Spitting Feathers? The Saliva Issue And Recreational Cricket

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

23 comments

  • If compromise was possible the Govt and ECB would’ve surely come up with it already. The truth is non professional sport is at the bottom of the pile and they’re killing grassroots sports by pure inactivity

    • They aren’t killing it at all. It’s dying anyway and it isn’t safe. The fact idiots are acting now like it’s safe isn’t a reason to play cricket

  • So if the ball is “a natural vector” for CV, Why can they play a Test Match but not recreational cricket? Money presumably, because however good your safe practices are, players handle the ball in all forms of cricket. It also seems odd that you can now get legless in the pub, but can’t watch a cricket match or indeed have a swim or gym session, all of which are far easier to police than the pub or restaurant.

      • This. Totally different from any pro sport. Just because they are being stupid and opening up too quickly while we are still at 150+ dead a day and a R rate rising doesn’t mean we should add to the problem by playing cricket

        There won’t. R anything meaningful now as few teams will be able to put out anything like normal sides so it’d be a joke

  • How exactly can it be “safe” to play basketball or volleyball but not cricket? It doesn’t make any sense, and it isn’t meant to.

    If cricket balls are such a vector for viruses, how come there wasn’t a decimation of the cricketing world in the great flu outbreak of 1958? Or maybe viruses are different now to just over half a century ago?

    The problems are being caused by a government-imposed lockdown, not by a “virus” or a “global pandemic”. This distinction must be made at all times.

    As for the issue at hand, I’m not bothered by banning spitting on a cricket ball. It’s odd it was ever allowed really. I am bothered about the creation of a mindset that anything produced by the human body is some sort of toxic bio-weapon and anything produced full of big pharma chemicals (like wax or whatever) is automatically good for us. We need to be exposed to bacteria or our immune systems will collapse. However nobody can moneytise the human immune system.

  • “I am bothered about the creation of a mindset that anything produced by the human body is some sort of toxic bio-weapon…”

    This. If a cricket ball is such an excellent ‘vector for disease’ – what a bloody sentence – then how on Earth did we cope with the sordid little germ sphere before this crisis? So far we’ve been presented with no evidence that cricket balls are any more a ‘vector’ than beer glasses or protesters placards. The whole thing seems entirely too arbitrary. The ECB needs to step up and do some bitch-slapping.

    Reply moderated
    • The truth is the ECB doesn’t care about recreational cricket. It’s not that bothered about County cricket either.

      Reply moderated
      • That was true before the appearance of this wretched virus but it will be even more truth afterwards

        (sorry. Didn’t intend to report – hit the wrong button)

  • I really hate to say it, as I want cricket to resume as soon as possible, but other sports don’t involve multiple team members applying saliva to the ball. That’s the big problem here. It’s not really the ball that’s a vector for disease but the saliva on it.

    I think we need to try recreational cricket with a saliva ban and see how it goes. Umpires could also take a cloth and a bottle of 70% alcohol onto the field to disinfect the ball now and again too. This shouldn’t alter the state of the ball in the same way as wax or polish. I imagine it’s just like water.

    If these measures are in place then I don’t see an argument to prevent cricket’s return imho. And I say that as an (occasional) seam bowler who always licks his fingers before he runs in to grip the ball comfortably. If I can’t do this for a while then tough shit. There have to be sacrifices to get the game on.

    • To echo the comment by one of the ball maufacturers, I don’t see the big necessity of saliva. I was taught that swing is primarily a function of one side of the ball being shinier than the other–therefore the necessity is simply to shine it. It doesn’t matter what with. I don’t remember palyers when I was growing up applying saliva to the ball–they just shined it on their clothing.

      There are also other factors that influence swing which aren;t going to be in the least bit altered by lack of saliva. It’s not going to change the amount of cloud cover or your bowling action!

      • Yes but saliva is the most readily available substance cricketers instinctively use to help shine the ball. They don’t just rub it on their clothing to shine it; they apply saliva first. But it’s not just shining. Bowlers lick their fingers (like I do myself) to grip the ball and feel comfortable with it in their hand. As I say above, I think cricket should go ahead with a saliva ban in place (i.e. it’s just tough shit on the bowlers) but I don’t think it’s quite as simple as everyone seems to think. I don’t accept the basketball etc comparisons because the issue isn’t just touching the ball, it’s the touching of a ball which could be carrying multiple people’s saliva. It’s a unique situation. I can’t think of another sport in which saliva is used so frequently and applied directly to the ball.

