July 6, 2014

Time to enforce Law 24

If umpires are allowed to judge every delivery on its merits, the problem of throwing can be solved

Law 24 is effectively defunct, but it shouldn't be © WICB

The ICC's Cricket Committee has been reviewing the current process of monitoring suspect bowling actions in international cricket.

The issue has been in the news thanks chiefly to the return of Shane Shillingford to the West Indies Test team. Shillingford was reported for a second time in late 2013 and was subsequently cleared conditionally in March 2014. One of his variations - the doosra - was found to be illegal. His offbreak and arm ball were cleared.

New Zealand, who faced Shillingford upon his return, were perplexed by this. Their coach asked the obvious, urgent question: "It's quite hard to see how they actually police that. It's all very well saying it, but do they call a batsman back if he bowls a doosra? It's going to be an interesting discussion with the match referee."

On the first day of that Test series, Jeffrey Dujon and Fazeer Mohammed were commentating as Shillingford first came on to bowl. They said on air that according to the officiating match referee, Chris Broad, should the umpires observe that Shillingford had bowled a doosra, they would "hand him his hat". Shillingford would not be allowed to bowl for the rest of the innings. Dujon wondered what would happen if a wicket fell on that first doosra.

This report of the match referee's view puzzled me, since the rules (see paragraphs 2.2.12 and 2.5) that govern the review process for a suspect bowling action do not contain any such provision. Law 24 governs the legality of a delivery. It includes rules for overstepping and throwing. The answer to Dujon's question is given here. Law 24 authorises an umpire to require that a bowler be withdrawn for throwing after two warnings. The umpire has to call the delivery on which the warning was given a no-ball. So the question of the batsman being dismissed off a doosra, in this instance, does not arise unless the umpire fails to spot it. Even so, this law provides no indication that such a bowler is to be treated differently from any other (and therefore, differently from how he was treated prior to being reported the first time).

The difference here, which was clarified to me by the ICC, is as follows. In this instance (a bowler who has partially failed a review and had a variation banned), the umpires are no longer checking to see whether or not each delivery is legal on its own terms. In the case of Shillingford, for example, they are simply looking to see if he delivers the doosra. This is how the rules govern a bowler who has been partially cleared.

As you must have realised, there are at least a couple of problems here. If an umpire is no longer examining the legality of the actual delivery but is simply looking for a specific variation, then is Law 24 actually being applied? The law allows any on-field umpire to rule on the legality of a delivery. How does a square-leg umpire identify a variation from 35 yards, if most batsmen can't identify it from 20? How does the umpire at the bowling end do this without performing the superhuman feat of simultaneously scrutinising the bowler's front foot and bowling arm? If the third umpire is to be involved, will he always be able to intervene in time? After all, for a bowler, it is an essential feature of a variation that it be as difficult to spot as possible. Realistically it seems far more likely that the present rules will only work if a banned delivery is bowled with regularity.

Let's consider a further scenario. Let's say Shillingford bowls a doosra, and at least one of the umpires spots it and calls a no-ball. Let's say that Law 24 is followed. Shillingford gets two warnings, bowls a third doosra, and gets thrown out of the bowling attack for the remainder of the innings. Remember, these are calls for throwing based not on the delivery itself but on the identification of the banned variation. Under the rules of review, a bowler called for throwing has to be reported for review. Two things are possible here. One, Shillingford fails the second review (in order for a report to be considered a second report, it has to occur within two years of the first report), and is banned from bowling for 12 months - not just the variation, but bowling altogether. Second, Shillingford passes the second review, in which case, his doosra will be cleared. In such an event, being thrown out based on the umpires identifying a variation would be unfair to Shillingford and his team.

There is, however, another sense in which Broad's reported approach may be reasonable. Law 42 governs unfair play in cricket. A bowler who deliberately bowls a variation that has been found to be illegal upon review is engaging in unfair play in the same way that a bowler who deliberately bowls a beamer is. Law 42 allows umpires to require that a bowler be withdrawn from bowling immediately if they conclude that the bowler had delivered a beamer deliberately. No warning is necessary. If Shillingford deliberately delivered the doosra, it could be viewed similarly.

There is one problem with this. The umpire is allowed to act against a deliberate beamer because such a delivery is deemed to be both unfair and dangerous (i.e. it can result in serious injury). It is hard to argue that a doosra is dangerous. Imagine a fast bowler's bouncer being banned in a similar way.

In practice, bowlers have not been called for throwing in international matches in recent years. According to an entry on Wikipedia, the last bowler to be called thus was Grant Flower in Bulawayo in 2000. It has been argued that umpires have stopped calling bowlers because the 15-degree rule makes any call of no-ball for throwing inevitably controversial. This is a misinterpretation of the 15-degree rule. Law 24.3, which defines a fair delivery, does not specify the 15-degree threshold. It only specifies: "A ball is fairly delivered in respect of the arm if, once the bowler's arm has reached the level of the shoulder in the delivery swing, the elbow joint is not straightened partially or completely from that point until the ball has left the hand."

The 15-degree threshold only exists because it has been found (also see the relevant appendix in the review regulations) that it is not possible for humans to reliably detect that "the elbow joint is not straightened partially or completely…" in real time with the naked eye if the straightening is less than 15 degrees.

This is the reason for the perception that most bowlers bowled with straight arms, when in fact they didn't. This threshold exists to provide a benchmark for technical review. There is no finding that says that bending the arm 16 degrees gives a bowler an unfair advantage, while bending it 14 degrees does not. In any event, the 15-degree threshold (much like the 15 overs per hour over-rate requirement) is a derived figure, not a measured figure. This threshold has to be met after the natural tendency of the elbow to hyper-extend along one or more axes has been taken into account. For some bowlers this tendency is more pronounced than it is for others. The obvious question a researcher looking into this problem might ask is whether something analogous to hyper-extension exists relevantly for sight? Are some people able to detect straightening much more readily than others? If one such person happens to be an international umpire, would he consistently call or report more bowlers than others?

Currently the ICC has basically set aside Law 24 when it comes to throwing. Under this Law, umpires must call a no-ball if they think a bowler is throwing. This might be easier if they could simply look at each delivery on its own terms and have their expertise in the matter trusted. Backed by the review process, this would be a better system.

Currently, a bowler who gets reported could well ask why he has been reported, given that he was not called on the field. Perhaps one way for the ICC to curb the perceived proliferation of bowlers with illegal actions in international cricket would be to actually apply Law 24 as it is written, and explain to the cricket-watching public that throwing is a technical violation and not a moral one. Chuckers are not cheats. Not until it has been established that they are in fact chucking. But they ought to be called for throwing if cricket wants fewer chuckers in the game.

Kartikeya Date writes at A Cricketing View and tweets here