June 12, 2014

There's more grey to chucking than we might think

The drive to purge the game of bowlers with suspect actions may have been suppressed a little but the moralising remains

A decade ago cricket's ancient and embedded hyper-morality crashed into the modern world's burgeoning thirst for reality television. The focus for this communion was Muttiah Muralitharan, and more specifically his action. Two TV networks, ESPN (in India) and the UK's Channel 4, broadcast what were paraded at the time as definitive acquittals of Muralitharan's action, which had till then been called periodically, sanctioned occasionally, and the subject of hysterical debate permanently.

Muralitharan went through his repertoire of deliveries with a steel-embedded plaster brace around his right arm, from bicep to wrist, and with admirable good nature. He looked a little uneasy in the ESPN show, a little too much like the guinea pig just becoming aware of his centrality to bigger, buffeting winds. But he went about it like a man who felt he needed to.

He bowled to Michael Slater in that one, to recreate match conditions. There was a doctor present too, explaining the unique physical quirks of Muralitharan's wrist, arm and shoulder, though he felt a little like Dr Nick Riviera, whose only residency of note has been on The Simpsons. Ravi Shastri, for ESPN, was quadruply burdened, as host, judge, jury and, eventually, the benefactor who cleared Murali. Shastri did so in the manner with which we are all familiar, effectively hype-mastering a science documentary. For Channel 4, Mark Nicholas managed a sombre posture, considered and inquiring but above all providing a kind of bipartisan seal on matters.

The issue by then had become so divided along racial lines that a non-Asian clearing of Murali felt necessary. That was the ultimate takeaway, of course, that Murali did not chuck. He could not with that steel brace on. Even Slats, an Aussie, said so.

In hindsight it is not so much the details of Murali's case that were important as was the fact that cricket felt the need for this public trial by TV in the first place. Even today, viewing it produces the kind of cringe only a certain kind of reality show does; especially the eagerness with which Muralitharan is cleared, as if he was guilty of some crime.

Though he looks uncomfortable in the ESPN version, Murali looked cheery and eager for Channel 4. He was probably a willing participant, perhaps even an instigator in doing the shows, but that is hardly the point. He was compelled into it by cricket, feeling no other recourse was available to prove that he was not some evil, cheating villain who would leave cricket forever corrupted. That is precisely what umpires such as Ross Emerson and Darrell Hair seemed to think he was, no-balling him with such ugly fervour that it was impossible to avoid feeling a vicarious humiliation at what Murali underwent. Men are prone to delusions when invested with the tiniest bit of authority in any case, but when furnished with a haloed moral authority they become monsters, or cricket umpires.

Hair and Emerson were after all only maintaining professional tradition. In every purge of suspect actions, umpires have led the hounding, right at the front of bloodthirsty crowds. Chuckers (and even the word is so phonetically derisive) have never been just men with kinks in their actions, or have seemed to bowl thus as a natural outcome of the overarm bowling action, which basically predetermines some degree of straightening (as an ICC survey discovered back in 2004). Cricket has treated chuckers as lepers because cricket doesn't have a reliable sense of a scale of bad: it can summon about the same amount of moral outrage for slow over rates as it can for Mankading, intimidatory bowling and match-fixing. It has a spirit nobody can define but one everybody screeches about when it is - regularly and easily - breached. So Murali and Saeed Ajmal walk around with an asterisk floating above them. To their detractors they are asylum seekers who exist only because of the weak-kneed liberalism of a governing body.

Maybe now the urge to purge is suppressed a little but the moralising over suspect actions remains; in the smugness of Australia and England that their offspinners do not bowl doosras, or feel the need to wear long sleeves (Shane Warne, one failed drug test plus one corruption scandal to the good, sniggering at Ajmal's long sleeves in the World T20 is a classic example of cricket's wonky moral scale); in Michael Vaughan tweeting and Stuart Broad responding to a photo of Ajmal in action and, metaphorically, nodding and winking. That yanks into black-and-white territory what is an inherently grey matter.

Suspect actions can be deliberate but they can also be functions of the mechanics of human bodies we do not understand. Could anyone have imagined that a study would find 99% of bowlers in cricket straighten their arm to some degree? What effects do injuries have, as a fairly serious accident did on Ajmal's right forearm when he was younger? How to explain the squirmy spectacle of Shoaib Akhtar being able to bend his elbow in ways that normally ought not to have been possible?

Where, in any case, is the study that sheds light on the exact nature of the advantages gained from greater elbow straightening? It is said that bowling the doosra is impossible without breaking the acceptable degrees of flex, but how to explain Saqlain Mushtaq, the pioneer, who did it with almost no visible bend at all? He even bowled it under the eyes of Hair and Emerson and elicited not a squeak, so he must have been fine, right? Even if we make the crazy assumption that post-Murali, Hair might have been chastened?