      • I haven’t checked old footage but I don’t remember bowlers using saliva to grip the ball either–I remember them wiping their fingers on the ground.

        Clothing is also a readily available substance unless you’ve been watching Naked Test Cricket (copyrighted Tom Harrison, before you get your grubby little mitts on it…)! Saliva is just a trend I think–which means it can be untrended. Unless I’m misremembering, it wasn’t the instinctive response bowlers had to shining the ball a few decades ago–it was literally just on clothing.

        • Many people I’ve played cricket with put their fingers in the mouths before shining the ball. They use saliva on their fingertips to rub off dirt etc. It’s precisely why professionals like Du Plessis and Dravid were caught sucking sweets, and why the likes of Tubby Taylor chewed gum on the field. They’re deliberately sweetening their saliva because it results in a better shine when applied to the ball. The England players all used jelly beans at one time.

          Here’s the footage of Du Plessis. The only reason this was ball tampering is because one can actually see the sweet in his mouth. It’s common for players to do this. The second one (below) is Rahul Dravid using sweetened saliva.

  • As long as the people playing cricket are not at serious risk from a flu virus, of which Covid is a pretty mild form, I don’t see the issue. If people get it most seem to shrug it off in a few days and as long as they quarantine themselves as required then you have the antibodies which are as effective as a good vaccine. Boris’ experts have been saying this for a while now. To me it just seems a natural form of coping with any virus. It’s the fact of carrying the disease without knowing that we need to sharpen up on, just by being more considerate to those around us who maybe a risk. However now we can get tested at will this should not be so much of an issue. With no vaccine on the horizon this could be our best defence.
    Spit and sawdust has been a part of cricket as long as I can remember. If you’re going to open up pubs, clubs and cinemas I don’t see how playing cricket is going to raise the death toll any more than them.

    • No covid19 isn’t a form of flu virus it’s different, although it shares similar early symptoms. The problem is it’s far more virulent than flu to people who have other health problems, respiratory particularly, and who are 75+ and unfit. It attacks the lungs far more than flu which is why there are a lot of cases on ventilators. However, no one yet knows that if you’ve had symptoms you get an immunity like the flu for 12 months or so. If you don’t get an immunity then this will be unique among viruses. And this medical information largely comes from a medical friend from Argentina.

      If people can flock to beaches in their 1000s, protest about statues without distancing, go to the pub, restaurants, hairdressers etc. I cannot see how the risk of a swim in a pool, a gym session, visiting your aged parents, watching or playing a cricket match or indeed sending all children (extremely low risk group!) to school is deemed more risky. It defies logic and quite frankly is idiotic.

      • If we had a vaccine available, like we have for most other flus there wouldn’t have been anything like the present problems. All flu is potentially lethal to those with respitory and diabetic issues, it’s just that previous virus’s have had vaccines available to mitigate this. Every year thousands still die in this country from issues exacerbated by flu. Statistically children are low risk in terms of ending up on ventilators. Very few young people have died in this country during the pandemic, which is now believed to have started during the winter, it just wasnt recognised at the time and almost all young fatalities have had other health problems.
        The problem long term is tactical. Do we allow people to get the virus, from which the vast majority will recover pretty quickly and create immunity that way, or do we continue to restrict people’s lives while we wait for a vaccine and create a huge economic hole whose effects will last many years. Whatever the politions decide they’ll be criticised for it by the freedom without responsibility lobby, including the media, who have hardly covered themselves with glory these last few months. This created uncertainty and panic initially which has now morphed into a very dangerous indifference as many believe the whole affair has been exaggerated.
        It’s really a question of consideration for others as so many who are carriers without realising it that they are bound to come into contact with high risk groups and spread the infection that way. For me this is nub of the issue as society is opened up for business almost as usual.

  • Maybe the thing to do would be create a small list of substances that can be used to enhance the polishing of the ball (it being made of leather, red shoe polish, applied by means of a rag, would be an obvious option), and make it very clear that while limited efforts to improve it’s condition are permitted anything such as lifting the seam or scratching the surface with a bottle top that would damage the ball is out.

