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

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