December 22, 2016

John Lever comes back to Chennai

When he played in the city in 1977, he was called a cheat. Last week he returned in happier circumstances
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Lever in Chelmsford in 1969. The 1977 tour of India "wasn't the best of times I had on a cricket field" © PA Photos

In 1977, when John Lever played in a Test match in Chennai (then Madras), there was a huge banner in the stands that screamed: "Cheater Lever go home." To his surprise, when he waved to the crowd, they smiled and waved back at him. It was, he felt, as though they had nothing to do with the banner, which also demanded that Lever's captain, Tony Greig, return to England.

Nearly 40 years on, Lever, now 67, is sitting in one of those stands himself, watching KL Rahul and Karun Nair run his old team ragged in Chennai. Like many other former English cricketers - Middlesex batsman Clive Radley among them - Lever is in India with a tour group on a cricket pilgrimage. Not many in the crowd recognise him anymore, but those who do aren't waving hostile banners at him. The ghosts of the Vaseline affair, which haunted him on his first visit to the city, as a player, have long since been laid to rest.

"Coming here where it all happened, it wasn't the best of times I had on a cricket field," Lever says. "Now I can come back here and still enjoy this place. It's nice to be back in India. Having toured here a couple of times, I have enjoyed the place, I have enjoyed the people."

Did the recent ball-tampering controversy involving South Africa captain Faf du Plessis - he was pulled up for shining the ball with saliva while having a mint in his mouth - remind him of his own ordeal with Vaseline in Chennai? Lever believes ball-tampering should not be legalised, but says that one should be allowed to shine the ball.

Even with artificial substances?

He offers a counter: "You are smothered in sun cream for a start when you go out. Every time you do that (wipes forehead and brow) there is something going on the ball. I don't think it makes a huge amount of difference. As long as you are not finding a specific agent to put on the ball which will make it swing more, you are just shining it."

Lever feels the du Plessis controversy is a "little bit silly", and that it's much ado over a relatively small transgression. "But I don't know why he would deny it, because he was caught on camera chewing sweets and applying saliva on the ball," he says. "Just say, 'Yeah, I did that' and that's it. But as soon as you deny things like that, there's going to be all sorts of inquests going on and I can't see the point in that.

"Perhaps I am not one to tell him what to do, but I think everybody in the game will be thinking [what if] he had just got on with it and said, 'I was putting some saliva on the ball' and that's it. The transgressions in cricket - because of all the 20-odd cameras around the ground - look a bit [exaggerated]. They [the cameras] are always looking for something."

The Vaseline controversy happened in the days before wall-to-wall television coverage. In hindsight, Lever would rather have had the cameras around, as he thinks it would have cleared him of wrongdoing.

"In fact, what we had was very uncomfortable and it didn't work [to keep the sweat out of the eyes]. And that's why Bob Willis was the first one to take it [Vaseline-impregnated gauze strip] off and throw it on the floor. The umpires jumped on it, Bishan [Bedi] made the allegations that we'd been caught cheating. It would have been better if there were cameras all around to show exactly what went on. [Things like] the scratching of the ball to make it reverse swing… as I said before, I think there is far too many cameras on the field for you to get away with anything now."

Lever admits to having been upset with Bedi for having "taken away what I had achieved", and it wasn't until the '90s that they patched up. "I saw him in England when he had come over for a seniors' tour. He was past it, I was past it, and we were playing against each other," he says. "I don't think I was looking for an apology from him. I felt, 'This is silly, we are getting too old for this', and we shook hands and there was a happy ending."

In his cricketing afterlife, Lever has spent 14 years with ITC Sports Travel as a host, accompanying cricket tragics to different parts of the world. He is on his second such visit to India, and has also hosted groups to Sri Lanka, Australia and the Caribbean. Before the Chennai Test, Lever's group went to the games in Chandigarh and Mumbai. The core aspect of his job involves discussing the game and its finer points with fans over dinner and drinks.

Same city, different name: Lever in the stands at the 2016 Chennai Test Arun Venugopal / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

"At the moment there's only 11 of us here, but we had something like 30 in Mumbai, and in Chandigarh there were 20-odd. I come out and talk cricket, it's a little bit like talking to you really," Lever, whose day job is that of cricket master at Bancroft's School in Woodford Green, Essex, says. "We have state-of-play evenings where we all have a little drinks and dinner once in a Test match, and perhaps somebody from the media might come and talk as well - [Michael] Atherton or [Mark] Ramprakash or somebody like that."

Lever doesn't find watching cricket easy, especially when England are losing; he says it's as much a test of patience watching as it is playing. "The fans are so keen in their cricket, they want to ask questions. They want to know what happened when Root got out, what was the situation," he says.

"You see the way the commentators pull everything apart. Then you get a chance to do that. And as an England player, as an England supporter now, I find it very hard to criticise too much. It is not easy, but if you don't play well, then you have to say that."

It's not always about cricket, though. "This time we went up to Shimla, up to the hill side, and stayed in a couple of hotels there and had a great time," he says. "When you play cricket, you only see hotels and cricket grounds. To come back and do this, I have had a chance to see the rest of India, if you like."

Lever calls his job a "good holiday" to get away from the English winter. What has made the experience more fulfilling is the bond he has forged over the years with the fans who tour.

"They are mostly the same faces year after year," he says. "They have all been great fun. You end up becoming good friends. You start off the tour not knowing too many people, but at the end of the tour you are sort of exchanging telephone numbers, and you catch up with them at a Test match or a county game in England. They watch Test cricket and county cricket in England, so this is just an extension."

