November 23, 2007

Learning by degrees

Over the years cricket has not handled throwing well. Thankfully that seems to be changing, if slowly

This is the first instalment of a new fortnightly column by Peter Roebuck.

Black and white: Back in the 50s, a bowler was either a chucker or not. Ian Meckiff was called four times in one over in the Brisbane Test of 1963, and that was the end of his career © The Cricketer International

Throwing has been the most emotional topic the game has known. Considering the fury of the argument, it might be imagined that batting was in peril and practitioners were constantly taking blows from some demonic chucker. In fact, batting has got progressively easier and therein lies the true scandal. Anyone following the saga about supposedly illegal actions could be forgiven for thinking that throwers have been running amok for years and are spreading faster than bad grammar. They could easily conclude that offenders perpetrate some terrible evil that needs urgent exorcism. In fact, most of them are gentle spinners seeking extra purchase on hard decks; they have never bruised a batsman, merely a few fragile egos.

In the history of the game it is impossible to think of anyone complaining about batting excesses. Yet the willow-wielders have dressed themselves in suits of armour, insisted that the pitches be rolled till all life has left them, changed the no-ball and lbw rules to suit themselves, turned bats into weapons of assault, demanded changes in field-placement rules, complained about intimidation, whined endlessly about imperfect light, and generally conned the game into making their lives easier. Meanwhile bowlers have been accused of ball-tampering, bodyline, appealing, slowing down over-rates, sending down bent-armers, and all manner of other infractions. The wonder is not that an occasional ball is thrown. The wonder is that bowlers did not toss in the towel decades ago.

Bowling actions have always provoked a disproportionate amount of attention and abuse. Batsmen used to enjoy facing under-armers, and grizzled horribly when confronted with round-armers. Not long afterwards, the round-armers raised their hands to the vertical and again the batsmen bleated. Great heaven above, they might get out. Or hurt.

Batting has belonged to the blue bloods and bowling was an activity pursued by the hoi polloi. Naturally, the bowling changed as pitches improved. No longer able to rely on bumpy surfaces, bowlers grasped the need to develop pace, bounce, curve and spin. It was an attempt to even up the odds. Throwing has been the leather-flingers' solitary excess.

Everything else was objective but the throwing law was open to interpretation. For once, too, prejudice was on their side. To call a man for chucking was to accuse him of cheating, a bigger step than most umpires were prepared to consider.

The willow-wielders have changed the no-ball and lbw rules to suit themselves, turned bats into weapons of assault, and generally conned the game into making their lives easier. Meanwhile bowlers have been accused of ball-tampering, bodyline, appealing, sending down bent-armers, and all manner of other infractions. The wonder is not that an occasional ball is thrown. The wonder is that bowlers did not toss in the towel decades ago.

Truth to tell, cricket has never handled throwing well. Not that it has cropped up all that often. By and large bowlers have tried to remain within the laws. But it is human nature to stretch a law as far as it will go, especially when it appears to be the only chance of taking wickets. Despite all the palaver, though, hardly any bowlers have been condemned.

Cricket has experienced three periods of throwing, 50 years apart. At the start of the last century it was widely felt that matters were getting out of hand. Edwin Tyler, Somerset's left-arm spinner, had an action like a shot-putter but went unchecked for years, and he was not alone. Finally the county captains met at Lord's and agreed to eliminate the chuckers. Even then they could not find a local umpire prepared to act against his fellow professionals. Accordingly, they relied on Jim Phillips, an abrasive Australian (which might be a tautology), to do the dirty work. Phillips duly called the illegals and the matter settled down for another 50 years.

Not until the 1950s did throwing return to the headlines. Again the umpires ducked the issue and it was left to high officials to take action. After all, it had become an international problem. This time the Australians were the main culprits. Ian Johnson had been appointed captain of his country, yet his action was notably jerky. Jimmy Burke, another offspinner, was also regarded as dubious. No one had the stomach to condemn such good blokes. It had been easier when the suspects were aborigine fast bowlers.

Officials decided to intervene for the good of the game, and the message went out. Concerted action was needed. Otherwise a hue and cry was inevitable. Sir Don Bradman led the campaign. Several pace bowlers and spinners were called in Test matches. Thereafter it was up to umpires and coaches further down the scale to deal with the problem.

Another 50 or so years passed before the issue rose again. Although a few whispers were heard in the interim, the problem was never out of hand. In 18 years of county cricket playing against almost every great bowler of the era, I cannot recall facing more than a handful of doubtful deliveries. No one had an objectionable basic action. A few bowlers did chuck their faster ball, but cricket has never been able to deal with that. Not until the discovery of the doosra has a specific delivery been called into question. Yet batsmen are more worried about occasional throws because they cannot detect them.

