball "inappropriately" or "dangerously" (both nebulous and subjective concepts) would attract the same level of sanction as one who tampers a ball.

By implication, this raises two questions – 1 - is the punishment for inappropriately or dangerously throwing the ball (as an example of another Level 2 offence) too harsh? or 2 - is the punishment for ball-tampering rather lenient?

These questions are best answered by considering those offences categorised as "Level 3", which include merely "intimidating" an umpire or match referee, whether by conduct or language or a "threat" of assault on another player. Note that a mere "threat" or "intimidation" is sufficient – no "actual" violent conduct is required to establish any of these offences.

As the "gentleman’s game" it would be appropriate to hold cricketers to a higher standard by considering them to be more accountable for violent conduct, even if only threatened and not actually displayed. However, it is submitted that respecting the integrity of competition is an equally important facet of playing a ‘gentleman’s game’, the utmost disregard of which is manifested through deliberate and pre-meditated ball-tampering.

The principle of "proportionality" in legal parlance contemplates an alignment of the "punishment" with the "crime". In the case of ball-tampering, the ICC ought to tighten the punishment, to reflect the severity of the "crime".

How does ball tampering compare with other offences in sport?

This section aims to put matters into perspective by analysing how other sports have dealt with manipulating sporting equipment/rules with a view to obtaining an unfair competitive advantage.

Baseball: lessons from cricket’s closest cousin

If ever there was a sport sharing similarity with cricket it would be baseball. Thus, it is interesting to note how cricket’s closest cousin deals with similar ball tampering related offences.

Unsurprisingly, ball tampering was an unavoidable part of baseball. However, as far back as 1920, baseball took steps to curb the incidence of ball tampering, recognising the impact it had on the integrity of its competition.

The logic for tampering balls remains the same for both cricket and baseball – the more tampered the ball, the higher the chance of an erratic ball movement, therefore making it more difficult for the batsman (or batter, depending on the sport in question) to face.

Ball tampering techniques in baseball do not vastly differ from cricket. For example, in the early twentieth century, balls were thrown against all kinds of hard surfaces in blatant attempts to disfigure them. Baseballs were soaked in saliva, stained with tobacco juice, rubbed with mud, and even brutalized with knives, sandpaper and emery boards23, and baseball was indeed a pitcher’s game.

The year 1920 brought about change – when a batter was hit on the head by a pitch, succumbing to his injuries - and forced a regulatory reform to several aspects of the game, including the ball. Pitchers were no longer allowed to discolour or damage the ball in any way, and umpires were asked to change the baseball as soon as it showed signs of wear and tear24.

The Official Baseball Rules, 201625 (“MLB Rules”) have, similar to cricket, codified ball-tampering as an offence.

Rule 3.02 provides that “No player shall intentionally discolor or damage the ball by rubbing it with soil, rosin, paraffin, licorice, sand-paper, emery paper or other foreign substance”. The penalty for this offence is suspension from the game, plus an automatic suspension for a further 10 games.

The MLB Rules (Rule 6.02(c)(1) go further; prohibiting a pitcher from “touching the ball after touching his mouth or lips” or “touching his mouth or lips while he is in contact with the pitcher’s plate”. A pitcher is required to “clearly wipe the fingers of his pitching hand dry before touching the ball or the pitcher’s plate”. For violations of this rule, umpires are required to immediately remove the ball from play and issue a warning to the pitcher, with repeat offenders being subjected to fines.

Rule 6.02(c) also prohibits a pitcher from:

(2) expectorating on the ball, either hand or his glove;

(3) rubbing the ball on his glove, person or clothing;

(4) applying a foreign substance of any kind to the ball;

(5) deface the ball in any manner; or

(6) deliver a ball altered in a manner …. or what is called the “shine” ball, “spit” ball, “mud” ball or “emery” ball. The pitcher is allowed to rub the ball between his bare hands.

(7) Have on his person, or in his possession, any foreign substance

While baseball seem to have robust rules in place to tackle ball tampering, it is unthinkable that the ICC would impose equally onerous measures on cricketers. For cricketers, old habits certainly die hard. 

