John Lever was majestic during the 1977/78 Madras Test, but while he added India to his list of conquests, he also caused a serious diplomatic incident.
Ten wickets (7-46 and 3-24) on debut in the first Test at Delhi. A couple more in the second at Calcutta. And after a first innings five-for (5-59) at Madras, England’s John ‘JK’ Lever was not only on the verge of bowling his side to a 3-0 lead in the five-Test series against India, but also of causing a serious diplomatic incident.
Lever, all flowing run-to-the-wicket and classical side-on, left-arm action, was swinging the ball considerably more than the home nation were able to cope with. It was something he did regularly for Essex, and India was fast joining Lever’s list of conquests.
By this stage India had already been seen off twice by Tony Greig’s tourists and were well on the way to decline in the third when ‘foul’ was called by one of the match officials. “It was on the third day of the Test match,” related umpire Reuban, standing with fellow umpire MS Sivasankariah. “I noticed a gauze strip lying on the bowler’s run-up which I picked up and saw it had a sticky substance on it.
“When I brought it to the notice of [Tony] Greig he told me it was Vaseline and had been used by the bowlers to prevent sweat from trickling into their eyes.”
India skipper Bishan Bedi – not a man to shy away from controversy – accused the England new ball pairing of Lever and Bob Willis of ball-tampering. It was the first time that the charge had been levied in the international arena. England wholeheartedly denied the charge and despite a strip of gauze reportedly being sent to a forensic laboratory in Madras for ‘analysis,’ the results to this day have never been published or charges upheld.
With 26 wickets at an average of 14.61 in the series, few could doubt who the real winner was. Lever went on to play 21 Tests and over 1,000 times for Essex in all competitions. He racked up the small matter of 1,722 first-class victims in a 23-year career, and few have enjoyed better sophomore series.
The last word on the subject belongs, as ever, to Tony Greig. Speaking as recently as this February, the now Australian resident stated that it was in no way the bowler’s fault that there were traces of an illegal substance used to shine the ball – that was down to an on-field decision, one taken to prevent salt from getting in the eyes of the quick bowlers: “In his wisdom, our physiotherapist decided that we should do what marathon runners do, that is put some Vaseline-impregnated gauze onto the eyebrows of the bowlers. By doing so, it would channel the sweat down the side of the eye, as opposed to allowing it to go into the eyes.
“Well, I can tell you that it was a very silly thing to do. 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 Bishan Bedi and his team’s eyes.
“Bishan was under a tremendous amount of pressure at that time because the team was 2-0 down, and after that Test match, three-down. There was plenty of speculation whether he would hang onto the captaincy. He was, I think, grasping at straws at that time. 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.”
First published in 2010