August 21, 2014

Cricket cannot bend rules to accommodate chuckers

Maintaining a healthy balance between bat and ball does not mean the authorities must give those with dodgy actions leeway

Bowlers are under greater scrutiny nowadays and the umpires need to be applauded for keeping their eyes open © Getty Images

After 200 years of the evolution of our great game, chucking has moved from being cricket's Achilles heel to being a nasty cancer that threatens to wipe out the essence of the sport.

Throwing the ball instead of bowling it is a cricketing crime. In baseball, you can throw, as in javelin, but in cricket it is written into the fabric of the game's core - to bowl with a straight arm, and that's why throwing or chucking must be punished. To not bowl the ball is not cricket.

Yet we have heard in recent times that for the last 200 years we have all got it wrong. We have heard from authorities, who have the assistance of the latest technology, that everyone, with the very occasional exception, has been throwing the ball with a bent arm all along.

The infamous survey, done in 2004, during a sanctioned ICC limited-overs tournament, announced that only one cricketer, Ramnaresh Sarwan, bowled the ball properly, that he alone did not straighten his arm when bowling a given ball. Every other cricketer targeted in that tournament was deemed to have thrown the ball and straightened his arm to some extent.

According to the findings, all bowlers broke the laws of the game as we knew them then. If we are to use that as the standard, then everyone, with the exception of the odd Sarwan, going back to when cricket began, was a dirty thrower too, including me. With these astonishing findings, thousands of bowlers were assumed to be breaking the rules, and yet no one knew it. Until 2004. Until one Sarwan showed them all up. I was wrong all along. It was Sarwan's fault.

To get it so wrong for so long, for two centuries in fact, is inexcusable, inexplicable. Lawyers got a sniff of what was to come. Quickly the authorities ran to fix the problem. Going by the word of a bunch of biomechanics researchers at a university in Perth, they moved in with the new rules: a spin bowler could bowl with five degrees of straightening, medium-pacers 7.5, and fast bowlers could let rip with ten degrees.

That quickly proved to be misguided with further testing. Then not long after that, when the doosra came alive and was identified as a problem, they settled for 15 degrees, to fit what the naked eye could pick up, supposedly. It was a beautiful marriage between the lawmakers, the lawbreakers, the law-testers and the lawyers. Thank god they all moved fast and so cleverly, and for the good of the game too, redeeming the failings of the eternal past!

Yeah, right.

In the last few months, the authorities have stirred and moved again. Yet this time it's extremely encouraging. They have started to notice a trend around the world: that more and more bowlers are trying to become mystery spinners, and are, to the naked eye, throwing beyond the 15-degree law clearly set down. This annoying affliction is fast becoming a real, deadly serious problem.

It has been said that these men who are being questioned are "good for the game", for the countries they play for, for their enthusiasm and the entertainment they provide

Thankfully, instead of doing what they did last time, by simply moving it up in five-degree increments to, say, 20 degrees to accommodate the culprits, they have decided to pull in these lawbreakers and take them in for questioning. They are backing the umpire's report that a rule has been broken, and the offenders have been served notice.

Fair and right.

Yet we read that chucking is a good thing for it evens up the badly needed balance between bat and ball. Why does a balance need to be contrived? Two wrongs do not make a right. Doesn't a sport find its own identity through natural evolution? Don't we often see that when the batting finds a way, the bowling will respond honestly and appropriately in time, and vice-versa?

In Test cricket, batting averages have only improved a little, and due mainly to the over-preparation of pitches to ensure they last five days. When the playing surface is properly prepared, providing something for everyone, then we have the balance we are searching for.

One-day cricket has the worst balance of the formats, for the boundaries are brought in and the Powerplays give the batting side another kickstart before the death overs. These rules are ridiculous. They should be abandoned to provide a better balance. By their existence they encourage the notion of allowing bowlers to change the very premise of bowling in order to counter a set of playing conditions set down by idiots acting as administrators. We know what T20 sets out to do, to entertain the frenzied crowd with big hitting, but Test cricket is resilient at providing a balance on a regular basis, if the playing conditions are fair for all.

It has also been said that these men who are being questioned are "good for the game", for the countries they play for, for their enthusiasm and for the entertainment they provide. No doubting that, but what about those hundreds of young people wanting to play cricket professionally who are being overtaken by virtue of not being able to bend and straighten their arms to advantage?

Sadly, just when the umpires are showing guts to act appropriately, it reads like we should encourage bowlers to continue throwing, to hell with the integrity of the art of bowling, and to hell with Sarwan and a few legspinners who can't throw even if they tried.

If I were to use this warped notion as an analogy in society, that it is a good thing to push and bend the rules to accommodate those who are "good for the game" and for the supposed "balance" within it, life at home and on the streets would be chaotic.

It's becoming chaotic on the playing fields, and soon labs around the world and the cricketing jails will be filling up. Why on earth would we want this scenario? How can we try to be so diligent in society when an unfair and wrongful advantage is taken, and yet be so lenient in a game that was always built on a "clean" action?

Test cricket is an honour and a privilege granted to those who are the best in their country, on the world stage, no matter what. And when they play they must play by the rules, with a responsibility to set the best example where possible. The rules must be consistent for all comers. Surely?

Bowling is all about intent. The bowler sets the ball in motion. His intent is to dismiss the batsman he is bowling to. If that intent shifts to exploiting an advantage based on a fragile law, then the integrity is lost. All over the world, from school nets to professional academies, the new talk and work are about blatantly straightening the arm all the way to 15 degrees, to provide mystery to bowling by developing new deliveries, in particular the doosra.

The doosra is an aberration; its intent is clear, the execution is plainly dodgy. It turns an offspinner into two bowlers who can dramatically spin the ball both ways. That begins to dramatically change the balance of a team.

For goodness sake, let us uphold the integrity of Test cricket by allowing the best players the chance to play and operate without an additional advantage over the rest. Why do you think there is this constant private whispering and disgruntlement around throwing in cricket amongst peers? Everyone I ask face to face about chucking says the same thing, in quiet tones: that they despise the chucking epidemic that is ravaging the globe.

Finally, the authorities are rightly policing the lawbreakers, warning or booking them for flagrant cricketing crimes, sending them to be properly tested in labs worldwide, and in some cases, to be tested again and again. It's healthy and it's a positive example of cricket doing its thing honestly and transparently.

Don't be surprised, though, if soon there will be a call to come out for a move to 20 degrees, to continue the "balancing act", to keep these players involved who are apparently good for the game over others. If the authorities succumb to it, then the merry-go-round will start all over again.

In the meantime, let's congratulate those courageous umpires and match referees who are calling on bowlers to stop chucking past the rule stipulated, and start bowling properly again, as the game has always demanded.

Martin Crowe, one of the leading batsmen of the late '80s and early '90s, played 77 Tests for New Zealand