National Football League (American Football): "Deflategate"

"Deflategate", was a controversy in the National Football League (“NFL”) where the New England Patriots (“Pats”) were accused of deliberately under-inflating 11 of the 12 footballs used during their match against the Indianapolis Colts in the American Football Conference Championship Game of the 2014-15 NFL playoffs.

Each game ball used in the NFL is required to be inflated to a size between 12.5 and 13.5 pounds per square inch (“PSI”)26. Each team is responsible for handing 12 game balls to a referee for inspection. NFL personnel discovered during half time that the balls provided by the Pats were underinflated by two PSI each.27

Balls are deflated to make them softer, and, thus, easier to grip. Ainissa Ramirez, the author of a football-science book called "Newton's Football," explained28, “The ball is slightly squishier. And particularly during the [Patriots-Colts game], which was kind of rainy, it's harder to hold the ball, it's hard to catch the ball. So by making it a little softer, it's easier to catch the ball.”

An investigation was launched by the NFL, resulting in Tom Brady, Pats’ star quarterback, being banned for four games, while the team was fined $1 million and lost two draft picks (a first-round pick in 2016 and a fourth-round pick in 2017)29. Patriots owner Robert Kraft accepted the punishment30. However, Tom Brady decided to appeal. In September 2015 the US District Judge annulled the NFL’s suspension31. The NFL then appealed the annulment and the US Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the suspension.32

Brady decided not to appeal33 the decision further and he had to sit out the first four games of 2016-17 regular season. Eventually, the Patriots went on to win the Super Bowl that year. 

Rugby: "ball swapping" = "ball tampering"?

A group stage match between England and Romania during the 2011 Rugby World Cup was marred by the rugby equivalent of a ball-tampering scandal.

The English team were found to have illegally swapped balls for two conversions taken by Jonny Wilkinson, without the prior consent of the referee. This is because the England kickers felt that one ball (identifiable as all match balls were numbered) in particular was better for kicking than others.

Relevant regulations stated that the ball that was used to score a try must be the one put on the tee by the player taking the conversion. The swapping of balls by the England coaching staff was therefore in violation of these regulations, causing the culpable coaching staff to be banned from attending England’s following fixture. 

Tennis: "ball tampering" or "general fluff"?

During the 2013 Madrid Open, Spanish player Anabel Medina Garrigues was filmed rubbing new tennis balls against her racket34, during her quarter final versus Serena Williams. Garrigues was attempting to make the balls "fluffier" and therefore slower through the air. Williams went on to win the match and Garrigues was let off without a sanction. However, the Women’s Tennis Association (“WTA”) stated that had her conduct been noticed, Garrigues would have incurred a sanction under the WTA Code of Conduct35 (“WTA Code”).

Footage of the incident can be viewed here36.

The WTA Code, unlike the ICC Code or MLB Rules, does not specifically recognise the offence of attempting to change the condition of a ball(s). However, offences such as "unsportsmanlike conduct" or "conduct contrary to the integrity of the game of tennis" are wide enough to cover conduct like that engaged in by Garrigues (similar to charges levied upon Smith and Warner by the ICC, post-Sandpapergate). Sanctions under the WTA Code range from warnings and point/game deductions to fines.

Football: "diving"

While not directly comparable with tampering a cricket ball, "diving", the practice of feigning foul play, particularly within the penalty box with a view to winning a penalty kick, is an example of conduct contrary to the spirit of football, to gain an unfair advantage.

As with cricket ball tampering, where better performance is not always guaranteed, winning a penalty kick may increase the likelihood of, but does not always guarantee a goal.

Indeed, referees and match officials have increasingly begun to caution players with yellow cards for diving. However, there is no universal football legislation which allows disciplinary authorities to impose retrospective sanctions for "diving". That being said, the English FA (among others) have recently introduced the practice of imposing "retrospective bans"37 for up to two matches for players caught diving in the English Premier League.

Cycling: mechanical doping

Mechanical doping38 involves the use of a motor, electromagnet or other device to power a rider’s bicycle.

On the face of it, "mechanical doping" in cycling does not seem like an offence that is directly comparable with ball-tampering in cricket. However, by analogy, the practice involves the unauthorised and artificial alteration of sporting equipment with a view to obtaining an unfair advantage.

