November 22, 2004

The walking minefield, and cricket's Iraq

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Tuesday, November 23, 2004

12.40pm IST - Not a crusade, just a bit of a chat

Adam Gilchrist is one the most entertaining batsmen in world cricket, and he has just added an extra dimension to the joy he provides, by asking opposition batsmen to walk when they have nicked a ball. He did it to Mohammad Kaif a few days ago during the Indian tour, and he has just done this again to Craig McMillan, in Australia's first Test against New Zealand. His actions have provoked howls of outrage everywhere, with Stephen Fleming, New Zealand's captain, accusing him of being on "a crusade", and Craig McMillan berating him for "being a little bit righteous".

Frankly, I don't see what the fuss is about. Gilchrist is not actually making a demand that all players must walk when they're out - as his own team-mates have testified, he doesn't even expect it of them. All he's doing is having a bit of a chat. It puts pressure on the batsmen by distracting them, and tests their mental resolve. It is entertaining for all around, and as long as it doesn't degenerate into ugly sledging, which the Australians seem to have renounced of late, it is good for the game.

McMillan is within his rights to stay at the crease when he nicks. Equally, Gilchrist is within his rights to suggest that McMillan walks, or takes some batting lessons, or takes up an alternate profession, or goes home to mama. I am all for a zero-tolerance policy on sledging, but this is not sledging, it's good-natured chat.

The interesting thing, though, is that if Gilchrist had actually asked McMillan to take batting lessons or go home to mama, McMillan would not have made such an issue of it. He would easily have withstood a taunt on his ability, but he has been provoked by an appeal to his conscience. Why is that, I wonder.

Also read: My earlier post on walking and morality in cricket, "Do the right thing. But what?"

Monday, November 22, 2004

2.30pm IST - Legalising chucking? Not quite

Cricket has an Iraq, and it's called chucking. No issue has polarised the cricketing world as much as the issue over throwing, earlier centred around the figure of Muttiah Muralitharan, now focussed on ICC's proposed rule changes on the subject. The likes of Bob Woolmer, John Buchanan, Glenn McGrath and Jason Gillespie have spoken for the rule changes, recommended by a panel comprising such eminences such as Michael Holding, Tim May and Angus Fraser. Ex-players as renowned as Javed Miandad, Ian Botham, Allan Border and Ian Chappell have spoken out against it, Chappell in reaction to my own comment on the subject. But if we look closely, both sides have the same aim in mind: making sure that no bowler takes undue advantage of the laws, and removing chuckers from the game. Then why such fury? I believe it is because there has been a fundamental misunderstanding of what the ICC's findings imply. Allow me to address some of them.

Misunderstanding one: The ICC is accusing many great bowlers of being chuckers in order to protect Murali
The bold headlines everywhere (such as our own "ICC study reveals that 99% of bowlers throw") simplified matters too much. The ICC never said that all these bowlers throw. It is merely saying that what constitutes a chuck, or an illegal delivery, needs to be redefined. This is because the process of bowling involves an involuntary straightening of the arm in most bowlers, which is something that the eye cannot detect, and that the bowler cannot help. The degree to which that straightening occurs, according to the ICC's expert panel, is 15 degrees. Anything up to that level, thus, should not be considered an illegal ball, and the law should be modified to take that into account.

Misunderstanding two: The ICC is going to allow people to chuck
If straightening the arm upto 15 degrees is involuntary, where does the question arise of the ICC allowing anyone to throw the ball. The logic behind the rule-change is to separate involuntary straightening, that most bowlers do, from voluntary and unfair straightening of the arm. By removing the flaws, and the ambiguity, within the law, the ICC is ensuring that the rulebook is fairer, and easier to enforce. The law does not make it possible to chuck; on the contrary, it makes it easier to detect chuckers.

Misunderstanding three: The ICC cannot police this issue now
The ICC can monitor illegal bowling much better now that there is clarity on what an illegal delivery actually is. While their intent is correct, though, their method of doing so is cumbersome and long-winded - although no worse than before. Once an illegal delivery has been defined, the ICC needs to be able to monitor it in real-time, on a ball-by-ball basis. This need not involve slowing up the game with replays. Instead, technology can be devised that can determine the degree of straightening as soon as the bowler has finished bowling.

One example of how technology can solve this problem is Subra Srinivasan's suggestion to me a few posts ago about how the elbow protector that so many players wear can be converted into a device that tracks straightening, with three tiny sensors on it which feed data to a hand-held device with, perhaps, the third umpire. (Read his suggestion in more detail here.) It would be light, and would not impede the bowler in any way; and it would give us the bowler's degree of straightening in real time. Thus, just as in many Tests we get to see the speed of the ball as soon as it has been bowled, we can also see the degree of straightening. One strike in a game, you get a warning, three strikes and you're out of the Test. Two Tests like that and you get a six-month ban. The ICC needs some technology of this sort, accompanied by strict regulation, to bring back its credibility on this issue.

The fog around this issue is a remnant of the clouds around Murali's action. As I have elaborated upon in the past, the documentary that Murali shot with Channel 4 proved one thing without doubt: that there was an optical illusion in his bowling. He appeared to be throwing with the brace on, when he clearly couldn't have been, and thus the fact that he appeared to be throwing in match situations could not be construed as evidence on its own. What other evidence was there? His detractors pointed to the 14-degree straightening that the ICC had detected in his doosra. They ignored the optical illusion that is demonstratably involved, and assumed that the 14-degrees of his doosra corresponds with how much he appears to be throwing. They are, thus, understandably, confounded by the finding that so most bowlers straighten their arm to a similar degree. The important fact here is:

If Murali actually straightened his arm as much as he appears to be doing so, his degree of flexion would probably be 30 or 40 degrees.

But he doesn't. And what is Shoaib Akhtar's degree of straightening? What of Brett Lee and James Kirtley? The good thing about the direction that the ICC is moving in is that all of this will soon be clear, hopefully on a ball-by-ball basis. On this issue, there will be an end to ambiguity. It will be a seminal development.

Amit Varma is managing editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India.

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