England have rejected ball-tampering accusations from one of their own, adding further spice to their crunch Champions Trophy group A match against New Zealand in Cardiff tonight (9.30pm NZT).
The accusations came from an unlikely source; the former England fast bowler Bob Willis, in the television commentary box. Willis said the reason one of the cricket balls was changed by the umpires during Sri Lanka's stirring run chase on Thursday was because England broke the rules.
"Let's not beat about the bush - [umpire] Aleem Dar is on England's case. He knows that one individual is scratching the ball for England - who I am not going to name - and that's why the ball was changed," Willis said.
That individual appears to be England all-rounder Ravi Bopara, who is the team's designated ball handler during ODIs. No official complaint has been lodged and no England player has been charged with any offence.
New Zealand have been caught up in the story, too. The Daily Mail reported New Zealand were concerned when Bopara was included in the England team for the third ODI at Trent Bridge on June 5. Bopara's former Essex team-mate, Tim Southee, reportedly told bowling coach Shane Bond about Bopara's shining skills and ability to prepare the ball to achieve reverse swing. The paper said Bond passed on these concerns to Dar before the Trent Bridge match, although Southee today said through a spokeswoman he knew nothing about what was reported by the Mail.
Reverse swing is a key weapon at this tournament as conventional swing has been almost non-existent, despite a new ball being used from each end. The dry pitch surrounds help scuff the ball up, which aids reverse swing later in the innings, but it's hardly an exact science. Altering the condition of the ball via scratching it or picking the seam is forbidden.
Australian skipper George Bailey said he was "very surprised" at how early the ball began reverse swinging during England's victory last Saturday.
Dar and New Zealand umpire Billy Bowden changed the ball at the halfway stage of Sri Lanka's ultimately successful run chase at The Oval on Thursday, after batsman Kumar Sangakkara complained. The official explanation was the ball had gone out of shape. England captain Alastair Cook remonstrated with the umpires at the time but their decision stood.
"Have you ever heard about the batting side or the umpire complaining about the shape of the ball? How naive does Alastair Cook think we are? He didn't want the ball changed. So why was it changed?," Willis said.
Bopara had the finger pointed at him in New Zealand in 2009 but match officials didn't pursue the matter. Former Central Districts coach Dermot Reeve claimed Bopara tampered with the ball during Auckland's victory in Palmerston North.
England coach Ashley Giles angrily denied Willis' claims as both teams prepared for their group A match which is a virtual quarter-final.
"No, we don't tamper with the ball. We play our cricket as hard as anyone else. All the headlines in the papers today are disappointing for us as a team," Giles said.
"There's even mention of one of our players, specific roles, and that player is an extremely good cricketer, has had an extremely good series so far, and we'd like to let him concentrate on playing his cricket as best as he can."
And New Zealand coach Mike Hesson wasn't about the light any fuses. Hesson told the pre-match press conference he had no concerns with England's ball preparation and trusted match officials to step in if anything untoward went on.
"I've got no idea how they [England] achieve reverse swing and that's not my responsibility. The umpires are there to do a job and if they think something is done out of the ordinary then they will deal with it," Hesson said.
Southee didn't train and is unlikely to play, Hesson said, as the paceman struggles with an ankle injury. But the coach was confident Southee would be fit for the semi-finals if they qualify. Grant Elliott (calf) was recovering well and was in contention to replace Southee, along with pacemen Ian Butler and Doug Bracewell.
A New Zealand victory would see them top the group and face South Africa in the first semi-final at The Oval on Wednesday. If New Zealand lose they could still go through as second qualifiers, and face India in Cardiff, but would need Australia to beat Sri Lanka on Monday. Afternoon rain is forecast, and a washout would also be enough for New Zealand to qualify.
"We've played England six times and it's three-all so we've had some pretty good contests. It's been a ding-dong scuffle with the white ball and I think both sides will enter tomorrow with a degree of trepidation, it's a quarter-final, it's a big game and I think we're very evenly matched," Hesson said.
HOW THEY LINE UP
New Zealand (from): Martin Guptill, Luke Ronchi, Kane Williamson, Ross Taylor, James Franklin, Brendon McCullum (captain), Daniel Vettori, Nathan McCullum, Kyle Mills, Mitchell McClenaghan, Doug Bracewell, Ian Butler, Grant Elliott.
England (from): Alastair Cook (captain), Ian Bell, Jonathan Trott, Joe Root, Eoin Morgan, Jos Buttler, Ravi Bopara, Tim Bresnan, Stuart Broad, Graeme Swann, Steven Finn, James Anderson, James Tredwell.
- Fairfax Media
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