Muttiah Muralitharan's action March 28, 2004

No simple answers to chucking

Frank Tyson
Does Muralitharan throw, or not

The piece below appeared in the August 2003 issue of Wisden Asia Cricket.

Does Murali throw or not? One has to go beyond emotion and subjective opinion to answer that question, into the realm of biomechanics © Getty Images

Does Muralitharan throw, or not? That is the question that, in recent years, has thrown what promises to be the greatest Test bowling career ever into a spin. The throwing issue has repeatedly raised its head through the history of the game. In the early 1800s, John Willes was condemned for raising his bowling arm to shoulder level - the legacy of imitating his sister who was compelled to do so because she couldn't bowl underarm due to her voluminous crinoline skirt! Since that time, men such as Andrew Crossland, Arthur Mold, Gilbert Jessop, Ian Meckiff, Gordon Rorke, Geoff Griffin, Harold Rhodes, Tony Lock, Shoaib Akhtar and Murali have bowled - and been no-balled.

With today's game having assumed multinational proportions, the Murali issue has become an emotive controversy, coloured by Sri Lankan nationalistic support on one hand and purely subjective analysis on the other. This is to be expected. The Aussies were behind Meckiff in his day, almost to a man; nowadays one would have to go far to find a Pakistani who is not a Shoaib supporter. But woolly support must give way to the biomechanical logic: "The best use of flexibility is to start from bent positions in preliminary movements and move to straight positions at release."

This surprising scientific fact seems to suggest that many bowlers who have performed effectively in the past must have delivered with arms which, to some degree, moved from the bent to the straight - and their actions were never questioned. Films taken in the 1930s of my hero, England fast bowler Harold Larwood, clearly show some straightening of the bowling arm. A fellow Australian coach and tertiary lecturer in Human Movement, Brian Nettleton, backed up this theory by opining that spin bowlers could be differentiated by the way in which they bent their arms before delivery: offspinners pointing their elbows of their bowling arms down and leggies bending their elbows upwards.

Having postulated that perhaps most bowlers bend their bowling arm to some degree, and that perhaps Murali is not out of the ordinary in this respect, the question remains: where does he get his phenomenal turn from? The other day, at a Level 2 seminar for coaches in Bangalore, the participants were seeking to discover how Saqlain Mushtaq bowled his legspinner with an offspinner action. One of the participants claimed that he could demonstrate that it was due to exceptional wrist flexibility, which he, too, possessed. He was then able to demonstrate this remarkable malleability of the joint, spinning the ball towards second slip with an offspinner's action. It is this same suppleness which allows Aussie medium-pacer Ian Harvey to deliver a slower ball by imparting back-spin with the back of the hand pointing down the pitch towards the batsman. Murali appears to be even more flexible and able to spin the ball from 270 different degrees.

Some, seeking to emphasise the suspicion surrounding Murali's action, attribute his exceptional and unusual spinning powers to his very open action. But such an action is shared by many others, who haven't raised any eyebrows among the ranks of the doubters. Bishan Bedi suggests that Murali's lack of follow-through makes him comparable to a javelin thrower, who simply stands there and lets fly. But a javelin thrower has quite a long, fast run-up and would follow through if the laws of his sport permitted him out of the throwing circle. No. Murali's lack of follow-through is merely because he is moving very slowly at the point of delivery. Were the follow-through totally absent, his length would vary immensely, since he would have to gauge the exact amount of force he would need to impart to each ball - a difficult enough task even with a short follow-through. This would be reflected in his economy-rate.

Many bowlers on being accused of having suspect actions respond that it is due to a physical handicap that prevents the straightening of the bowling arm. This has been cited in the case of Rhodes, who bowled with his arm in a sling to silence critics; also Meckiff, and now Shoaib and Murali. I can personally vouch that Brian Statham was double-jointed in the elbow of his bowling arm, which hyper-extended beyond the 180-degree mark and technically caused him to straighten his arm while delivering the ball, albeit very early in his action.

The Human Movement Departments of the universities of Hong Kong and Western Australia have produced hard scientific evidence that Murali suffers from a disability that prevents him from straightening his bowling arm, and have cleared him of deliberate contravention of the no-ball law. This evaluation is in direct conflict with the subjective opinions of at least two Australian umpires, and a host of ostensibly good judges of the game. But when one has to decide between scientific fact and emotive assessment in resolving a problem, who does one believe?

We now have to decide whether the 'chucking' law is enforceable. Biomechanics suggest that it is not and that most bowlers contravene it, albeit minimally. The law is in need of revision since there is no doubt that the 'bent-elbow brigade' enjoys the advantages of more spin and cut, greater impact off the pitch, and indeterminate release points (given that not every ball is "thrown"). Perhaps, therefore, we should be reframing the law to condemn those bowlers who bend the elbow more than a certain amount - say, 10, 20 or 30 degrees.

As for Murali, he is still a young man, and with the opportunities which must come his way in a Test field of increasing numbers and diminishing standards, it seems likely that, barring injury, he will surpass Courtney Walsh's tally of 519 wickets. I don't think he will be carried away by the achievement. After all, how many wickets would Lance Gibbs and Fred Trueman have taken, given the same opportunities?

Frank Tyson, a former England fast bowler, is a leading authority on biomechanics.