Bending laws of perception on cricket bowlers’ actions

Controversies and speculation of a bowler chucking will continue as long as jury is still out on how to tackle it, says Osman Samiuddin.

Muttiah Muralitharan faced severe scrutiny for his action but finished as the world's topmost wicket-taker in the sport. Eranga Jayawardena / AP Photo
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A decade ago, cricket’s ancient hyper-morality met the modern world’s thirst for reality television. The focus for this communion was Muttiah Muralitharan and, more specifically, his action.

Body-NoIndent: Two channels, ESPN (in India) and the UK’s Channel 4, broadcast what were paraded as definitive acquittals of Muralitharan’s action, which had been called repeatedly, occasionally sanctioned and permanently the subject of hysterical debate.

Muralitharan went through his repertoire with a steel-embedded plaster brace around his right arm, from bicep to wrist, and in good nature. He could not chuck, the takeaway was, with a steel brace on. He bowled to Michael Slater in one, to recreate match conditions.

There was a doctor present, too, explaining the unique physical quirks of Muralitharan’s wrist, arm and shoulder. Ravi Shastri and Mark Nicholas, for ESPN and Channel 4, respectively, became judge, jury and, eventually, the beneficent who cleared him.

Shastri did so in the same hype-master tone of all games he commentates upon; Nicholas was the more considered, inquiring and, importantly, non-Asian view.

In hindsight, it is not so much the details of Muralitharan’s case that are important, as for the fact that cricket felt the need for this public trial by TV in the first place.

Though he looks uncomfortable, Murali was probably a willing participant, perhaps even an instigator in doing the shows, but that is hardly the point. He had been compelled to this by cricket, feeling no other recourse was available to prove that he was not some cheating villain.

That is precisely what umpires such as Ross Emerson and Darrell Hair were trying to turn him into, no-balling him repeatedly with an ugly fervour. Men often are prone to delusions when invested with the tiniest bit of authority, but when cricket furnishes them with a haloed moral authority, this is what it gets.

Both were maintaining a tradition of the profession. When cricket first became obsessed with suspect actions in the 1960s, umpires led the way in hounding out suspected bowlers. It was a proper hounding, too, a lynch mob fit for condemning criminals. It turned bowlers into pariahs, guilty of a great immoral act.

That attitude remains. It retains more than just a whiff of moralising on suspect actions; in the smugness of Australia and England that their off-spinners do not bowl doosras, or feel the need to wear long sleeves; in Michael Vaughan and then Stuart Broad tweeting photos of Saeed Ajmal in action and, metaphorically, nodding and winking.

That yanks into black-and-white territory what is an inherently grey technical matter. Suspect actions can be deliberate, but they can also be functions of the mechanics of human bodies that we do not well understand.

What effect, for instance, did a fairly serious accident have on Ajmal’s right forearm when he was younger? How to explain the squirmy spectacle of Shoaib Akhtar being able to bend his elbows in ways it normally does not?

And where, in any case, is the study that sheds more light on the exact nature of the advantages gained from greater elbow flexion? It is said that bowling the doosra is impossible without breaking the acceptable degrees of flexion, but has anyone explained how Saqlain Mushtaq, the pioneer, did it with almost no visible bend at all?

Last week, an ICC committee expressed concerns about the process of identifying, reporting and testing suspect actions, and recommended changes.

It emerges that those concerns primarily centre around the University of Western Australia in Perth, where bowling actions undergo testing.

The time and cost of sending a bowler that far has always been an issue, but now, so is the fact that discrepancies have emerged in the findings of the Perth labs and others around the world.

The ICC wants to enable other labs in England, South Africa and India to be used and ultimately standardise findings. They are also testing sensors that provide real-time analysis of a bowler’s action during a game. That process still must be fine-tuned and finalised before it can be considered for use at senior level, but it could lead to the answer of a question raised by Mike Hesson.

The New Zealand coach is taking on the West Indies, who have, in Shane Shillingford, a spinner whose action is under scrutiny.

What would happen, Hesson asked, if a wicket was to be taken with a delivery bowled by an action that was illegal? Would, or should, they call the batsman back?

It is a valid question and a difficult, complicated one. It is, after all, a difficult, complicated issue, to be treated as such. Cricket has somehow still not grasped this.

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