Throwing out the stigma
For a matter that is so obviously grey, it is difficult to reconcile with the definitiveness of reaction and the harshness of punitive sanction that surrounds it. Chucking: the very term conveys an impression of premeditated criminality about it, one only enhanced by the fact that it is punished not only with a ban but also a permanent tarnishing of reputations.
There's something very right-wing about the game's approach to chuckers, like advocating capital punishment. 'He is a cheat', 'He makes a mockery of the game', 'he should be banished'; these sentiments seem righteous and similar ones have been hurled at Muttiah Muralitharan and others. Above 15 degrees these sentiments, basically, are now law. Because chucking is now defined and judged so mechanically in stark numerical terms, it unfortunately reaches certain conclusions that need not be reached so readily.
Take the imposition of a year-long ban on Shabbir Ahmed, as unfortunate as it was inevitable, which reveals the folly of rushing to judgement. Precisely because he has been called so many times and his action rectified each time, we can only assume there is nothing deliberate about it, that it is a natural failing. Unsurprisingly, the first time he was called under the new laws, in the Caribbean, was after he had been out of the game through injury for nearly a year; a circumstance that leads to natural rustiness and raggedness. In Multan, when he played competitively after some time again, match officials expressed satisfaction with his action over the first three days saying it got worse only through the game's latter stages. The very fact that he regresses at random intervals should indicate that despite the calculated malice his sentence entails, there is very little deliberate about his breaches.
Overwhelmingly, it appears a natural flaw in his bowling technique, one that he can for periods correct but one obviously open for relapse occasionally. Accept, at least, momentarily that it is an innate failing of technique that can't be easily resolved; two arguments can then be raised, the first of which admittedly relies on a flimsy but necessary comparison.
Cricket today is increasingly facilitative of batting; its administration, its legislation, its appreciation, its celebration, its critique is skewered towards batting. Arguably, though, both disciplines are equally complicated in their technique. Yet only those with technical glitches in their bowling are legislatively reprimanded; a batsman who has no footwork, a crooked backlift or an uncertain trigger movement - all defects in strictly conventional terms - faces no such action. In fact, in his vocation he can be feted still. The game finds it unthinkable to impose such restrictions on batting. It's a glib comparison but one that provokes some thought; why is a dodgy bowling action a moral affront to the game and a dodgy batting technique not?
The second is more pertinent. In the cases of Muralitharan and Shoaib Akhtar, unspoken allowances are made for inherent kinks in their bodies which apparently lead to inherent kinks in their actions. Given they all commit the same offense, in effect, it can be argued, Shabbir is punished for not possessing a genetic anomaly. Why is Shabbir punished and Shoaib and Murali not?
The only answer we can give to these questions is that in both cases, by punishing one and not the other, there is somehow a deliberate malintent to seek undue advantage behind the bowler with the dodgy action, an attempt to succeed by breaching the code of the game. If not, why else would the ICC ban Shabbir? Technical batting flaws we accommodate unthinkingly and bowlers with genetic defects we do more uncertainly because there is no intent to seek undue advantage - they can't help it. But a bowler with no physical abnormality and a flaw in his action must be punished.
The decision leads us inescapably to the greyest and least debated aspect of the whole matter. Scandalously, for a concept so intrinsic to the debate, intent and the advantages from going over 15 degrees have hardly been broached. Historically, chucking was associated with fast bowlers and danger; darkly it was assumed the intent was to cause harm and so it was frowned upon. But with spinners being called now, the picture is not so clear. Presumably the intent of those who extend beyond 15 degrees is to improve the chances of taking wickets - by bowling quicker, turning the ball more or the other way, or extracting more bounce. Surely though the intent behind most legal deliveries is to take a wicket; how much those chances are improved by an extra kink cannot realistically be measured and has not seriously been discussed.
Yet from the ICC's thinking, beyond a precise cut-off point of 15 degrees, a bowler has enhanced his chances and employs an unfair advantage; else why would punishment be necessary? Shoaib Malik has been advised not to bowl his doosra because it is borne of an excessively bent action and presumably holds a greater wicket-taking threat. But if he bowls one, say at 18 degrees and takes a wicket, why punish him and not a Murali or a Harbhajan who bowl one at 13 degrees and doesn't take a wicket? How have we judged the advantage five degrees has provided? The intent in both cases is surely the same. Under current legislation, intent is either ignored completely, or through punishment, already assumed. Neither surely is fair.
Plainly, a value has been assigned to cheating when nothing conclusive proves that it is and certainly nothing suggests itself as a definitive level, over and above which a decisive advantage is available. An emotive issue has been desensitised when, because of the uncertainties still inherent in it, in questions of intent and advantage and because of what it means to players, it should still be vigorously debated. Above all, it has, in Shabbir's case, too quickly tarnished a bowler; it isn't a surprise he is distraught, thinking about quitting the game; forget the year's ban for he is now forever marked.
Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo