Is the no-ball law too exact?
There is a picture in today's Sydney Morning Herald of James Pattinson bowling in the nets at the Adelaide Oval. It is a no-ball of course. Did you ever see a bowler behind the line in the nets? Not often. At Brisbane in the first Test, four wickets were taken by no-balls - three of them after referrals by the umpire. Both sides were guilty and both captains rather shrugged it off. Embarrassment perhaps.
There is an excuse for no-balls during a match - adrenaline. But there can be no excuse in practice. If you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail. This an old Graham Gooch saying, so stop whatever you are doing for a second and imagine it in Goochie's voice - high pitch East End of London in a slow drone; a gem is it not? And he is right. Preparation may not be everything but it sure helps.
The best piece of no-ball captaincy came in the 1992 World Cup final, when Imran Khan told Wasim Akram, a serial offender, to forget about it. "Overstep all you like" was the theme, "but for goodness sake bowl the speed of light and win us this damn thing." Which, of course, the great man did. The secret being that Imran released Akram from the fear of no-balling by making it okay. It is a bit like the kid at school being told that smoking is fine: "Oh, pity, no fun in that then." Imran knew the problem could not be fixed out in the middle, and given this was the final his fastest gun might as well fire all his bullets. Which he did, thus mowing down England and bringing Pakistan cricket its finest hour.
Akram was by no means the only top-class bowler to suffer. Amongst quite a list, Malcolm Marshall had problems. Jeff Thomson too. In fact, it is easier to count the bowlers who have not had no-ball issues than those who have. Most famous among the clean are Michael Holding and Sir Ian Botham. Four between them in a combined 162 Tests - remarkable given the physical extremes of their performance.
All these guys threw down a disc or scratched out a mark, an established number of paces back from the crease. Nowadays the coaches and their charges are out there with a tape measure, brush and emulsion. There are more lines around the 20-metre mark than on Keith Richards' forehead. Glenn McGrath and Brett Lee spent the Brisbane Test in the Channel 9 commentary box and were at a loss in trying to explain this infuriating issue. They reckon you can measure all you like but that stride patterns change depending on the moment, the mood, the wind, the outfield and the gradient to the pitch. McGrath used the umpire, the stumps and the crease as peripheral reference points but accepted that no formula ever gave him security or consistency.
My suspicion is that law is too exact. It used to be a loose application of a back-foot law that umpires and bowler worked together on, with the umpire ensuring that the bowler did not gain an unreasonable advantage. Essentially, the bowler had to land his back foot behind the back crease, or bowling crease as it was called, but could then drag his foot pretty much as far as he liked. This resulted in the "draggers", as they were known - and Fred Trueman was one - often landing their front foot well over the popping crease. Umpires monitored this until the unfair advantage outweighed the flow of the game. Then they would tell the bowler to get back a bit, even if he was still landing his back foot within the law. One big advantage of the old law was the time available to the umpire to call a no-ball and the time batsmen had to react, effectively allowing a free hit.
MCC changed the law in 1962, when Sir George Allen, who was convinced bowlers were claiming a huge advantage, ignored Sir Donald Bradman's reasoning and convinced the Laws committee that a new front-foot no-ball law would serve the game better. It is a moot point.
Sprinting to the crease in an effort to bowl fast cannot be an exact physical effort. The law now states that some part of the bowler's front foot, grounded or raised, should land behind the popping crease, but usually there are no more than millimetres for the umpires to play with because most bowlers are so tight to that line. The line is marked with whitewash and is of random width. It quickly scuffs and erodes. The man adjudicating is standing well behind the bowling crease and his view is complicated by the parallax. He cannot hope to get them all correct, and in the age of trial by television technology, line decisions are considered a given for the camera.
So it is to that, and to the third umpire operating it, the on-field umpire turns when in doubt. Consequently the game stops and bizarrely everyone stands around in a self-perpetuated hiatus, waiting for the verdict. The thrill of the fall of wicket, the instant and riveting human drama that comes with it, is completely lost. The game has been duped by the search for precision in judgement. Batsmen are reprieved because of an irrelevant centimetre from which neither team gained advantage or suffered disadvantage. Bradman's average would have shot past the Grail if the front-foot law and technology had been around in his day.
It is too simplistic to say that bowlers should get back behind the line. McGrath's reasoning is convincing on this. Were it easy, they would all do it. They hate no-balls more than us. For a reason that is inexplicable to outsiders, bowlers seem unable to land in the box - or very few of them anyway, and Ben Hilfenhaus is one - because they are conditioned to use the popping crease line as their target. This should not stop them establishing a more disciplined rhythm and routine in practice but it does mean we should examine other solutions.
I would give bowlers the line, altering the law to say that they clearly have to land beyond the popping crease to be called. This gives the umpires some daylight to play with and takes away the confusion of the whitewashed line that begins a day with enough clarity but is soon wiped from existence. I would allow the umpires more feel in the decision-making, more reference to whether or not a clear, certain advantage is being gained by the bowler.
Most laws are set for batsmen, who incidentally can take guard where they choose - in or out of the crease, for example, and why should that be when the bowler is so scrutinised? Batsmen can switch-hit, reverse-hit, Dilscoop, charge down the pitch, back away, move inside the line at any time without any penalty. It is a white-collar world that batsmen inhabit. The bowlers remain blue collar and the game is worse for it. Give them a bit back and then, if needs must, hit them harder still for transgressing.
I can hear the catcalls already!
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK