Simple and subjective? Or complex and objective?

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Thursday, November 25, 2004

3.45pm IST - The choice before the ICC

Many of the topics I have written about in this blog are deeply polarising ones, and have earned me a flood of emails, both for and against my arguments. I argued for the use of technology in umpiring in a three-part series (click here, here and here). I argued for the latest rule change the ICC is recommending (click here and here), and supported Muttiah Muralitharan in his battle to be vindicated (click here). And had this blog been around a decade ago, I would also have been a strong supporter of the Duckworth-Lewis system, which was a vast improvement over previous ways of determining the result of a truncated game. All of these issues have the ICC at their center, and strong views on both sides of the debate.

A fellow blogger, J Ramanand, points out what all these controversies have in common. He writes: "The larger question ... is: how do we find a middle ground where players and umpires don't feel threatened by the advent of technology while the administrators can come up with rigid definitions that can handle all cases thrown at it?" He sums it up beautifully by saying that the battle is between those who want "simple and subjective" solutions, and those who prefer "complex and objective" ones.

Hit on the head, the nail wobbles. I have been too dismissive of some of my opponents in recent posts, especially on the issue of technology in umpiring, where I have called them Luddites, a description that has offended some people, and was, I now realise, too harsh. While I believe that most of the common arguments against technology are logically flawed, the viewpoint behind them is reasonable: "give me something I can understand". Followers of the game want it to be explicable to them - thus the opposition to Duckworth-Lewis, which is almost incomprehensible to most of us, requiring charts and complex calculations.

So what is the road ahead for the ICC on the issue of chucking? "Simple and subjective" is not acceptable, because "subjective" is just not good enough on this issue, and can breed injustice. And "complex and objective" is facing opposition, because people are uncomfortable with technology they don't understand completely, and science whose findings can be counter-intuitive. So here's what the ICC needs to do: go for objective, and make it simple.

Most people are just bewildered by what the ICC's findings now indicate. How can bowlers like Glenn McGrath and Shaun Pollock, as well as greats like Dennis Lillee, Richard Hadlee and so many others, all of whom have such lovely actions, actually be straightening their arm to ten degrees or more? Why is straightening of the arm something involuntary? What is the difference between hyper-extension, abduction and adduction?

Is it possible that all these things are so complex that they cannot be explained? I do not think so. Michael Holding, who holds such strong views on chucking, was part of the six-member panel who spoke to scientists, and he came away convinced, saying "The scientific evidence is overwhelming. When bowlers who, to the naked eye, look to have pure actions are thoroughly analysed ... they are likely to be shown as straightening their arm. Under a strict interpretation of the law, these players are breaking the rules. The game needs to deal with this reality and make its judgment as to how it accommodates this fact."

Angus Fraser, another member of the panel, was equally impressed with the evidence, which indicates that the findings of the scientists can be demystified for the layman. The ICC should make an effort to do just this, so that people at large grasp the nuances of the issue - they will only trust the science involved if they first understand it.

There are many awkward questions that remain to be answered on this matter, and the ICC must not assume that because they run the game, they owe no explanations. Greg Pike wrote in to me with one such example: if the ICC is saying that straightening the arm up to 15 degrees is involuntary, how is it that the straightening involved in Murali's doosra actually came down after remedial action was taken, thus indicating that there was something voluntary about it? This, in turn, raises many other questions.

Is it possible be determine if a bowler's straightening is voluntary or involuntary? If Bowler A's threshold, uptil which he involuntarily straightens the arm, is 15 degrees, and Bowler B's is six degrees, should Bowler B be allowed to straighten his arm uptil 15 degrees anyway? Why should an illegal delivery be defined by what is fair for a bowler, and not by what is fair to a batsman?

Even if the difficult philosophical issue of defining an illegal delivery is resolved, how will the ICC police it? And if they do figure out a way to enforce their laws in real time, can they make sure that their enforcement extends to lower levels of the game as well? Murray Buzza wrote in to say, "If ... the naked eye cannot discern straightening up to 15 degrees, and umpires do not feel that they can call a player if they do discern it, by how much will youngsters coming up through the ranks be actually breaking the law? If that is the case, by the time they get to a level where technology will be involved their actions may be too entrenched to be able to change them."

All these questions must be honestly answered. In fact, the ICC must begin a dialogue with, and win over, prominent opinion-makers in the game who have questioned these new findings, such as Ian Chappell and Allan Border. They articulate the worries of millions of cricket lovers, and can assuage those fears. If Holding and Fraser were convinced by the scientists' presentation, then surely so can these gentlemen.

Step one: make it simple, win over the critics. Step two: get rid of those bowlers who are then found, conclusively and objectively, to be breaking the (new) laws. Step three: get on with the game.

Amit Varma is managing editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India.

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