Mukul Kesavan looks at why the ICC's present system of variable tolerance limits based on bowlers' speeds is untenable and unenforceable and suggests an alternative. This piece appeared as the cover story in the June issue of Wisden Asia Cricket.
For those of you who thought that the laws of cricket require bowlers to bowl, not throw, you should know that the ICC allows all bowlers to chuck, i.e. to straighten their arms at the point of delivery. But not all ICC-sanctioned chuckers are created equal. In a sign of the growing clout of India in international cricket, bowlers have been classified into a kind of Hindu hierarchy, a caste system where status is based on the sacred principle of speed. Thus, a fast bowler can straighten his arm through 10 degrees (that is, crook his arm and chuck from that angle), a medium-pacer through 7.5 degrees (don't you love the specious exactness of that decimal point?) and a slow bowler, or spinner, is allowed the smallest cheat of all, a mere 5 degrees.
According to Wisden Cricinfo, "Tolerance levels were recently introduced by the ICC - although not into the Laws of Cricket - because research into fast bowling indicated that some degree of elbow straightening was identified in 99% of cases. The natural elbow flexion spanned from 3 to 20 degrees." What this means in plain language is that the immutable laws of cricket carry on being immutable, but the men in charge of implementing them are instructed to ignore bowlers who chuck within some theoretical limits. How might an umpire measure the degree of crookedness on the pitch, short of peering through a protractor? And how, therefore, are the 'tolerance limits' to be enforced? Recent events have supplied us with a possible answer.
After Chris Broad reported Muttiah Muralitharan to the ICC because he thought his doosra was dodgy (or dodgier than his other deliveries), Murali was wired and measured by boffins in Australia. The subsequent report tells us that Murali seems to flex his arm through 14 degrees while bowling the doosra, which is nearly three times the chucking allowance for a spinner. After corrective coaching, according to extracts from the reports published in The Hindu, the degree of flexion was brought down to 10 degrees, still twice the permitted limit of tolerance for spinners. Despite this, the report recommends that he be allowed to bowl the doosra pending further investigations and research. Which leaves matters as clear as mud.
The ICC has decided to ignore the scientists' recommendations. It has banned the doosra and put Murali on notice by making it clear that if he is called for bowling the doosra again he could be banned from international cricket for up to 12 months. "These current levels of tolerance are based on expert advice that suggests that, beyond a certain level, bowlers will gain an unfair advantage," Malcolm Speed, the ICC's chief executive, said in a statement, explaining the ICC's position.
Bizarrely, the expert, Bruce Elliott, who was approved by the ICC to do the tests on Murali's doosra, has, according to Wisden Cricinfo, strongly criticised the current tolerance limits, which he claims are based on "illogical data"! Wisden Cricinfo reports him saying that, " ... the five-degrees [rule] is based on illogical data because they've just tested fast bowlers and assumed that there is some relationship between fast bowlers and spin bowlers. Fifteen degrees is the right angle to select for fast bowlers and you probably should come down to 10 degrees for spin bowlers."
Another member of the team that worked with Murali, Daryl Foster of the University of Western Australia's School of Human Movement and Exercise Science, also questions the rationale behind the discriminatory tolerance limits in his report on Murali's action. On what information, studies or research, he asks, are the ICC tolerance figures of 10 degrees, 7.5 degrees and 5 degrees for bowlers ranging from fast to spin, based? "Without knowing what the situation is with other spin bowlers," he says, "it would seem unrealistic to ban Murali's doosra without the benefit of proper research having been undertaken into 'normal' spin bowlers." I'm not sure where that leaves Mr Speed or the ICC. Paddle-less, I think.
This is a pivotal moment in the history of cricket and it is important that no one, neither Murali nor anyone else, be punished or proceeded against till the ICC rethinks its `tolerance limits' because in their present form they are inconsistent, discriminatory and unenforceable.
They are inconsistent with the basic object of the law against throwing. The law against straightening the arm at the point of delivery is meant to discourage the unfair advantage in speed, bounce and turn that such flexion gives a cheating bowler over his honest, straight-armed contemporary. So if bending and straightening their arms allows Brett Lee or Shoaib Akhtar to bowl faster, given the laws of cricket, the ICC should instruct them to bowl with straighter arms, even if this means they bowl less rapidly. Instead the ICC has taken the view that the faster you bowl, the more flagrantly you can chuck. Why should an honest, straight-armed trier like Javagal Srinath end a career with poorer stats than, say, Shoaib Akhtar, simply because he took cricket's laws seriously?
The workhorse medium-pacer is only allowed a 7.5% ceiling of crookedness: did the ICC stop to think that the reason he's bowling slower is because his action conforms more closely to the definition of a legitimate delivery? And conversely, did they consider the possibility that the reason why Brett Lee and Akhtar terrorise batsmen with pace and bounce is that their bowling actions depart more radically from the prescriptions of the Laws of Cricket? Cricket cannot discriminate between fast bowlers and slower ones without standing the letter and spirit of its own law on its head.
