Murali's redemption, and our arrogance

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Tuesday, August 17, 2004

9.40pm IST - What the chuck!

I received a number of interesting mails after my first post on this topic, about the rather convincing documentary Muttiah Muralitharan has made to prove his innocence, the nature of the optical illusion that his action creates, the unrelenting attitudes of both his supporters and his opponents, and the possible solutions to the whole issue of chucking. A lot of people agreed that Murali has done enough to be spared the trauma of repeated accusations; but a number of others raised objections that were reasonable and well argued.

Martin Brown, Arvind Sampath, Martin Bride and Chris Higginbottom all felt that bowling with a brace - and, thus, a legitimate action - for a documentary does not prove anything, because it does not mean that his action will remain in a match situation. Bride wrote, "If there was an inadvertent straightening that resulted from forces on his bowling arm the brace would prevent that from happening. Then, when he bowled without the brace, the same degree of straightening would occur."

Well, the documentary did prove one thing to me, that I had doubted earlier: that there is an optical illusion caused by Murali's bowling action. If he appeared to be straightening his arm with the brace on, when he obviously could not have done so, then the mere visual evidence alone, during a match, is not enough to convict him. It is not enough to exonerate him either, but we do presume a man innocent until proven guilty, and the fact that he appears to chuck is no case for the offence.

Another objection, raised by Vivek Shenoy and Prasanna Ganesan, is that he may have bowled his usual repertoire of deliveries cleanly during the tests, but he could still be chucking the odd ball during matches. Prasanna writes that the process of judging a bowler's action has "a fundamental flaw. It assumes that either a bowling action is flawed or it is not, and does not admit the possibility that a bowler can chuck the occasional ball without chucking all the time."

That's absolutely true - of any bowler. The effort balls of fast bowlers and the doosras of offspinners are often considered suspect, and this is a problem that the ICC will have to address at some point of time. Prasanna says, "In an ideal world, we would run an instantaneous test on every ball that is bowled to check whether it is a chuck or not. Technology to enable that seems far away. But the least we can hope for is to identify whether a ball is chucked or not from video footage of a match." I'm not sure if that is possible yet, given that a camera essentially throws up a two-dimensional picture that is often flawed, as in Murali's case, but I'm sure that if a bowler's action is covered from every angle, one can come to a judgement while accounting for optical illusions. In any case, that argument holds true for any bowler, so why should Murali be regarded with special suspicion?

The popular belief that Murali chucks is due to the optical illusion his action creates, but Arvind and Martin (Bride) also point out that his action for the doosra was, after all, found to be illegal recently, as per the current guidelines which define five degrees as the acceptable limit of flexion for spinners. The University of Western Australia, which came to this conclusion (and corrected his flex from 14 degrees to ten), also recommended that the ICC review their guidelines for chucking as they were flawed. If one accepts their authority for one observation, then why ignore the other one?

As the ICC recently admitted, some degree of elbow straightening has been detected in 99% of bowlers, including the likes of Courtney Walsh and Glenn McGrath. By the letter of the law as it has stood for over a century, thus, most bowlers are chuckers. In the light of this, the law clearly needs to be amended, and the ICC has tried to do just that, with its recommended guidelines of what degree of flexion is permissable. These guidelines, as Mukul Kesavan explains in the excellent piece that I linked to in my last post, are arbitary, and should be modified so that they are "uniform and enforcable".

The big question here is: what degree of flexion is acceptable? As Dave Richardson said, "Even a solid metal bar if rotated fast enough will display a degree of movement." Do we put the limit at the extent that is caused by these physical laws of movement and resistance? The opinion of the biomechanical experts, like the ones who made the recommendations of revisiting these guidelines, is critical here, and until the ICC delivers its judgement on this matter, and its rationale for that judgement, I'll remain an agnostic on whether 14 degrees is too much or not.

(Note that if you accept the report of the biomechanical experts that shows the flexion of the doosra to have been 14 degrees, you should also accept previous reports which have cleared Murali's offspinner and topspinner, and accept that the 500 or so wickets he took before he started employing the doosra are legitimate. Let's not be selective in our acceptance of the evidence here; that would be the confirmation bias at work.)

Among the others who wrote to me was Rajakumar, who said: "While the entire cricketing world was focussed on Murali's action, many of the fast bowlers have merrily chucked their way to glory and profit." Hmmm. Well, I have heard from reliable sources that a fast bowler whose name has been taken quite often in this context was found by the biomechanical dudes to have a flexion of forty degrees. This information isn't in the public domain yet, perhaps for political reasons, but clearly, something needs to be done about it. Whatever happens in that case, though, Murali deserves the benefit of the doubt.

Will he get it from the Australian prime minister? Theena writes to me: "I am going to sit back and wait for John Howard to amaze us with his cricket acumen if asked to comment on Murali's action. I wonder if he would say - 'Yes. They proved it on TV with that brace thing.'"

Now, wouldn't that be fun?

