Zoom in cricket

It was always difficult to portray cricket to the remote viewer because of the distance between the middle, where the serious action takes place, and the boundary edge. That is why action shots of the early players tended to be staged, with the result that they appeared anything other than natural, while the athletic grace that is such a feature of cricket is missing from those early pictures. The players show all the athletic grace of wax dummies.

Then came the Great War, and with it a major advance in the means to capture photographic images from long range. Many benefits derive from military necessity, but one of the most unlikely ones was the ability to photograph cricket in close-up. The generals, some way behind the front line, appreciated the value of good reconnaissance photographs, but found that improved antiaircraft fire meant that members of the Royal Observer Corps had to fly higher and higher if they wanted to return to base unscathed.

If those generals back at HQ were to get the photographs they wanted, longer-range camera lenses had to be developed. Both sides rushed through programmes to meet the demand, but it has to be said that the Kaiser’s men were very slow to realise the potential for applying their work to cricket!

Their successors in the Luftwaffe had an even more detrimental effect on cricket photography. Between the wars, photographic rights at Test grounds were sold to two agencies. Sport and General were the organisation that officially had all rights at Lord’s and Headingley, but a German bomb destroyed their archive during the 1939-45 war.

Not everything was lost, however, because while the official agencies operated inside the grounds, unofficial photographers perched themselves on buildings outside the perimeter. Using what were in some instances actual pieces of ex-military equipment, they could shoot the action through what were known as ‘long tom’ lenses.

Still photography has developed rapidly in recent years, with glass plates giving way to digital images and zoom lenses producing photographs of breath-taking clarity. There has been a parallel development when relaying the moving picture. Instead of the jerky images in grainy sepia, we now see television pictures from around the world in perfect colour and from every conceivable angle.

Apart from the spectacular imagery that is broadcast onto television screens, the effect of the new technology has allowed a much closer insight into the subtleties of cricket. The high-powered zoom lenses take the viewer from his armchair into a very privileged position right in the middle of the action. It means that the intricacies of the game for so long shrouded by distance – can now be observed, and with increased insight comes enhanced enjoyment.

The advantages of such close encounters available through these zoom lenses, while appreciated by the viewer, have not always met with the universal approval of the players. There are occasions when they might feel that the cameras are intruding into their private space. Naturally such sentiments are particularly prevalent when the players are caught transgressing, but the expression “trial by television” does have some justification.

One of the first such cases occurred in 1992 when Pakistan visited England. Ball-tampering had been known to exist to varying degrees ever since bowlers had tried to make sure the condition of the ball was most favourable to them. When it is within acceptable bounds, little notice is taken of it. However, if it gets out of hand something has to be done.

The two fast bowlers, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, were at the peak of their powers, getting the ball to move considerably and at great pace. Fulsome praise was paid to their abilities – until the television cameras zoomed in on the state of the ball. So tight was the closeup, it was evident that when the bowler was supposedly polishing the ball, his index finger was working away furiously at scratching the surface.

The authorities reacted by bringing in procedures whereby the ball had to be returned to the umpire, both at the fall of a wicket and whenever he asked to see it. That gave the officials the opportunity to monitor how the ball was deteriorating naturally, and to spot any sudden change that might have been attributable to outside influences.

It was a television close-up that brought yet another instance of ball tampering to public attention. It was a different type of work on the ball that embarrassed Michael Atherton at Lord’s in 1994 when England were playing South Africa. The example of Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram had shown that reverse swing was a potent weapon in the modern game, yet on the lush English outfield – it was not easy to get the ball into a condition that encouraged it to move in the required fashion.

To achieve reverse swing, one side of the ball should be weighed down with perspiration, while the other should be as dry as possible and preferably rough. To assist with this process, Atherton, the England captain at the time, was seen applying something to the ball, presumably to assist in this process. As soon as he was detected, the cameras zoomed in to show him taking dirt from his pocket and applying it to the side of the ball.

It was an action that cost Atherton £2,000. The match referee, Peter Burge, took no action against the England captain under Law 42.5 – using an artificial substance to alter the condition of the ball as Atherton said he had nothing in his pocket. He later admitted that he had been carrying some dirt to keep his hands, and the ball, dry.

Whether dirt was deemed to be an artificial substance in the strictest sense was never tested. Nevertheless, England manager Raymond Illingworth imposed the fine, stating that half was for using the dirt and half for telling a lie to the match referee. The South Africans made no official complaint and the umpires stated that the condition of ball had not been changed, but Atherton’s reputation was shot down in flames – just like some of those reconnaissance aircraft over the trenches 80 years earlier.