11th September 2014
Patrolling the Boundary – a view from the outfield
Saeed Ajmal has been found guilty, and officially branded a chucker. He was swiftly followed into court by Bangladesh’s Al-Amin Hossain, the latest to be reported as being in possible possession of a suspect delivery – the sixth bowler up before the House Unfair Action Committee.
Back in December when West Indies’ Shane Shillingford was the first to be denounced, and had a ‘black spot’ pressed into his palm alongside his spinning finger, I wrote a piece about his suspension and the blight that is ‘pelting’, as it is called here in the Caribbean. At the time, cricket watchers in the region thought Shillingford had been unfairly singled out, when there were several other miscreants turning a dishonest doosra in the World Game. But happily, the feeling of conspiracy and victimisation was misplaced. Since then we’ve seen many another fall from grace, the mightiest to tumble being Ajmal.
There seems to have been a massive sea change in recent weeks and months. Finally, the authorities appear to have said ‘enough is enough’ and drawn a line – not a line in the sand, like Mickey Arthur’s which can be washed away by the first change of the tide; but, hopefully, an indelible line in granite. After all, were not The Laws of Cricket written upon two large stone tablets and handed down to MCC at Mount Sinai?
A couple of decades of disquiet have been endured by the older generations of cricket fans: depending on their age, they either thought that all this ‘throwing’ had finally been banished when they saw the establishment close ranks against Meckiff, Rorke, Griffin, Lock and their ilk in the early 1960s; or they were those, like me in their 40s, who’d grown up without ever seeing a dodgy action, thanks to the purge that occurred shortly before we were born.
But then along came Muttiah Muralitharan. Like the successful near eradication of tuberculosis in the UK by a concerted programme of inoculation – when the injections for the young were discontinued, so TB returned. Aspiring young cricketers have learned to bend their bowling arms through copying their modern idols. Consumption of the disease has spread through television. Martin Crowe goes a step further and believes throwing to be a cancer.
People had never seen anything quite like Muralitharan before. It just didn’t look right – and back then cricket was policed by men in white coats in the middle, not by gentlemen behind closed doors in committee rooms somewhere in Dubai. But then the powers-that-be off-the-field overruled the decision-makers on it when Murali was called as a chucker. They effectively took away the power invested in the umpires to rule upon the legitimacy of bowling actions, and then hid behind a murky screen of ‘technology’, ‘extension’, ‘flexibility’ and ‘degrees of tolerance’. We were initially given 10, then 15 degrees of separation from the game we knew and loved, and the game we were to spend the next twenty years watching.
And why? I don’t know – but I always felt that it was an unhappy confluence that the dodgiest deliveries I’d ever seen were being bowled by possibly the nicest chap ever to play cricket. I’ve always suspected that if Murali had had the countenance of an SF Barnes, or the lack of self-control of a Peate, Peel or Frank Ryan then the notion of ‘tolerance’ would never have entered into anyone’s head, let alone into the game’s lexicon, if not its Laws. But he wasn’t, and isn’t. He’s a thoroughly good bloke, and World Cricket duly bent not just through 15 degrees, but over-backwards to accommodate him. And it has taken his career to as-good-as-damn-it be over for them to address their mistake.
The ICC has looked out upon the horizon and seen the legacy Murali has left, and realised, belatedly, the error of their ways. What does it see? A modern landscape of international bowlers bunging and darting doosras and carroms, and pelting and throwing their yorkers and bouncers. Can anyone doubt that Lasith Malinga won’t very soon be one of the next to be asked: ‘Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Commonly-Known-as-Chucking-It Party?’
When Malinga started out he was a revelation. Something different, something exciting. And something legal. His arm may have come rocketing through below his shoulder, but it wasn’t flexed, it wasn’t extended and he didn’t throw. To me, I imagined that watching him may have been something like what it was to have witnessed Alfred Mynn, ‘Foghorn’ Jackson, or George ‘Tear ’em’ Tarrant bowling fearsome round arm expresses in the 1830s-60s. But of late, slow-motion TV footage from behind the arm has demonstrated that Malinga the Slinger has regularly thrown both his bouncer, and more pronouncedly, his yorker. It’s a shame that it’s deteriorated thus, but he has to go.
Of even more concern to administrators and guardians of the game must be the emerging generation of cricketers. Growing up with images of chucking being acceptable, and throwers being indulged, they’ve imitated those bad habits, finding of course that you get far more turn and purchase if you really push through with your forearm when delivering. More flex, more power to your elbow, and the greater rewards for you, my son. It’s just cheating, that’s all. Most worrying of all is that many modern day coaches may actually be encouraging this flagrant breach of Law 24.
I was horrified to view a YouTube video doing the rounds on Twitter of Hashim Amla bunging down an over of innocuous bombs in a Test Match in Australia. The commentators clearly know he is chucking, but imply rather than condemn him. But Ian Healy comments that coaches now try and get young bowlers to work within the 15 degree latitude, and utilise it. Basically, if there’s a bit of leeway for you to pelt it a bit, you’d be a fool not to.
But now the clampdown and cleansing is underway. I must be one of many among the reactionary old-school who is both surprised, and delighted – while from some online responses it’s apparent that others see this routing out as something akin to a Macarthyist witch-hunt. It’s been noticeable that those pleading for tolerance in blogs and ‘tweets’ for more ‘flexibility’ in the interpretation of Law 24 have generally been among a younger generation. These fellow travellers have grown up seeing actions from mystery spinners like Ajmal and Muralitharan as something acceptable, that levels the contest between bat and ball, and is good for the game. Yes, the contest has gone too far in favour of the bat – but the remedy should not, must not be to allow throwing. There are dozens of other counter-measures that can be tried before we turn the game into something else entirely.
As a self-confessed ‘traditionalist’ myself I am hugely relieved that the purification process is underway. For the good of the game it had to happen. And when I say ‘The Game’, I don’t just blithely mean the ‘modern’ game which is glibbly invoked by those with a limited cricket memory, and little sense of cricket history, who see ‘now’ as the most important thing. We have a duty to the ‘past’ game, but most importantly we have a duty to the ‘future’ game, and it would be wrong of us to assume that what we do contemporaneously is of course the ‘best’ thing.
As we look back at how things were buggered up in the past, whether by the MCC, ICC, TCCB, ECB, WICB – whomsoever – we judge them for their folly and lack of vision in seeing the bigger picture. In the years of Muralitharan, that was the crux of our opposition to his action as he continued flourishing in the game – it wasn’t the damage his acceptance was doing then, it was what it would do in the future. And that future has arrived. It is now.
It is remarkable, but refreshing that on this occasion, the ICC, as other high cricketing authorities were forced to do in the 1880s, 1900s and 1960s, have actually begun to do the ‘right’ thing. I hope we see more of it. I know I sound like a malevolent Vincent Price in Witchfinder General, claiming that this reign of terror is ‘God’s work, Mr Stern’, as we arbitrarily burn another alleged to indulge in the ‘dark arts’, whom we accuse of consorting with Satan and familiarising with a black cat called Grimalkin.
So be it. The game is far, far more important than any individual, and it must be preserved at any cost, less it becomes that something else.
As Dennis Freedman didn’t quite, but perhaps should have said in his recent podcast on the issue (and he is hardly one who’d promote himself as an establishment figure) – ‘if they don’t like it, then let them eat baseball’.
David Oram is the resident ‘statto’, and sometime presenter of ‘Mason & Guests’ – Voice of Barbados’ weekly cricket talk show, the leading cricket radio show in the West Indies – hosted by the Caribbean’s principal radio commentator, Andrew Mason. You can tweet me at DavidOram@colblimp1983.