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Feature

How India weeds out its suspect actions

The BCCI set up a three-man committee to tackle the problem of chucking at age-group and domestic cricket, and it has produced significant results in five years

Seventy - the number of suspect actions in representative cricket in India when the BCCI took stock after the first IPL in 2008. One hundred and thirty-five - the number of suspect actions a year later, after most of the bowlers hoodwinked the three-man committee set up to wipe the malaise out. They would bowl with different actions during testing and rehabilitation at academies, and continue chucking in actual match situations. Thirty-five - the number now, five years later, after the committee comprising S Venkataraghavan, Javagal Srinath and former umpire AV Jayaprakash came down hard on players with suspect actions.
There was a growing feeling in the late 1990s and early 2000s the ICC had set the wrong example by allowing suspect actions to thrive. They were all over television, influencing the next generation of cricketers. You could see them in the maidans and the gullies. You could see them in official domestic cricket. Then the IPL put them all on TV. The BCCI found it embarrassing. It picked three men who had expertise. Two of the committee members are former umpires. One of them had a beautiful offspinner's action. One of them is an active match referee. They knew the pitfalls; they knew where the ICC's enforcement of the law was weak. They ignored what the ICC was doing. They said they wanted their game clean first.
The first step was to empower and hold accountable the on-field umpires. "Umpires can get leg-befores wrong, they can get bump catches wrong, they can get caught behind wrong, but they cannot make the mistake of allowing somebody to bowl with a dodgy action and get the distinct advantage of straightening the arm," Srinath says. "When they see a bowler is suspect, they note down the ball number. It could be 10 balls, 15 balls. It could be 10.3, 11.4, the faster one, or doosra, which is absolutely bent. This is compiled. It comes to us at NCA for us to look at it."
Bowlers have not been called on the field but the umpires have the power to do so if they feel a crucial and irreversible advantage is being exploited at a crucial juncture in a match. "You don't want to call someone for chucking in open play because there is a psychological dent as well," Srinath says. "They can definitely call him for chucking, but they give him a chance. They call him suspect.
"They call the captain, speak to him, tell him, if it is really bad, 'Look, stop him bowling now. We might call him for chucking. If it is getting too blatant, stop him.' Then he is called suspect, he has to go for rehabilitation and all those things. In the meantime, even before the rehab, if he comes back to play the game again, and if he is found suspect again, umpires will no-ball him. The point is - the teams will have to take the risk of playing him again knowing his action is suspect. In my observation, if someone is called for a suspect action, generally the team doesn't put him in the playing XI. That is the immediate reaction from the team. To not play him and let him go through the remedial process and let him come back next year or next season."
What happens during rehab is a little homegrown and not entirely scientific but, according to Srinath, it was essential given that testing cannot replicate match conditions. It was a lesson the committee learnt early. "We got a list of players who were suspects [after the first IPL], and this list came from first-class umpires as well as under-16, under-19 level," Srinath says. "Umpires had found them to be suspect and that came along with the footage for us to review. This came to NCA Bangalore and the three of us saw that. At the same time these 70-odd bowlers were at the NCA undergoing rehabilitation. They were going through the motions and trying to get their arms straight and all those things. Everything seemed to be all right after the rehabilitation, there was no bend, there was no flex at the time of delivery. The following year, we had 135 people and many of them were the same repeat offenders from the previous years. We looked into it and saw the action has gone back to the original one."
What committee came up with is now being used by the ICC, too, as its explanation released over the weekend states. "We asked for the clippings of the match," Srinath says. "We also asked the coach and the player to go through the motions in the nets at the NCA. That was taped from a similar angle at long-on. We asked them, 'Honestly, is this the same action you use in a match too?' And they said yes. We compared that on a split screen. It was shocking. What we saw and what they were saying were two different things. We made them sit in front of the system, and we made them see."
Where the process is not entirely scientific is that the BCCI does not have facilities to wire up bowlers and determine by how many degrees they straighten their arms. There is a sidestep of the ICC process here, in that the committee believes the human eye is the best judge. It also assumes a certain degree of culpability - an acknowledgement of guilt - when a bowler changes his action during testing. It is more panchayat than Supreme Court - the onus is on the bowler to prove his innocence if he has been reported and is found to have bowled with different actions during a match and testing. The committee does not tell the bowler by how much he is straightening the arm, or if he is indeed exceeding 15 degrees.
"We had all sorts of justifications going around - A bowls like this, C bowls like this, therefore I have this action," Srinath says. "That was wrong. So this committee of three decided that we are not going by international standards, by not taking any case examples. We said you have to go through the process. We are not calling them chuckers, we say your action requires rehabilitation, you need help. If he is really confident about it he can go to those centres, measure himself with those machines, we will definitely do the recommendation but where he goes, what he does, is up to him."
The committee is proud the number of suspect actions has reduced and that it has worked with age-group cricketers, because by 17 or 18 the action is more or less set. The committee is also unyielding in its view that there is no place for chucking in cricket even if it might help address the imbalance between bat and ball. Former Pakistan captain Ramiz Raja recently equated it to reverse swing, a natural response of the bowlers to the domination of the bat, and asked for some lenience in the degree of flex for mystery spinners. Srinath disagrees.
"What you are doing by allowing these things or even building on such ideas is, you are allowing the game to be completely contaminated," Srinath says. "You are allowing everyone to bend their arm. 'The batsmen are ruling the roost so therefore let there be some balance.' [Instead] Give them proper wickets. Seaming wickets for fast bowlers. Maybe some turn for spinners. I think the game has to be fair. There is no way the world will accept, barring those few people who are advocating this, for the chuckers to survive.
"It would have been unfair to the players who had a good action, who had a very fair action. I would see it from the point of view of a fellow competitor who is also competing in the same tournament with a fair action. If I have a competition with another fast bowler who has been chucking left, right and centre, I will be disheartened. If I don't bowl well and don't get wickets, then it's fine. Then you are really promoting the game, you appreciate the bowler who bowls better. But if someone is chucking his way to five or six wickets every game, it is not fair. This will definitely have a cascading effect. The moment you put the guy with a dodgy action on television, kids learn cricket by watching television. The first coach is television."
Srinath does not rule out the possibility that the BCCI method might have had some impact on the ICC's recent crackdown on suspect actions. "It has been discussed with the ICC," he says. "I am sure the board members, the representatives have spoken about it. There was a serious intent to crack down upon this mess, which was growing out of control. It's not about the numbers, it's about cleaning the game as quickly as possible. The question is why not then and why now. But when things are happening for the betterment of the game, then why do you ask the question why?"
The BCCI way is not perfect, yet it is full of common sense. It agrees the bend is not being measured, but there is enough indication that the measure of 15 degrees is irrelevant. It is setting the bar higher - a bit like the ban on teaching the doosra in Australia. There have been suggestions that this latest ICC crackdown has not indicted any big names from India, Australia and England; it might well be because they have checks in place at domestic and age-group levels.

Gaurav Kalra is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo. @gauravkalra75, Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo