January 25, 2012

Should we give the doosra a little leeway?

What if spinners were allowed to flex their arms 20 degrees while bowling?

One midwinter English Sunday, two arresting sporting headlines - neither, pluckily, having anything whatsoever to do with f**tball. Tucked away in the bottom left corner at the front of the latest Sunday Times sports section, beneath the acres given over to "Kenny Blasts Reds" and "Dalglish threatens clear-out of 'unprofessional' players", lurked "Robinson attacks 'arrogant' England" - the Robinson in question being neither Nottinghamshire's Tim nor Sussex's Mark but Andy, the English-born coach of Scotland's rugby union side. In the top left corner, opposite "Magical Murray - Briton Storms Into Last 16 At The Aussie Open", lurked "Fanning The Flames - Trott Voices New Suspicion Over Pakistan Spinner".

As a snapshot of Blighty's sporting fancies it was nothing if not symbolic. Team games before individual, f**tball before all. As a reflection of the lengths sportsfolk will go to secure an advantage, it was just as telling.

Robinson's "attack" came a fortnight before Scotland meet - you guessed it - England in the opening match of the Six Nations championship, that annual scrap to prove who's the best in Europe but still a distant second on the planet; Trott's "suspicion" during preparations for the second Test against Pakistan. In both instances, not unnaturally, the agitators were smarting from a humbling: Scotland's last encounter with England, in October, had seen them beaten in the World Cup quarter-finals; Trott and England had just been drubbed in Dubai.

Both headlines were broadly accurate; both, as is the way of the media world, masked thin but provocative stories, stories where the headline is the story. Robinson's allegation about the arrogance of those accursed English ruckers was entirely unspecific. He used the word, yes, but resolutely declined to go a zillimetre further. Trott's "suspicion" (which wasn't exactly "new") proved to be little more than a sliver of a scintilla of a hint, albeit a politically correct one: "From what the guys are hearing… and are talking about, we can't make any accusations before the guy has been tested. The ICC have got their job to do and we trust they will be able to do it." Then he covered his tracks a bit more: "There is going to be speculation around his action… [but] it would be foolish for us every time we face him to think he's suspect."

All of which ran somewhat counter to Graeme Swann's assertion in his Saturday morning column for the Sun, to wit: "Some people are talking about [Saeed] Ajmal's action but it's not a topic of conversation in our dressing room." He has tried to bowl a doosra himself, Swann related, but couldn't do so "without bending my elbow". Meanwhile, Andy Flower was adding his ha'pworth: "I've got my own private views and talking about them here and now isn't going to help the situation."

Everyone, in other words, was steering that narrow course between libel action and the inalienable right of sportsfolk to play mind games, however ineptly. Call it the Doosra Dance. Call it the game within the game within the game. Boxing, which has always had one foot in the sham of showbiz, led the way. Stirring the pot has been part and parcel of the pre-match ritual for time almost immemorial, but as the stakes rose, so the press became more brazen; and as radio, television, internet and social media multiplied the megaphones, so the vigour and wattage rose. The philosophy became part Machiavelli, part Malcolm X: get under the opposition's skin by any means necessary. The lawyers quietened things down but the sound of sniping still reverberates. It's in the script.

Greg Chappell characterised this inner-inner game with typical succinctness long ago. On the eve of the final Test of the 1982-83 Ashes series in Sydney, where victory for the outclassed tourists would have kept the urn in English hands, captain Bob Willis, happy to kindle memories of Australia's gobsmacking collapses at Headingley and Edgbaston 18 months earlier, said he would rather Australia bat last, obviously. The riposte from his opposite number was as firm and straight and true as one of Chappell's on-drives: "That's just propaganda."

The difference in Ajmal's case is that Flower, Swann and Trott (and Matt Prior for that matter) had two other factors to contend with as they contemplated airing their views. First, they would be accusing a fellow professional of cheating, still widely considered the most dastardly of sporting crimes, even among those horrified by match-fixing. Second, by questioning Ajmal's action, or even alluding to any dubiousness, they ran the risk of being seen as whingeing Poms, whether of the Northamptonian or southern African variety. They also knew a swift but polite "no comment" would have sufficed. Swann, presumably, has some control over what goes out under his name, so he could have ignored the matter altogether. The Sun's sports editor might not have liked it but he'd have had to lump it. Instead, all three chose to fan the flames behind a veil of respectability, the better to unsettle.

