Wisden Cricket Monthly / Features

July 2004

The great taboo

Are chuckers new or a throwback

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Are chuckers new or a throwback? Are rules being bent with the bowler's arm? Gideon Haigh traces a dodgy history of action and inaction on dodgy actions



Ian Meckiff: no-balled out of Test cricket © The Cricketer
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Cricket's occasional alarms about illegal actions, disruptive as they can be, also attest one of its great successes. Some bowlers have, at various times, transgressed the law; not merely most but almost all have remained well within it.

This is not a minor consolation. A vestige of when bowling was `bowling', delivered underarm, projecting the ball with a rigid arm is not an action at which one would naturally arrive. It is far from clear how, when and why it became convention; even Roland Bowen in his mighty history can do no better than: "At some unknown stage the idea took root that `cricket' bowling involved a straight arm." And yet we do it, with such fastidious fidelity that anything other seems an offence to truth and beauty.

This is all the more surprising when it is considered how easily a bowler might transgress inadvertently, as the Australian umpire Jim Phillips pointed out just over a century ago: "Just as one bowler, in his desire to make his delivery more difficult, gets as near the return crease as possible, and occasionally inadvertently oversteps the mark, thereby bowling a `no-ball', so another bowler will, in attempting an increase of pace, use his elbow, especially if he be a bowler whose arm is not quite straight. In each of these instances it does not seem just to suppose that either bowler is wilfully unfair." And Phillips might be thought to know whereof he spoke, being at the forefront of the first of cricket's three most serious and protracted problems with illegal actions (I am here excluding the earlier complaints of `throwing' associated with the trial and adoption of roundarm and overarm bowling). The common qualities of each crisis are instructive, the differences even more so.

For some time after the legalisation of overarm bowling 140 years ago very little was done about those at the edge of orthodoxy - which is unsurprising, given that so much previously dubious was now de rigueur. Lancashire seemed positively to breed them. John Crossland was exiled from the game not because of the protests about his action from Lord Harris but because he was discovered to have breached his residential qualification, living in Nottingham for a period in 1884; his contemporary George Nash, a left-arm spinner whose wickets cost only 12.36 apiece, and successor Arthur Mold, who took 100 wickets in a season on nine occasions and was probably the fastest bowler in England, shied with impunity for many years.

By the early 1890s throwing was disturbingly pervasive in English cricket and being assimilated by impressionable colonials. Erstwhile Australian skipper Billy Murdoch heaved an exasperated sigh in Wisden: "To my mind the remedy for throwing is very simple; the rule says `if the umpire be not satisfied of the absolute fairness of the delivery of any ball he shall call `no ball'.' Now, if the MCC were to instruct all umpires that it was absolutely necessary to carry out this rule without respect to persons, I think it would have the desired effect." But, in the absence of firm policy, actions continued to mutate. As Fred Spofforth put it in a celebrated letter to Sporting Life in January 1897: "There is scarcely a first-class county which does not include a `thrower' amongst its cricketers, many of them men who would scorn to cheat an opponent out and who, if a wicketkeeper were in the habit of kicking down the stumps or knocking off the bails with his hands ... would not hesitate to bring him before his committee ... Still they will not only employ a man to throw but will actually throw themselves, and acknowledge it, their only excuse being that `others do it' ... " Does this sound familiar?



Arthur Mold: only three Tests for the leading fast bowler of the 1890s - his action was considered too suspicious © The Cricketer
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Then came Phillips. A peripatetic character born in dusty Dimboola who trained and practised as a mining engineer before and after his cricket days, he was a unique freelance official who commuted between Australia and England in order to ply his trade long before it became fashionable: he was thus unusually well qualified to see that deteriorating bowling actions were not a problem exclusive to either country and exceptionally well placed to do something about it. After Phillips' first proscription - Australian Ernie Jones at Adelaide in January 1898 - Wisden's Sydney Pardon predicted: "From what Phillips has done, nothing but good can come." He was right. During the three English seasons from 1898 Phillips and emboldened contemporaries passed sentence on half a dozen serial offenders - repeatedly where necessary, as it was in the case of Mold. The problem faded if it did not disappear.

Throwing's return 50 years later was in an environment somewhat more complicated. There was again a squeamishness about responding in England but this time no umpire came forward to take the initiative: Frank Chester was of a mind to call the South African Cuan McCarthy at Trent Bridge in June 1951 but refrained when the aqueous Sir Pelham Warner indicated that he would receive no support from the MCC. And thanks to similarly invertebrate administration elsewhere the contagion spread. By the late 1950s virtually every country had a group of bowlers with actions of arguable purity, including some of the fastest of their era: West Indian Charlie Griffith, South African Geoff Griffin, New Zealander Gary Bartlett and the Australians Ian Meckiff and Gordon Rorke. "The danger of not stamping on offenders in the past has led to the problems which now confront the authorities," wrote Wisden's Norman Preston. "They have only themselves to blame ... "

Remedial policy required the building of a coalition of the willing, as it were, at the July 1960 convention of the Imperial Cricket Conference. Griffin was called 11 times in the Lord's Test in 1960 and Meckiff and Rorke seemed destined for the same fate the following season when Australia visited. In the event, for reasons of form and fitness, neither was selected. But the revisions made to the Law to prohibit "sudden straightening" of the arm "immediately prior to the instant of delivery", to curb dragging of the back foot and to stand behind umpires choosing to enforce both statutes provided at last the basis for coherent action. Sixteen bowlers were called between 1960 and 1964, in England, Australia, West Indies and Pakistan.



Charlie Griffith: one of the most dangerous © The Cricketer
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It is in comparison with the controversies 50 and 100 years ago that the nature of the current impasse seems especially disturbing. Unilateral action by a strong umpire à la Phillips has been deemed unpalatable; multilateral action à la Imperial Cricket Conference does not seem an option either. But the dispute cannot be sidestepped. The chief dramatis personae are not consistent first-class performers like Crossland and Mold, or peripheral Test players like Griffin and Meckiff but the world's leading Test wicket-taker Muttiah Muralitharan and fastest bowler Shoaib Akhtar.

Both, to complicate matters further, are unusual physical specimens anyway: Murali's elbow is congenitally deformed; Shoaib is elastically double-jointed. And biomechanic technology, to which cricket's governors turned in search of certainty, has simply introduced another layer of uncertainty. Precision can be approached but never reached. Degrees of tolerance for arm straightening have been introduced in the light of studies revealing that most bowlers do, quite unconsciously and naturally, flex their arms while bowling. This, however, is little use to umpires. The choice seems to be between a law that is enforceable and unacceptable or one that is acceptable and unenforceable.

The overarching difficulty is that, after a hundred years in which authorities have reacted only with the greatest reluctance and queasiness, throwing has become the cricketing deed that dare not speak its name. The perspectives with which Jim Phillips enforced the law and with which some recent commentators have interpreted the law are quite different, and reflect, in some ways, a melancholy development. We live in topsy-turvy times. To bowl a string of malicious bouncers trying to pin a tailender backing towards square-leg these days is to show commendable commitment and aggression; to bend your arm as a quick bowler by more than 10 degrees or as a spinner by more than five degrees is to be a cur, a cheat and a blight on the game. There used to be a distinction in cricket between the legal and the ethical but not, perhaps, any more.

This article was first published in the July issue of The Wisden Cricketer.
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