Where is the study that sheds light on the exact nature of the advantages gained from greater elbow straightening?


Cricket cannot continue being blind to the grey of this issue because soon we might be in greyer territory. Last week the ICC's cricket committee expressed its concerns about the identifying, reporting and testing of suspect actions. The processes, they said, need to change.

The primary reason appears to be discontent with the testing labs at the University of Western Australia in Perth, where bowling actions have hitherto undergone testing. The time and cost of sending a bowler that far has always been problematic but now more issues have emerged. One official familiar with the meeting last week says that there was concern about discrepancies in the findings of the Perth labs and others around the world. Apparently the Perth lab has not been following the exact protocols for testing actions that the ICC has laid down, disagreeing with the nature of those protocols.

So the ICC wants to accredit other labs around the world, in England, South Africa and India initially, and ultimately standardise testing protocols and results. The utopian aim is to have testing centres in every Full Member country, so that bowlers can be observed, tested and corrected at domestic level before they get further.

More significantly, they are also testing body sensors that could capture real-time analysis of a bowler's action during a game. These were tested by under-19 players at the recent World Cup but only in net practice, and much more work needs to be done before it goes further. The calibration of the sensors on the arm is a particular issue, especially after players dive in the field.

In time, that will be the least of the problems, because trickier questions will arise. Who will wear sensors in a game? Those who have already undergone testing once? Others we suspect have a kink in their action? Nobody, as the ICC says, is cleared permanently, so everyone is under the scanner theoretically. Singling out someone who may have a kink but has not been tested officially places an undue burden on the bowler and recreates, in a way, the TV trial Murali underwent. How real is real-time? Will we be able to see the results after each ball, after each over, after each session, after each day?

Mike Hesson has already asked how those with suspect actions will be policed: what happens, he said, if a wicket falls off a ball delivered by an action in breach of the laws? Will a TV umpire review it immediately? Umpiring technology hardly needs further complication. As it stands, these discussions haven't begun but these are difficult and complicated questions. It is, after all, a difficult and complicated issue, even if it feels sometimes that cricket has still not grasped this.

Osman Samiuddin is a sportswriter at the National. @sprtnationaluae

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • David on June 13, 2014, 17:57 GMT

    @ eggy roe writes "It's pretty simple really,when bowling a straight arm is required.Bent arm equals throwing."

    It is not that simple, or true.. A perfectly straight arm is neither required, nor possible, & a bent arm does NOT equal throwing.

    Bowling with a bent arm is permissible, but the degree of bend must not CHANGE by an allowed limit. No arm is perfectly straight & remains straight during delivery. Some arms cannot extend a full 180°. Some, especially quicks, extend MORE than 180°. The degree of bend at the START of the delivery is not the issue. It is the CHANGE in degree of bend DURING delivery that is the problem. Flex is not bend, flex is change in degree of bend.

    A bowler whose arm is bent at 45° at the beginning of the delivery, & whose arm stays bent at 45° throughout the delivery, IS NOT THROWING! Throwing is the extension, or flexion, of the arm from bent to straight to produce a whiplash effect.

    If you have ever fielded, you'd know what throwing is.

  • vas on June 13, 2014, 10:38 GMT

    @Harvey, I agree with you. Boycott has a similar view. With the helmets and all the other protective pads the modern batsmen wear, fast bowling wouldn't physically harm the batsmen. Beamers are not allowed. Bouncers are limited. So the laws were introduced to prevent intimidatory bowling. How can the umpire differentiate if the straightening was 14.5 degrees or 15.5 degrees in a match situation. It is difficult to police. Legalising throwing is the answer. No need for all the scientific laboratory testing. Anyway why can't the spinners throw?

  • Arun on June 13, 2014, 8:06 GMT

    @ Greatest_Game: Since the data is already out there, and you're so good at finding it, please point me to a peer-reviewed biomechanical study with a large sample size that states any of what you claim. There's one study cited in the wikipedia article that's inaccessible, so unless you have an issue of that journal lying on your desk, you don't either. All that says is that the limit of 5 is too low; we got that. Wikipedia(unreliable) claims they used a sample size of 42 non-test playing bowlers. If you understand any statistics, that's a laughably small sample size to base any decision on. What if 99% of test bowlers fall under 10 deg? A decision was made based on data that was potentially sufficient to invalidate earlier limits (5deg) but not enough to validate the new limit. Yet, 15 deg was chosen, as a way of avoiding conflict. And now umps can't distinguish between 12 and 17, so we have a law that's unenforceable in practice. But I'll be happy to see that "data" you so rave about

