Save the doosra
As might have been expected, an entire nation has been roused to indignation over Chris Broad's decision to report Muttiah Muralitharan's doosra as suspect. To Sri Lanka, Murali is much more than the world's most prolific bowler: he is a national treasure, the axis around which Sri Lankan cricket revolves and, in a broader sense, a symbol of reconciliation and unity for a nation riven by sectarian violence. It is understandable that an aspersion on Murali's integrity is regarded in Sri Lanka as an affront to the nation. It wasn't much different in India when Mike Denness hauled up Sachin Tendulkar for picking the seam in South Africa.
It is crucial, however, both for cricket and for Murali, that the plot is not lost in an outpouring of nationalistic fervour. The situation demands restraint and rational action. To assign racial prejudice to Broad's decision, as Arjuna Ranatunga has so promptly done, is to confuse the issue. The Sri Lankan board has chosen the mature path by referring Murali's doosra to Bruce Elliott, the ICC-approved human-movement specialist who was instrumental in clearing Murali's action in 1996, but whose doubts over Murali's awaygoing ball might have influenced Broad's decision. Elliott is already on the record as saying that he will use a 12-camera system, shooting 250 frames per second, compared to the six-camera system, which shot 50 frames per second eight years ago.
It has become abundantly clear in recent years that naked-eye evidence is inadequate to judge the straightening of the elbow which contravenes MCC's definition of a fair delivery. It has been demonstrated, not to everyone's satisfaction though, that what appears simply isn't. Even slow-motion television replays of the same action have told different stories from different angles. However, the ICC's reporting structure still relies on the naked eye and television cameras. Broad is entitled to report what he sees, but if that is not enough, is it a fair enough process? Is it possible for the ICC to make available the kind of technology that scientists like Elliott use?
Murali has been found to have an 11-degree congenital deformity of the right arm - the sort of deformity that Shoaib Akhtar and Brett Lee, two other bowlers who have been reported and later cleared, have been shown to have in different degrees - that prevents him from straightening his arm fully. A significant section of the cricket community find this irrelevant because, as Mike Atherton pointed out a few months ago, "a partial straightening, by definition, is a throw" - and to Atherton's mind, "every delivery that Murali bowls involves a partial straightening of the arm". Bishan Bedi argues, not entirely without reason, that physical deformity cannot be used as an excuse to break the law.
However, it is clear that Murali's exceptional abilities as a bowler lie not in his crooked elbow, but in a highly elastic, almost rubbery wrist, that is capable of imparting amazing rotations onto the ball. It is not immediately clear if the doosra - by no means a new delivery - involves a further straightening of the arm, or merely a further manipulation of the wrist. In a law change in 2000, which seemed entirely designed to accommodate Murali, MCC held that the definition of a fair delivery "shall not debar a bowler from flexing or rotating his wrists in the delivery swing".
A high-profile case like Murali's is bound to be highly emotive, but the issue does not concern Murali alone. New scientific research now questions the very basis of fair deliveries, suggesting that it might be a biomechanical impossibility for fast bowlers not to straighten their arms prior to the delivery. According to a paper presented by Cricket Australia's sports science officer at the second World Congress of Science and Medicine in Cricket, 34 deliveries of 21 different bowlers in match situations showed some degree of elbow-straightening. This confirms the ICC's own research in the last couple of years, following which the ICC has included a 10-degree tolerance in the case of fast bowlers.
But evidence presented at the World Congress showed that 14 deliveries of the 34 analysed exceeded this threshold, thereby making it evident that a majority of fast bowlers throw, and demonstrating that there are no simple answers to the throwing issue. The tolerance level has been fixed at five degrees for spin bowlers, and it is not clear whether Murali's deviation falls within accepted levels.
Taking the argument further, and imagining the worst-case scenario that Murali's version of the wrong'un does indeed contravene the currently muddled laws, cricket needs to take a judgement call on what is in the best interests of the game. Not only Murali's doosra, but every offspinner's wrong'un is open to question. Daniel Vettori recently told The Wisden Cricketer that it was impossible to bowl the doosra legally. Bedi has said it repeatedly, and much more vociferously. Cricket needs to take a call on what the doosra means to the game. Laws are meant to protect the best interests of the game, not to tie it down in rigidity. MCC reacted in horror to the overarm delivery and John Willes, its first practitioner, was repeatedly no-balled, humiliated and driven out of the game. But the lawmakers saw the light soon and the game was revolutionised.
The humble doosra doesn't carry the same import as the overarm ball. But it enhances cricket. It has given a new dimension to offspin, and a fresh lease of life to offspinners who stood threatened by the heavy bats which carry even mishits over the fence. It adds allure and mystique to cricket and is great for spectators. Most law changes and technological advancements in the recent past have loaded the game in favour of the batsmen. They have been protected against the bouncer, both by law and by helmets, they have lighter pads and heavier bats, the field restrictions in one-day cricket are only to facilitate runscoring, and finally, the pitches these days are deliberately designed to suit the batsmen. Whereas the bowlers' only instrument, the cricket ball, has, if anything, had its seam depressed.
There is a compelling argument for preserving the doosra, even if it means tweaking the law.