Monday, August 16, 2004

3.00pm - Facing up to the truth

It must have taken Murali a lot of courage to decide to do this: to put on a brace on his bowling arm that did not allow him to straighten it, and to go out and bowl, in front of television cameras covering him from various angles, the three staple deliveries in his arsenal - the prodigious offbreak, the guileful topspinner, and the controversial doosra. You had to wonder: was there ever a point in the last few years that the thought crossed Murali, "What if they are right? What if I really do have a problem with my action?" Here, in front of the cameras, with that brace on, there was no escape from the truth.

But Muttiah Muralitharan believed in himself; and now, so must we.

A couple of days ago I finally saw ESPN-Star's re-enactment of the Channel 4 documentary in which Murali bowls with an elbow brace on to prove that he doesn't chuck. I had read Mark Nicholas's account of shooting the original with Murali, and I was keen to see for myself if this really cleared things up. Frankly, despite being a cricket writer, there were elements of the Murali controversy which I never quite understood. If there was an optical illusion created by his unusual action, what caused it? What was this whole "degrees of flexion" business all about? How could Murali not be chucking when he appeared to be? What on earth did biomechanics have to do with it?

The show was anchored, with the zeal of a crusader rather than dispassionate neutrality, by Ravi Shastri. (Coincidentally, Shastri's company, Showdiff Worldwide, recently signed on Murali as one of its clients.) Sports presenters often go over the top, but that is a quality born out of neccessity, given that their job is to evoke drama even through the most banal passages of play. But what was on show here was hardly banal - the biggest cricketing controversy of our times was about to be resolved.

First, Murali (and the doctor who made that brace for him, Mandeep Dhillon) showed us what that birth defect was all about. Murali's bowling arm does not straighten fully, as all our arms do. Second, and far more pertinent, we got a close-up view of where the momentum comes from in Murali's bowling - not a straightening of the elbow, but an abnormal rotation of the shoulder-joint on its axis, far more than most people can manage. This gives him momentum and sets him up for the moment of delivery, when his unusually supple wrists impart prodigious spin to the ball.

And now for the elbow brace. Created by Dr Dhillon, it was made of steel rods held together by heat-moulded plastic, and both Nicholas and Shastri attested that you couldn't straighten your arm in it. Murali put it on, walked to the bowling mark, and proceeded to bowl each of the three types of balls he commonly bowls. They turned as you'd expect them to, though they were a bit slower - the weight of the brace would have accounted for that. Remarkably, despite the brace, it still appeared as though he was straightening his arm, even in the slow-motion replays - it was, clearly and uncontestably in this case, an optical illusion.

Our human illusions

An optical illusion is not a party trick - the mechanism behind it is central to how we perceive the world. Our faculties of vision make what is remarkably complicated - in terms of depth, colours and motion - seem beguilingly simple. As VS Ramachandran puts it in his wonderful book, Phantoms in the Brain:

Seeing seems so effortless, so automatic, that we simply fail to recognise that vision is an incredibly complex - and still deeply mysterious - process. But consider, for a moment, what happens each time you glance at even the simplest scene ... all you're given are two upside-down two-dimensional images inside your eyeballs, but what you perceive is a single panoramic, right-side-up, three-dimensional world.

Our brain uses a variety of short cuts to achieve this and one of those - to use layman's language - is a filling in of blanks. We do not view the 32 frames in a second of film as 32 separate images, but as one seamless sequence of motion, and we process the images in the world around us similarly. (The simplest example of this is how we fill in our blind spot with a continuation of the image around it; click here to find your blind spot and see how this happens.)

A classic illustration of this is the neurological condition known as motion blindness - people who suffer from this do so because of damage to one of the 30 (according to Ramachandran) areas of the brain that process visual information, the middle temporal area. The visual filling in that makes motion appears seamless does not happen in such patients, and vision consists of a series of still images for them; to go back to the analogy of watching a film, they see all 32 frames as discrete images.

Another shortcut the brain takes is of noticing just the salient points of an image, and filling in the rest with those. In Ramachandran's words, "redundant or useless information is discarded wholesale and certain defining attributes of the visual image - such as edges - are strongly emphasized. (This is why a cartoonist can convey such a vivid picture with just a few pen strokes depicting the outlines or edges alone; he's mimicking what your visual system is specialised to do.)" To see a wonderful example of how this works, click here.

So why is this relevant to Murali? Well, I believe that this filling-in process explains why he seems to be straightening his arm to us. Take two points: A is where his arm goes above the shoulder, and B is where the ball is released. (My example holds even if you take 30 or 50 or 80 points instead of two; for the purpose of clarity, I'm being simplistic here.) Now, our brains are not actually processing every bit of information that our eyes receive; instead, they are taking the salient features, and using them to fill in what we think we see, and they do this within the framework of what we already know about motion and the human body and the act of bowling.

Now, Murali's arm, shoulder and wrists all possess abnormal properties, which we do not take into account because they do not exist in that mental framework. The only explanation within that framework for how he gets from Point A to Point B is that he straightens his arm, and that is what we see - and even when he is wearing the brace and our brains knows that he cannot straighten his arm, we still see a chuck. (Note the example I've linked to in the last para, for example - even after I know that the guy on the left is Clinton, my eyes still see Gore. What we know does not control what we see.)