I have thought for some time now that the bounce Glenn McGrath extracts from just short of a good length owes something to a straightening arm and I was delighted to find support for this view in a recent article by Simon Hughes in The Daily Telegraph. Here's the quote: "[Courtney] Walsh was never called for chucking and neither was Glenn McGrath. Yet McGrath gets some of his pace from a hyperextension of the elbow which varies in extent [emphasis added]. Shoaib Akhtar is a similar case. In fact most fast bowlers flex their elbow slightly at some point in delivery. I would go so far as to say virtually all of them inadvertently 'throw' the odd ball. If Law 24.3 was applied ultra-rigorously, there would not be many fast bowlers still playing."
Oddly enough, McGrath is regarded as the exemplary fast bowler, Akhtar and Lee are hailed for injecting excitement into the modern game, while the wretched Muralitharan is reviled around the world by Australian umpires, Indian spinners (retired), Michael Parkinson, and now Chris Broad. Why?
In the recent past, cricket's administrators and commentators have developed a 'conservationist' policy towards fast bowling. I remember hearing the otherwise sensible Ian Chappell say during India's last tour but one of Australia that he hoped umpires weren't too severe on the likes of Lee and Akhtar because they brought so much to the game. Almost as if the ICC had been listening, this view has been enshrined in these absurd 'tolerance limits'. In an earlier time men like Charlie Griffith and Ian Meckiff had their careers ruthlessly cut short once they were called. The reason for the difference between then and now is straightforward: before the introduction of the helmet, fast bowlers who chucked were life-threatening; now, pace Chappell, we are free to see them as a source of cricketing sex-appeal and excitement.
But even if we were to go along with this decadent, later-Roman point of view, we need to be consistent. Murali brings as much to the cricketing table as McGrath or Akhtar or Lee. He is the most destructive spinner in the history of cricket, bar no-one, not even Warne. He turns the ball a yard into the batsman, then turns it away at will with his doosra, the most amazing delivery since Bosanquet invented the googly. What perverse logic allows Akhtar to bend his arm through 10 degrees and stay legal while the same degree of flexion in the case of Murali brings him to the attention of Broad's beady eye?
Murali can either be embraced as part of a general redefinition of the legal delivery, or, if the ICC chooses to enforce Law 24.3 strictly, he can be excommunicated along with the epidemic of crooked-arm artists who have taken over the contemporary game. What the ICC can't do, is to make Murali pull over while allowing Lee and Akhtar the run of the fast lane.
Instead of making Murali the lightning rod for the controversy over chucking, why not test all contemporary bowlers who represent their countries in Tests or one-dayers and publish the degree to which they straighten their arms? Should such a study reveal that the likes of Lee and Akhtar and Harbhajan Singh are chronic arm-straighteners, there will be enough boards with a dog in the fight for the ICC to have a 'robust' debate about the tolerance limits as they are presently framed. Cricket will avoid the spectacle of one bowler being hounded on account of his success and we might actually get a principled discussion on what is an epidemic of illegality.
If indeed most fast bowlers chuck, and if the ICC doesn't want to rigorously enforce its own laws because this might render them extinct and make cricket's theme park less attractive, then the only durable solution is to change Law 24.3 for all bowlers, not just express chuckers. The laws of cricket don't (and shouldn't) lay down that speed is more significant in the matter of defining a legal delivery than swing or bounce or spin. The law seeks to lay down a general and universal rule for a legitimate delivery. If the ICC now feels that 10-degree flexion is permissible within this definition, then this should apply to all bowlers so that all of them, slow, medium and fast can exploit the possibilities of chucking equally. Daryl Foster who worked with Murali to reduce the illegal flexion he used while bowling the doosra, suggests exactly this in his remediation report:
"It may be that 15 degrees of extension be allowed to all types of bowlers no matter what speed they bowl at, beyond which it will be termed an illegal delivery."
The working assumption behind the graded 'tolerance limits' seems to be that the arm straightening that occurs within those limits is involuntary, and that because of the biomechanics of bowling fast, the sins of fast bowlers are more involuntary than those of others. This is a dangerous assumption because it takes us into the murky terrain of intention (did the bowler mean to chuck?) and the uncertain authority of a fledgling science.
In his replies to a series of questions put to him on the rationale behind the tolerance limits, David Richardson, speaking on behalf of the ICC, says repeatedly that the tolerance limits had been put into place not to accommodate fast bowlers who straightened their arms, but to acknowledge the biomechanical realities of bowling fast. "The levels of tolerance are set so as to accommodate a degree of straightening which might occur due to the stresses placed on the body during the delivery. Even a solid metal bar, if rotated fast enough will display a degree of movement." The metal bar analogy is meant to be the scientific clincher: if natural laws of motion can bend rigid, inanimate materials, the living tissue that makes up the human arm must be susceptible to them.