  • Trevor on June 13, 2014, 7:46 GMT

    This discussion just goes on and on, doesn't it! A well written article Osman, but you have not provided all the background. You dont mention, for example, that the flex rule was changed from 12 degrees to 15 degrees after the Murali no-balling, and when it was found that his doosra exceeded the 12 degree limit. So much for the arm brace test. The change was more about politics than cricket. Interesting that Ranatunga has said recently that he was shocked at all the 'new' actions that have flourished post-Murali. Now is a good time to sort out all these actions and especially with the young players before they hit the international stage. There is a distinct advantage for an off spinner in straightening the arm and getting that extra snap. But there are many mystery spinners who bowl with straight arms - Ashwin, Mendez, etc. No problem with the carrom ball, just the doosra. Now is a good time to deal with this problem in an open and transparent manner, once and for all!

  • Dummy4 on June 13, 2014, 7:31 GMT

    It is very hard to have some system in place to check it in real time or check each and every ball. I think Umpires can compare match footage with the videos of lab tests if they suspect something. it was reported that during UAE series vs England, Umpires did compare Ajmals match videos with lab videos and found it identical so it can not be like Broad tweeted that bowler can bowl differently in lab.For the bowlers already tested, icc can develop a system for 3rd Umpire to compare both videos in real time during match. But for the bowlers which were never tested it is not workable. It will have to be umpires. if they suspect something, they will report and then testing etc.

  • David on June 13, 2014, 4:55 GMT

    @ McGorium believes "An arbitrary flexion of 15 deg was set. There was no scientific study of that either; statements were made saying all bowlers flex, so lets pick 15."

    The answer is out there if you bother to do some research. Start with Wikipedia's entry on Murali. Much of what you ask is detailed therein.

    All bowlers flex. It is a freak of nature to NOT flex! Quicks flex the most, & spinners the least. 15 deg was decided on as a purely practical matter: it is the point at which we are able to detect flex with the naked eye. This was revealed by EXTENSIVE scientific research. It was not known, until biomechanic testing began, that quicks regularly flex by 10 deg, or more. Just because we did not previously know that does NOT mean that some degree of flex did not exist in every bowler's action. Flex has ALWAYS been part of the bowling action.

    The information is out there, and accessible to you. Use your computer & research it instead of expressing invalid opinions.

  • adeel on June 13, 2014, 4:19 GMT

    @cricket-india & Shahzeb Sheikh - totally agree with you. ICC should introduce slings on each bowler. if the bowler tries to 'chuck', its either his elbow or the sling! then we'll know he was trying to chuck when he is on the ground screaming in pain :)

  • Sam on June 13, 2014, 1:50 GMT

    A statement such as this casts serious doubt about the bowlers who have gone through the process at the Perth labs: "One official familiar with the meeting last week says that there was concern about discrepancies in the findings of the Perth labs and others around the world. Apparently the Perth lab has not been following the exact protocols for testing actions that the ICC has laid down, disagreeing with the nature of those protocols." Since the cat is out of the bag, I hope ICC would be transparent and give a detailed account or there will be more (conspiracy) theories that will prove to be a distraction to the game.

  • Arun on June 12, 2014, 21:37 GMT

    Osman Samiuddin normally has balanced views, but in this case, I disagree. Rules of sport aren't devised based on scientific principle or moral authority; they simply are so, and are what characterize the game. Soccer that allowed you to pick the ball up and run with it would be Rugby. There's no good reason to penalize players for accidentally touching the ball,except it's the rule. Cricket has decided that it should be bowled without visible extension to the arm. The question of whether it can be scientifically proven that flexing the elbow buys anything is moot. The real question then is whether it should accommodate freaks and whether that accommodation is enabling them to bend the rules. An arbitrary flexion of 15 deg was set. There was no scientific study of that either; statements were made saying all bowlers flex, so lets pick 15. Do all bowlers flex 15 deg?Or do most flex less than 8, so 8 is ok?Who knows?

  • Harvey on June 12, 2014, 20:49 GMT

    @eggyroe - There is nothing in the Laws of Cricket that prevents a bowler delivering the ball with a bent arm, and there never has been. The issue is that a bowler is not allowed to straighten his arm during the delivery. Scientific investigations proved however that 99% of bowlers do this to some degree, which is why the 15 degree limit was imposed. In reality this is unenforceable in a match situation. My own feeling is that throwing might as well just be legalised in the same way that first round-arm then (fairly soon afterwards) over-arm bowling were legalised in the 19th century.

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