WHICH LEADS US, INEVITABLY, to the bigger question. Not whether all is fair in love, war and ballgames, but whether bending the elbow beyond the permissible 15 degrees might actually be more acceptable in a spinner. To propose this, of course, should in no way be seen as a desire to see a new generation of Tony Locks wreck stumps and wreak havoc with 80mph "faster" balls, prompting victims to surmise - as Doug Insole did so volubly after being castled by the Surrey southpaw - that they could only have been run out.

In June 2009, a batch of eminent Australian spinners, including Shane Warne, Stuart MacGill, Ashley Mallett and the late Terry Jenner, gathered in Brisbane for a grandiloquently dubbed "Spin Summit". All condemned the doosra. "There was unanimous agreement that [it] should not be coached in Australia," wrote Mallett in the Adelaide Review. "I have never seen anyone actually bowl the doosra. It has to be a chuck. Until such time as the ICC declares that all manner of chucking is legal in the game of cricket I refuse to coach the doosra. All at the Spin Summit agreed." Principle was surely the cause; the only other interpretation is that they didn't want their records broken.

A couple of months earlier, by way of context, Ajmal had been reported by the umpires following an ODI against Australia in Dubai. An expert in biomechanics, however, gave his doosra the all-clear, and, so far as we know, the charge has never been repeated. Muttiah Muralitharan and Harbhajan Singh were both reported before the degree of flexibility was justly raised from 10 degrees - on the basis that just about every ball ever recorded on film would otherwise have been illegal - but not thereafter. To my knowledge no official aspersions were ever cast about the doosra wielded so wickedly by its inventor, Saqlain Mushtaq.

Should the regulations distinguish between spinners and quicks? Given that there is an appreciable gap between the intent and potential physical ramifications of a 95mph "chuck" and a 60mph one, this does not seem unreasonable

All of which would suggest: a) half a dozen degrees of flex are indiscernible to the naked eye, and b) there are oodles of people, many of them umpires, who believe not only that it is entirely possible to bowl such a ball legitimately but that it is done so with considerable regularity. In their refusal to coach it (not, one imagines, that they could so without a scary amount of homework, seldom something that comes naturally to retired luminaries), Warne et al are almost certainly doing their heirs a grave disservice.

But let's just say, strictly for the sake of argument, that Ajmal's right arm does stray fractionally beyond that prescribed limit. Should the regulations, in this respect, distinguish between spinners and quicks? Given that there is an appreciable gap between the intent and potential physical ramifications of a 95mph "chuck" and a 60mph one, this does not seem unreasonable. Why not a 15-degree leeway for one and 20 for the other? It was only a few years back, after all, that the ICC deemed such a differential - five degrees for pacemen, ten for twirlers - right and proper. Offspinners, of course, are entitled to raise another point: why, unlike their wrist-flexing brothers-in-arms and charms, should they be denied the right to bowl a wrong'un?

The sentiments of Bernard Bosanquet, proud parent of the wrong'un, ring down the ages with a deafening echo. "Poor old googly!" he lamented in the 1925 Wisden. "It has been subjected to ridicule, abuse, contempt, incredulity, and survived them all. Nowadays one cannot read an article on cricket without finding that any deficiencies […] are attributed to the influence of the googly. If the standard of bowling falls off, it is because too many cricketers devote their time to trying to master it [...] If batsmen display a marked inability to hit the ball on the offside, or anywhere in front of the wicket, and stand in apologetic attitudes before their wicket, it is said that the googly has made it impossible for them to adopt the old aggressive attitude and make the old scoring strokes. But, after all, what is the googly? It is merely a ball with an ordinary break produced by an extra-ordinary method."

So it all boils down, in essence, to the Googly Question: would you prefer the game to remain rigid and obstinate, clinging fast to traditional notions of what is far and unfair, and hence stagnate, or encourage the expansion of horizons? In other words, would we be better off with or without the doosra? You don't have to be a fully qualified Luddite to reply in the negative, but it helps.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton

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