The problem is, metal bars don't often have elbow joints. All other things being equal, all metal bars will flex to exactly the same degree when rotated at a given speed. The same isn't true of human arms. Here, the degree of flexion will depend on individual arms: some will be doublejointed, some thick and muscular, others thin and sinewy: by definition, other things cannot be equal. The ICC's own evidence indicates that even among fast bowlers who haven't been 'called' or reported for unfair actions, some flex their arms through nine degrees and others not at all. If there's even one fast bowler who doesn't flex his arm, arm-straightening, arguably, becomes a choice, not the inevitable result of a scientific law. So why not make the zero-degree men the norm? Why be permissive and offer the latitude of 10 degrees?
"Good question," replies Richardson, "but you have to draw the line somewhere. The bottomline is that in the case of fast bowlers, anything under 10 would not be noticeable to the naked eye."
Really? Brett Lee and Shoaib Akhtar have both been reported for dodgy actions earlier in their careers and cleared. They have been bowling fast with impunity for a while. Does this mean that they currently flex their arms less than 10 degrees? If they do, then Richardson's claim that sub-10-degree flexion is invisible can't be right because the kink in their actions is clearly visible to the naked eye - to nearly every spectator who has ever watched them bowl. And if they do flex their arms more than 10 degrees, why haven't they been reported again? Have they been tested since the tolerance limits came into effect? If the ICC is already in the business of commissioning scientific studies to frame bowling guidelines, there's no reason for them to wait till an international bowler is reported.
Science isn't going to provide self-evident answers. The research shows that some fast bowlers can bowl without flexion while others straighten their arms. Science doesn't speak with one voice in the matter of spinners either. According to Richardson, the ICC's study "showed that the stress or forces on the body of the spinner were not sufficient to warrant any degree of straightening." Diametrically opposed to this finding is the expert opinion of Daryl Foster as reported in The Hindu:
"We contend that because the speed of his (Muralitharan's) upper-arm rotation is as fast, and in some cases quicker than, fast bowlers, his level of acceptability for elbow extension should also be set at the 10-degree mark."
The ICC needs to understand that it can't apply to science for warrants to enforce discriminatory laws. The laws of cricket, like other human laws, can't lay claim to the ultimate truth; but they must aspire to fairness. Good laws have two prime qualities: they are uniform and they are enforceable. ICC's tolerance limits meet neither criterion.
In India, for historical reasons, Muslims are governed by a separate personal law which, among other things, allows Muslim men to marry upto four women concurrently. Indians of other communities - Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and so on - are legally monogamous. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of Muslim Personal Law, it has created in Indian politics endless controversy and grievance, real and imagined.
For cricket to create the equivalent of a Muslim personal law for fast bowlers - "I'm allowed 10 degrees to your five" - when the traditions of the game don't mandate such differentiation, is mad. Fortunately the law itself hasn't yet been changed, the statutes of our game don't formally recognise this sectarian distinction, and there is time for the ICC to take on board some heartfelt Indian advice: don't go there.
If the ICC intends to abide by the letter and spirit of the original law, there is an alternative course. The council should declare that it is willing to bend the law fractionally to accommodate research that shows that large numbers of bowlers find it difficult to bowl without straightening their arms. It should nominate a three-, fouror five-degree limit, a single-digit figure that is derived from the low end of research findings. Notice that the sentence doesn't read "bowl fast without straightening", but simply, "bowl without straightening".
The ICC should demand that every bowler come in at or under this minimum deviation from the straight-arm norm. It should make it clear that as the apex body of the game its main concern is with making all bowlers conform to the law rather than with stretching the law to fit some bowlers. Any fast bowlers who find it impossible to bowl at 98 mph without exceeding the three-degree cutoff will be welcome to decelerate till their bowling arcs fit the ICC template. Any spinners whose doosras (or for that matter, their 'pehlas') require a suspension of disbelief greater than three degrees (or four, or five, so long as the limit is low and general to all bowling species) will be sentenced to long hours in solitary watching videos of Bishen Bedi in his delivery stride from every angle that the archives can supply.
If the scientists are to be believed, many bowlers won't make the cut, but the integrity of cricket was never going to come cheap. Should the ICC not have the stomach for the uproar that will follow, it can go the more permissive route and peg the tolerance limit at 10 degrees for everyone. It will change bowling as we know it by encouraging the Lees, Akhtars, Harbhajans and Muralitharans at the expense of more orthodox bowlers, but it might give cricket a chance to find a new equilibrium. What won't work are discriminatory tolerance limits - that way lies endless bickering and litigation. Different strokes for different folks is a plausible motto for a commune but a bad prescription for cricket.
Mukul Kesavan is an essayist and novelist
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