  • If you live in a protective “bubble” you have no immunity to anything when the bubble bursts, when you go outside of the “protection”. The problem here is of long term making; living in centrally heated double glazed houses, sitting on our bums watching TV, social media and video games, no exercise, people trying to keep their children constantly under wraps, the sueing culture because it’s always someone else’s fault, health and safety madness,etc come readily to mind. We have little immunity to anything, so when something like this hits, well. Ok most will survive, but what mum used to say was “a little bit of dirt does you good”. I now know what she meant. As for the cricket, or any sport, if you change it too much for me it’s not worth watching. Just look at the football, pretty much dross so far, no atmosphere. As for bio secure stadiums, oh please! I’d rather wait till at least we get to near normal, thanks very much.

  • There is a very loud minority who want amateur (forget pro stuff, totally different) cricket back and do not care one bit about the situation.. they simply care and think about themselves.

    Cricket isn’t as socially distanced as people make out when you consider umpires, blowers panting past them most balls, batsmen (panting and bowlers panting past them too), keepers stood up, slips and gully all close . That’s before you consider the Vector of Disease aspect. Then you have the act of getting 22 players, 2 umpires and 2 scorers (at least) to a game safely.. don’t forget groundsman. How do we ensure the toilets are safe? Teas ? WhT happens if it rains , where do people go ? Changing rooms …

    So many things people are jut shrugging off as ‘ I’m alright jack so we should csrry on as usual’.

    Playing anything meaningful is a joke for 2020 so it would be far better to accept it and just stipulate friendly cricket from whenever the govt allow.

    Our club alone puts out 4 saturday sides and whine directly asked the following the numbers tell their own story

    What games are you interested in playing in 2020
    1) everything
    2) league only
    3)friendly only
    4) short format adapted cricket (competitive)
    5) not interested for 2020

    Out of 54 active adult members we had

    1 x 6
    2 x 3
    3 x 12
    4 x 0
    5 x 27

    Rest didn’t bother answering

    I think that says it all really about this season. There is a large quiet majority who are missing the social aspect massively but who are NOT .. repeat NOT.. missing the actual game of cricket. That for me, is the saddest part.. we have a game that people don’t really miss playing .. probably explains why we “lose’ so many year on year.

    Ps – lots of players from various clubs ive asked directly simply don’t think it’s worth the risk for this season and aren’t missing the league games at all.

  • Still waiting to hear anything sensible on how they will allow games to go ahead once one of the players from either side gets Covid .. that means all 22 plus umpires and scorers will need to self isolate for 2 weeks.. so, that’s 2 weekends gone, 8 teams losing games …

    Also means that it’s nearly 25% of the ‘season’.. really really can’t see how anyone can seriously consider anything ‘competitive’ as meaningful .. it’s actually laughable if it wasn’t so selfish of them

  • The cricket ball isn’t a “vector of disease”, I don’t think anyone, either in SAGE, in DCMS or in the ECB actually thinks it is. This was just some nonsense that Johnson ad libbed, and now they’re having to figure out a way of getting past it without embarrassing him.

    Cricket is incredibly safe – we know that the virus spreads mainly through so-called “cluster events”, and the main transmission risk factors are the “four C’s”: confined spaces, crowds, close conversation and physical contact.

    Cricket contains none of these. The risk of outdoor transmission is virtually zero, transmission via briefly held objects like cricket balls is virtually zero. Thousands of cluster events have been analysed across the world, and ever single one occurred indoors. We could, and should, have been playing cricket for months now, as an activity its a factor of 10-1000 times safer than pretty much everything else we’re permitted to do from next Saturday.

    Secondly – the virus is actually at pretty low levels low in the general community – just 1 in 2000 people are thought to be infected. the chances of there even being an infected person present at a game. The risk of catching the virus from cricket is now lower than the chance of being run over when walking down the pavement.

    We’ve done a survey at both clubs I’m involved in – people are incredibly keen to get back. Looking at some other clubs surveys, and this is typical. There is a huge appetite to get out there and play whatever cricket is possible.

    We’ve currently rearranging all our postponed fixtures for a 2-month season, from mid-July to mid-September. We’ve moved from 2 games a week to 4 games a week. We anticipate there being a significant waiting list for every game.

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