Now throwing has again become a hot topic. Everyone blames the ICC - a fashionable but lazy position. Part of the reason cricket had handled the issue badly was that it was too big. After he was called in Brisbane, Ian Meckiff never bowled another over in Test cricket. His career was over. It was black and white. A bowler was either a chucker or not.

The modern way: Shoaib Malik had his action tested in 2004 and then underwent remedial procedures before he was allowed to bowl again © AFP

Of course it is never as simple as that. Apart from anything else, an action can change. Also, cricket cannot ignore science. Photographic evidence demonstrated that every elbow straightened somewhat at delivery; it was all a matter of degree. Obviously the law had to be rewritten, not least to placate the lawyers. Studies revealed that anything under 15 per cent of straightening was hard to detect and also unimportant, so the law was amended accordingly.

Also, a system of rehabilitation was put in place. Now attention may be drawn to a particular action without the bowler fearing for his career. Remedial action can be arranged. Of course, it is not perfect. Fast bowlers can still go wide of the crease to send down open-chested inswingers without worrying about the umpires. Shoaib Akhtar did so against Australia in a Test match played in Colombo. In his early days Brett Lee was the same, but he acknowledged and corrected the flaw.

Thankfully some of the sting has been taken out of the throwing. Slowly cricket is learning to deal calmly and constructively with supposed offenders. A few mild spinners have been withdrawn and sent for remedial work. A more famous tweaker has twice put his arm in a brace and sent down every delivery in his repertoire with television cameras rolling. In the old days Murali would have been hounded from the game. Now he is given the respect he deserves.

Contrary to predictions, cricket has not been overtaken by a plague of throwers. Borderline actions are merely one of the game's many challenges, and it is getting better at sorting it out. Spin had to find a way to survive heavy bats and flat pitches. Fast bowlers have developed reverse swing. But batsmen are still scoring lots of runs. And so the battle between bat and ball goes along - hard, sometimes unscrupulous, often fascinating.

Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It, on the 2006-07 Ashes

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Sweta on November 26, 2007, 1:36 GMT

    How many test matches do we see ending in draws anyways ? If one dayers have made things tough for bowlers it has made the quality of batsmanship lower as well. We see batsmen trying to score faster in the tests and losing their wickets. Effectively the overall quality of the game has gone down. Bowlers dont come up with that great spells cuz they hardly receive assistance from the pitch and batsmen play some lovely shot and then play an equally rash shot and throw their wickets. To add to that in some parts of the world the balls have less prominent seam and therefore seam less. The bowlers are still getting wickets though more due to batsmen's faults then their greatness. Chucking should always be decided with naked eyes. Why make a game so complex. Imagine cricket in the last decade with out Lee, Shoiab Akhtar & Muralitharan !!! Talk about batsman dominating bowlers !

  • T on November 24, 2007, 20:30 GMT

    A couple of points;

    firstly, the law with regard to throwing has not changed; secondly, players have been hounded out of the game during the fifty years' interregnum - whither Geoff Cope and more recently Perera, and wasn't Tony Lock under severe scrutiny? finally, my club in the N-W of England hosted a cup final a few years ago between the fourth team of a premier league side (for whom Kallis, Gibbs, Crookes, Jack, Langeveld & Boon have all played in the last twenty years) and a village second eleven. One of the premier club's bowlers was palpably throwing and I commented to that effect to one of his club's officails. "That's why he plays in the fourth team", was the reply. I wonder if he was allowed to bowl at Kallis et al in the nets?

  • D N on November 24, 2007, 16:47 GMT

    Sorry Mr. Roebuck to disagree on the issue of chucking. If you want to neutralise the game for batsmen, start with restrictions on bats and bat sizes and weights, remove leg-bye rule, remove covered pitches. Using soda water bottle caps, chucking are illegitimate. Alter the law by all means to make the game more interesting but chucking - no. I, for one, can not accept that chucking is inevitable. Courtney Walsh did not chuck nor did Shane Warne. Bedi and Prasanna were delightful to watch and they did not chuck either. Thus, sir, instead of making a case for chucking becoming legitimate and suggesting that we change attitudes, let us make a case for eliminating this entirely.

  • Sachintha on November 24, 2007, 16:19 GMT

    Great article!

    Yes, this has always been a very sensitive - and controvercial - issue. And its about time people stop whinning and give due credit to the greats like Murali.

    Forget Lee or Shoaib, it's been revealed that so called 'purists' like McGrath bend their arm about 12 degrees - higher than the amount allowed before rules were changed - yet Murali is the chucker!