What's the most challenging aspect of the job then? "Keeping my wife out of the shops," Lever says with a laugh. "She does [travel with me regularly], yeah. She is back in the hotel, now looking for saree shops and anything else she can spend money on."

Arun Venugopal is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo. @scarletrun

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Jose on December 23, 2016, 15:04 GMT

    This interview with John Lever prompted me to reflect back on all the past performance by the Indian teams, over very many decades.

    Then alone one realises how much India has progressed and how good the current India team is. It is very heartening. When the players from the opposition teams (present and/or past), also acknowledge that, it adds even more value to their performance. Excellent, indeed!

    I certainly won't be surprised if the current India team do well even on those frontiers, where their predecessors hadn't done well before.

    I do agree that there had been patches of oases in those long stretches of deserts, like Wadekar & co's performance in England. I am expecting much longer & greener patches in the coming years.

  • Bala on December 23, 2016, 13:31 GMT

    You can control anything but the speculations, may be its something which is blared up each & everytime. I never have heard that shining the ball with the Saliva will bring you such a misfortune. When you are performing well, it adds more fuel to the fire. People , media etc would get fanatical in a an extreme.

  • Jose on December 23, 2016, 13:07 GMT

    One correction & in an interesting observation.

    Ref: Post on December 23, 2016, 11:29 GMT

    -

    Correction first: The "Emergency" was declared in 1975, and in fact, it ended in 1977.

    But the England team visited us during the fag end (but, peak) of the emergency.

    -

    Why did I say "adding insult to injury"? Here is it.

    We were beaten in the 1st test at Delhi by an Innings and 25 runs. 2nd one in Kolkata by 10 wickets. 3rd in Chennai by 200 runs. In the 4th, we bounced back by winning by 140 runs. All of it, with Bedi, Prasanna & Chandra in our team!

    The last (5th) in Mumbai, though drawn, was made memorable by Sunny Gavaskar, who made the only century in that match, from either side. & n India seamer (Ghavri) getting a 5-for on a pitch suited

    -

    Now, the interesting observation.

    It must be interesting to note, it was the home team which improved over the series, contrary to the general notion of the 'learning curve' helping the visitors to adapt, over passage of time!

  • Jose on December 23, 2016, 11:29 GMT

    1977 was a bad year

    -

    When the "Emergency" was declared in '77 by the one who ruled our country, it was bad enough to hurt the conscience of many of us.

    India losing to England, in pretty bad way, amounted to adding insult to injury, to many of us.

    When our Indian team suffered at the hands of the England team (in which John Lever was one of the key perpetrators) ...

    -

    Let me reflect...

    Approaching 40 and maturing as an Indian cricket fan, the way I felt can be described, in John's own words.

    -

    "... as an (Indian) supporter (then), I (found) it very hard to criticise too much. It (was) not easy, but if you don't play well, then you have to say that"

    Changes in brackets.

    -

    Fortunately, THEN (compared to in recent years), no one 'abused' me in my non-existing Facebook, calling me a traitor (or worse) which forced me to shut down my Facebook" account, a few years ago.

    May be, the passions for "one's own team" are much higher now than for cricket itself.

    I do understated.

  • Jose on December 23, 2016, 10:59 GMT

    "What's the most challenging aspect of the job then? "Keeping my wife out of the shops,"

    At the risk of my better half seeing this post and its consequences, I have to say that it resonates so well with many of us who travel (used to, in my case), just doing your duty, earning bread for all in your family!

    {}:-)

  • GV on December 23, 2016, 10:56 GMT

    That series was one of the lowest scoring series in history between any two sides, and Lever getting a bagful of wickets was not a very big deal. For a long time I used to wonder why even Gavaskar in home conditions averaged only 39, but after seeing a statistical piece in which this series came at the very bottom, it became clear.

  • Ketan on December 23, 2016, 2:48 GMT

    I remember John Lever growing up as a kid in Mumbai. Hated him because we lost the series with the huge margin because of him. I believe John Lever got a raw deal from the English selector. Hope he should have played more and contributed more to the cricket. At least his contribution to Essex is huge like Neal Foster, Naseer Hussein and Ronnie Irani.

  • S on December 23, 2016, 2:27 GMT

    @PATRICK_CLARKE. Please remember India used to lose badly to England during those days and bowlers like lever and willis would have done well even without the vaseline. For the first time thanks to this article I feel like saying to John Lever "Welcome to India John and have a good life".

  • auginp9597787 on December 23, 2016, 2:22 GMT

    Proof of the pudding is in eating.

    Lever could not do anything like that or even come any where near to what he did vaseline, after his vaseline strip was found.

    Please get real.

  • Sanjay on December 22, 2016, 21:32 GMT

    You often hear that cricket is a religion in India but there's more than a myth about that claim esp the one about a billion people following the game. In my own family, my Mother hates the game, I think most Indian women do for they see their males spend so much time on it.

    But I have no doubts that football is like a religion in England. For such a small country, the total number of professional clubs (90+), and the staggering match day attendances is proof. In many cities, there are multiple clubs situated just miles apart, and each having a significant fanbase.

    Cricket loses out to football in that regard and as @JB633 states, the lack of free to air TV is not helping a jot. However, I would like to see stats on how many homes in England have Sky or BT for it seems everyone has it these days. They're all watching footie on it and that's how the clubs pay their players the most outrageous salaries you can imagine. I don't think anyone should be paid so much, call me a red!

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