Yesterday the PM ruled out the imminent return of recreational cricket because the ball is a “natural vector” for coronavirus. This surprised me because I thought that COVID-19 was caused by bats. I’ll get my coat. 

Whilst this announcement has left many feeling disappointed (not to mention angry) there’s no doubt that the use of saliva to shine the ball is a problem area at all levels of cricket. So what can be done? William Buckingham investigates ….

Michael Atherton wrote in the Telegraph that Covid-19 could spell the end to neutral umpires. This got me thinking, what other aspects of cricket could be permanently changed as a result of Covid-19? Social distancing for fans? Unwieldy England training squads? Maybe for now but these probably won’t be permanent changes. Cricket’s hygiene though, is something, like neutral umpires, that could be changed forever.

Let’s get it straight, using saliva on a cricket ball, however effective at getting the ball to swing, is not a hygienic practise. Picture this: you are fielding at mid-off, there’s a dot ball, the keeper pops the ball to first-slip who throws it to extra-cover; extra-cover licks their finger, applies some saliva onto the ball, shines it, and then throws the ball to you; you, in turn, lick your finger and also apply some saliva onto the ball to polish it. You then put your finger to your mouth again to further shine the ball, succeeded by an underarm throw to the bowler – not forgetting the glare you receive from the bowler when your throw is not perfectly waist high.

All this is common practise, right? Yes, but it is not particularly hygienic. You have put your finger (that has just touched a ball covered in extra-cover’s gob) into your mouth. This exposes you to all kinds of germs – not exactly what you want in the middle of a global pandemic.

So what can cricket do? It seems sensible to simply ban the use of saliva when cricket recommences. But how will this affect the game? Although sweat (also used to shine the ball) has not been banned, bowlers fear that a game without saliva would mean a game without swing. And that, in the words of Mitchell Starc, would create “a pretty boring contest”.

But would it? Some people like Ian Chappell have controversially suggested that ball tampering should become legal during the pandemic to ensure a fair balanced between bat and ball. The fear, however, is that this would normalise cheating. Therefore, others are proposing the temporary use of ‘wax’ to replace our slobber.

Brett Elliot, the Group Managing Director of Kookaburra (the manufacturers leading the way with ‘wax’ innovation) describes the product that Kookaburra are working on as a “pocket size sponge applicator” that players can use to “apply a thin layer of wax which could then be rubbed and polished in the traditional manner”.

If the wet-wipes that I have used during my socially distanced nets over the past weeks can work to some extent, surely a group of scientific cricket nuffies with a bit of cash can make this wax work. Maybe this could even be a permanent replacement for saliva in these unprecedented (*cringe) times. After all, if Kookaburra’s ‘wax’ accurately replicates the impact saliva has on the cricket ball, why would we revert back to the less hygienic ptyalin and polish method?

Because Covid-19 has opened our eyes to the need for greater hygiene in many aspects of life, it’s possible that cricket could be changed permanently. I imagine many cricketers will think twice before slobbering on the cricket ball in future. Cameron Bancroft might even try to position himself as someone who was ahead of the times. “You can’t get Covid from sandpaper, mate”.

Equally though, the relative ease of using saliva as supposed to a waxy sponge (or any other substitute) to polish the ball, could see us revert back to our old habits pretty quickly. Saliva is readily available. A wax? Less so. What’s more, the umpires might have to supervise the use of any ‘artificial substance’. This is far from ideal for players – though I expect there to be some level of trust.

However, perhaps all this is simply overthinking things. Cricketers have used a variety of substances to surreptitiously shine the ball for decades including sun cream and sugar from sweets and chewing gum. Why not simply ban saliva and let cricketers get on with it? They might find other ways to swing the ball or make better use of the tools they already have.

What’s more, if maintaining a balance between bat and ball is the main concern in saliva-free cricket, then surely there are other ways to help the bowlers? Groundsmen could simply leave more grass on the pitch for example. This isn’t a perfect solution but it’s better than no cricket at all.

There’s just one more problem, however. Saliva isn’t only used to shine the ball. Indeed, it’s pretty integral to other aspects of the game too. Many finger spinners, for example, rely on saliva for grip. They often lick the tip of the index finger at the top of their run to help them grip and ‘rip’ the ball. Taking this away, however petty it may seem, could massively affect the quality of slow bowling.

Consequently, although social distancing shouldn’t be too much of a problem in cricket, banning saliva would create some problems. The habit (and ease) of using saliva could make a ban tricky to enforce.

Having said that it’s got to be worth a try. We’re living in imperfect times so we can’t expect cricket played in the middle of a pandemic to be perfect either. Saliva-free cricket, and even the prospect of umpires rubbing the ball with anti-vital wipes every other over, has surely got to be better than no cricket whatsoever.

If we want our game to survive in a COVID-19 world then compromises will be inevitable.

William Buckingham