Wanted: a radical rethink on suspect bowling actions
Muttiah Muralitharan: 'not an outlaw technically speaking, but just an unusual human being'
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Whisper it softly, but cricket is on the verge of destruction. Fifth-columnists are bringing the game to its knees, distorting records, and cheating the public. We -- the faithful -- must react by any means necessary to rid our sport of this cancer. Indeed, we must over-react --because that is what the sages and the administrators want us to do. We must, we are being told, reclaim our game from the filthy ravage of chuckers and throwers, cheats and necromancers, who are as bent as their elbows.
Bobby Simpson -- neatly before Australia's trial by Murali -- demands action, as does the ICC with statements and a reconnaissance unit at the Under-19 World Cup. With Bishan Bedi singing his favourite tune as well, you might think that cricket's edifice is about to be destroyed. Excuse me for dissenting, but this criminalisation of bowlers is starting to grate. This is a witch-hunt that Joe McCarthy, the zealous American anti-Communist senator of the 1950s, would have been proud of. It is one that I would suggest is just as abominable.
ICC's stance on throwing is flawed for four central reasons. The first is familiar to epidemiologists and statisticians: increase monitoring, screening, and awareness of any particular condition, and the rate of detection will inevitably rise. More people have a diagnosis of cancer now because we have more comprehensive and sophisticated methods of detection. More children are diagnosed with autism because doctors are more aware of the diagnosis. Throwing is no different. Our apparent modern-day epidemic is more to do with what can be detected by super slo-mo and square-on cameras than with a genuine increase in bowlers with bent arms. Why should today's cricketers be penalised for playing the game exactly as it has always been played?
Next there is the issue of defining normality. Shoaib Akhtar and Muttiah Muralitharan are perhaps the two most exciting and destructive bowlers on the planet. Yet both are abnormal by some definitions -- Shoaib with hyper-extensible joints and wide carry angle (elbow) that place him outside the letter of the law but within the spirit of it, and Murali with a fixed-flexion elbow deformity that means he is not an outlaw technically speaking, but just an unusual human being. Yet both are easy targets for cricketers past and present who are blissfully ignorant of the rules of the game they claim to have mastered. Nonetheless the trauma of the bowlers' experiences reveals that the rules are ill-designed to cope with natural human variation. It's also abnormal to have the wrist power of VVS Laxman or the height of Joel Garner, but no-one suggested banning them.
ICC's process is also too complex: too many stages, too many mechanisms for review, too many doubts as to who is supposed to be doing what. Also there are issues of conflicts of interest. A cricket board pays an academic institution -- like the University of Western Australia -- to provide a report on its tarnished bowler and advise on how to legitimise his action. In effect, the board is paying for a judgment. I have no reason to doubt the University of WA: indeed, it is a highly esteemed institution. But you can see how the system could be distorted, certainly if you believe that he who pays the piper calls the tune.
The fourth flaw is one of perception, but it is the most damaging. The single most powerful reason why ICC's current process is devoid of credibility is because it is perceived to be an issue of race. In recent years, too many Asian cricketers have had the legitimacy of their actions questioned by white players and officials. The point of this is not to say that their judgment is flawed -- although I believe at times it might have been -- but the point is that there is a strong perception that race is a factor. Unfortunately, the current process is tainted because it is seen as an issue of race. This impression is unlikely to change.
What to do? How do we take colour out of the equation? Certainly, this can never be achieved with the current laws and the current process. A tweak here or there will not work either. Cricket's players and lawmakers need to get together and rethink the whole throwing issue. Is it cost-effective -- or even desirable -- to be poring over people's actions in minute detail? Look hard enough and all of us are flawed, all of us are criminals. A more reasonable question might be what degree of straightening at the elbow is acceptable, or even inevitable? An academic institution could be commissioned to help answer this question and inform the debate with evidence.
Secondly, do the laws properly consider that there are as many definitions of normality as there are human beings? Cricket should be inclusive not discriminate on the basis of anatomy or physiology. Ironically, the current law is simple, but too ill-defined. It allows too much scope for arguing over minutiae. A new law with greater definition would remove many of the subjective analyses that spawn accusations of racial bias.
A final requirement would be a streamlined review process, independently administered by ICC. Answering these questions will address the real crisis, which is not one of a modern game devalued by cheats but of a law that has failed to keep up with our understanding of the human body and a process that overcomplicates decision-making.
George Orwell wrote: "Sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, and disregard of the rules." For most of the last century, in contrast, cricket was deemed to be the finest example of fair play and complete regard for rules. Bodyline and Apartheid were mere aberrations in a grand history of a game run by chaps with stiff upper lips and played by men who wouldn't dare rub their balls the wrong way.
But a hidden history unravelled in the 1990s -- a murky world of match-fixing and ball-tampering, and a game divided by politics and issues of race. Cricket in this new century is a naked game, its sins laid bare, its prejudices seeping from every controversy, but there is somehow more honesty about a game that is prepared to face up to its Orwellian weaknesses instead of attempting to suppress its followers with doublethink. The throwing issue remains fuelled by unspoken prejudices and inexcusable ignorance. It is time for a radical rethink.
Kamran Abbasi is a cricket writer and deputy editor of the British Medical Journal. This article first appeared on Wisden Cricinfo on February 24, 2004.