  • Chris on November 24, 2007, 13:13 GMT

    Certainly a good, fresh analysis of the is time we looked at a more level playing field (no pun intended!) since the laws and, to a greater extent, the rules of cricket have chipped away relentlesly at equity for the bowlers. This will continue because the obsession with money drives the need for more and more spectators, primarily for the TV - once emphasis moves away from cricket as a sport to cricket as an entertainment artform the need for the crash, bang wallop of huge boundary hits takes precedence over technical prowess in the face of difficulty. Sadly, I am not therefore as convinced as you are that "the battle between bat and ball goes along - hard, sometimes unscrupulous, often fascinating."

    On a pedantic note...the greek phrase 'hoi polloi' contains the article 'the' (hoi) in it so it is not only redundant to say "the hoi polloi" but also lacks fluency. I read your articles regularly in the Aussie papers and I am delighted that you will be a cricinfo regular!

  • Chris on November 24, 2007, 0:06 GMT

    It's got nothing to do with milestones. When Murali first came onto the scene the New Zealand players, upon playing him for the first time, were highly suspicious of his action. So too the Australians. Rather than rectify the issue the ICC gave in to extreme pressure from the sub-continent teams and agreed to change the laws of the game to fit one bowler into the mix. Racism was chanted around when Murali was, quite rightly, called for no-balling in this country. Tests were carried out on the degrees of bend and the laws changed accordingly. Dennis Lillee once stated the amount of bowlers coming through the ranks in the fast bowling clinics he ran on the sub-continent who bowled with "illegal" actions was a worrying trend. The truth is often forgotten in the mad rush for politically correct responses. Remember the uproar Ranatunga initiated when all of this went down? The pressure was immense and the ICC gave in for one reason alone. Money...

  • Shamal on November 23, 2007, 18:42 GMT

    The rootcause for many of the problems in Cricket is that many of the laws are not stated in a measurable form. Many of the present controversial issues have always been controversial -- throwing, LBWs, catches. Technology may provide a way out for some of these contentious issues. Unfortunately, the lawmakers and guardians of the game are still reluctant to embrace technology. Even in laboratory conditions, the 15 degree straightening rule of thumb only partially explains the "visual illusion" of throwing. Worse, it is not measurable under match conditions. Until the foundations of the game are solidified and stated in a clear measurable form, issues like this will not go away.

  • Abdul on November 23, 2007, 18:32 GMT

    "Fast bowlers can still go wide of the crease to send down open-chested inswingers without worrying about the umpires. Shoaib Akhtar did so against Australia in a Test match played in Colombo. In his early days Brett Lee was the same, but he acknowledged and corrected the flaw".

    Peter can you explain for my knowledge, what is wrong with an open chested action..and bowling round the wicket inswingers.. Is it illegal in someway ..? This is the second time i have read ur views about shoaib's bowling effort in the Columbo test match...I really want to know if there was more to his action than just the straightning of the arm ?

  • Angus on November 23, 2007, 17:34 GMT

    Great article. I agree, we haven't seen so much chucking, but only at the top level.

    At club level, at least in this part of Canada, chucking has reached epidemic proportions, with at least three chuckers in every league side - one who usually opens the bowling. The [wrongfully interpreted] message seems to have filtered down that it's acceptable to bend your arm by at least 30 degrees, and no one will stop you, not umpires, captains, coaches, or the administrators.

    Does it affect the game? Hell, yeah. It is massively altering the pace, spin, bounce and projection of the ball. It is hugely off-putting to batsmen. We have rules for a reason. If you don't stick to them, then we all may as well chuck from a base.

    It's sad when you see the next generation of players coming through, and throwing by even greater degrees. They watch their seniors, and they watch Murali, and they think they can flick their arms like javelin throwers. We need a swift stop to this.

  • a on November 23, 2007, 14:25 GMT

    A very good article once again. I'm a big fan of your writing. You've highlighted how the attitude towards throwing has changed over the years and also laid out some of the pros and cons. Recently I've been watching some good test match cricket on television : SA v NZ, AUS v SL, IND v PAK and I couldn't help but notice some bowlers infringe cricket laws by bending and straightening their elbows. I was particularly drawn to the action of Brett Lee. On normal viewing his action seems perfectly legal, but i was watching some footage of Lee on the super slow motion or high definition which highlights some of the finest details. I could clearly make out his elbow bend and straighten, but he must be within the 15 degree mark as it cannot be noticed on normal viewing. Hence the introduction of the new rule is justified. Cricket needs bowlers of the quality of Brett Lee and the new rule no doubt will only eliminate the obvious chuckers. Good move ICC!!

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