Mechanical doping has generally been prohibited by the Union Cycliste Internationale (“UCI”) through its assertion of the principle of “man over machine” in its regulations, stating that bicycles should be “propelled solely, through a chain set, by the legs… moving in a circular movement, without electric or other assistance…39.

Additionally, the UCI specifically prohibits "technological fraud", or in other words, a bicycle that does not comply with UCI specifications. A cyclist found to have breached these regulations could be suspended for a minimum of six months and issued a fine of between 20,000 and 200,000 Swiss Francs (approximately £15,000 to £150,000). A team found to have breached the regulations could also be suspended for a minimum of six months and issued a fine of between 100,000 and 1,000,000 Swiss Francs (approximately £75,000 to £750,000).

Recently, a French amateur cyclist40, having pleaded guilty to "technological cheating", was not only banned for 5 years by the French Cycling Federation, but also sentenced to 60 hours of community service under French criminal law.

Therefore, while cricket might not consider itself a close cousin of cycling in terms of how each sport is played, the ICC ought to take a leaf out of the UCI’s book for the way it deals with mechanical dopers, by analogy.

Conclusion: should the ICC take ball tampering more seriously?

The ICC Code was implemented with a view to maintaining “the public image, popularity and integrity of cricket by providing: (a) an effective means to deter any participant from conducting themselves improperly on and off the "field-of-play" or in a manner that is contrary to the "spirit of cricket"; and (b) a robust disciplinary procedure pursuant to which all matters of improper conduct can be dealt with fairly, with certainty and in an expeditious manner41.

Sandpapergate raises questions as to whether the ICC has really achieved this objective.

Sandpapergate is proof that punishment administered for ball tampering does not effectively deter cricketers from compromising their own as well as the sport’s "public image, popularity and integrity". Had a harsher punishment existed, the Australians would, perhaps, have thought twice about their decision to tamper with the ball.

Additionally, had it not been for Cricket Australia’s swift intervention in imposing harsher sanctions, SS the captain would have merely forfeited his entire match fee (a pittance for a well-paid sportsman) and served a suspension for the fourth and final test match of the series; while Warner the vice-captain and Bancroft, the "ball-tamperer" would have escaped with paltry fines, although eligible to play the next test match, only a few days later. Surely the ICC ought have considered the pre-meditated nature of the players’ actions when imposing sanctions?

However, even the ICC have recognised the need to introspect, having discussed an imminent review of the ICC Code during a Board Meeting held in Kolkata towards the end of April 201842. The revised code, it is understood, is likely to impose stricter sanctions for ball tampering, among other offences.

This sentiment was echoed by Richie Richardson, former captain of the West Indies and current member of the "Elite Panel of ICC Referees", when he stated, “We probably need to look at it again. Let's be absolutely clear what we mean when we say ball tampering is not allowed. And what we mean by ball tampering43.

And so while the world awaits the ICC’s revised stance on ball-tampering, there seems to be a certain unanimity in that the ICC does not take ball tampering seriously, but more importantly, an acknowledgement that it should.

UPDATE–15 June 2018

On 11 and 12 June 2018 the ICC Cricket Committee held a two day meeting in Mumbai, India, where it was recommended, among others, that the ICC Code ought to be amended to raise sanctions associated with ball tampering.

As stated by Anil Kumble, Chairman of the ICC Cricket Committee:

"The group felt that excessive personal abuse and ball tampering were serious offences in the game and that should be reflected in the way in which they are dealt with...”

As noted in our article above, the ICC Board of Directors recently acknowledged the lacuna in the ICC Code of Conduct when it came to ball tampering and so it is encouraging to see the ICC Cricket Committee taking active steps to remedy this.

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Rustam Sethna

Rustam Sethna

Rustam is an Indian qualified lawyer and sports law paralegal at Mills & Reeve, Manchester. He has recently completed a Master’s degree in International Sports Law from Instituo Superior de Derecho y Economía (ISDE), Madrid (2018 edition) and has previously gained 3 PQE as an Associate with AZB & Partners, one of India’s leading full-service law firms.

Rishab Lingam

Rishab Lingam

Rishab is an Indian qualified lawyer and candidate for a Master’s degree in International Sports Law at Instituo Superior de Derecho y Economía (ISDE), Madrid. Rishab holds a BA LL.B degree from Symbiosis Law School, Pune.