Here are a few optical illusions that demonstrate how our eyes are easily tricked by unusual elements in what we see, and that reveal some of the visual shortcuts we take: the Flash-Lag effect, Stepping Feet, Motion-Induced Blindness and the Poggendorf Illusion. One with particular relevance to cricket is the Motion-Bounce Illusion, which demonstrates that sound can actually determine what we see. An umpire could, thus, hear bat striking pad at the exact moment when ball passes bat, think it is an edge, and perceive a slanting away of the ball, caused by a continuation of late swing, as a deviation caused by bat hitting ball. That is plausible, and a common umpiring error.

Another optical illusion that causes umpires to make mistakes is the parallax error, relevant both for lbw decisions and third-umpire decisions on catches taken close to the ground. Humans aren't perfect, and what we see may not be what actually happens, especially when depth and rapid motion are involved, which is why I have always argued that umpires should use technology, whenever it is proved to be reliable, to help them in their decisions.

What does this say about us?

The interesting, and saddening, aspect of Murali's story is the collossal arrogance on both sides of the debate. Murali's opponents brushed aside all talk of an optical illusion, preferring to trust their eyes, while his supporters were just as convinced of his innocence, despite having, for much of this time, as little evidence to support them. Both sides had deeply entrenched biases - often on the basis of nationality - and they would both have determinedly ignored all evidence that suggested they were wrong. This is known in behavioural psychology as the confirmation bias - the tendency to take into account only the evidence that confirms our beliefs, while ignoring everything else.

None of us are immune to this: when we want to believe something, we'll find a way to do so, and there are so many conflicting facts in the real world that we'll always find a few that fit into our scheme of things. Conspiracy theorists, especially, display the confirmation bias. This kind of arrogance, that closes people to accepting that they might be wrong, is especially harmful in politicians, because their actions affect so many people. Australian prime minister John Howard's insensitive comments about Murali made sure that Murali opted out of Sri Lanka's recent tour of Australia, but far more harm has been caused in recent years by politicians with the best intent, but the most stubborn of biases.

Murali has cleared his name - I find it hard to imagine that anyone who sees the documentary can still believe he chucks - but questions still remain about chucking. Mukul Kesavan recently pointed out the loopholes in ICC's current system of having different tolerance levels for bowlers, and the ICC, to be fair to them, are aware that many ambiguities remain to be sorted out in the law and its implementation. Dave Richardson, the ICC's general manager, was recently quoted as having said, "We need to decide whether the current tolerance levels are appropriate. Is a throw defined by the point at which the bowler gains an advantage? Or is it when it becomes noticeable to the naked eye?" These are important questions to answer, and at least an effort is being made. As Frank Tyson explained in an excellent piece a couple of months ago, there are "no simple answers to chucking".

Let me, however, point out ways in which we should not proceed, even if they have popular support. It is not a solution to say that the chuckers should remain in the game because they are so attractive to watch, as Ian Chappell implied a few years ago, in the context of Shoaib Akhtar and Brett Lee. Angus Fraser recently wrote, "I turn up at cricket matches hoping to be entertained, and Muralitharan seldom lets me down. What if Muralitharan does throw the odd ball? Cricket is littered with bowlers with questionable actions, and he is not going to kill anyone."

This is anologous to condoning Mussolini because he had been a schoolteacher and journalist, or Idi Amin because he was a good boxer. If a bowler contravenes the law, he should be punished, regardless of what other qualities he may bring to the game. Mike Tyson has his redeeming features too, but he did go to prison after committing rape, and he darned well should have.

It is also not a solution to say that umpires should be empowered to decide on what does and does not constitute a chuck, and call accordingly. If there is one thing we ought to have learnt from Murali's case, it is that the naked eye cannot decide such things accurately, and that we are subject to falling prey to optical illusions. Umpires have enough of a burden on their shoulders, one that should be made lighter using technology. Until the technology develops to the extent that we can determine in real time if a player is bowling legally or not (whatever that then means), the current system, of a player being reported to the ICC and going through their review process, is the best one. Sure, the process needs to be transparent, and the science behind it needs to be better understood, and better explained to all of us. Also, we need to keep politics out of it.

Justice delayed

And what of Murali? This is a man with an extraordinary talent, a man we should have felt privileged to watch on the cricket field and yet, all these years, so many of us have called him a cheat. All of us who did so should hang our heads in shame. (I am doing so now, and looking at the keyboard instead of my computer screen.) And yet, at least it is over. Rohit Brijnath recently wrote:

A great ambiguity surrounds Muttiah Muralitharan; some paint him as sinner, others sketch him as saint. He is proof of wondrous skill for some and evidence of rules being conveniently bent for others; he is champion yet he is cheat. Argument over Muttiah Muralitharan is unending, it is alive with bias (both ways), and it is absent of conclusion except this: the page on his life will be marked with an asterisk. It suggests something villainous, and perhaps it does not.

Well, it's about time we removed that damn asterisk.

Amit Varma is managing editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India.

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