Chuckers: How far can we bend the rules?

As officials seek to guide a game thrown into confusion by bowlers' actions, an ICC expert urges top players to take legality test
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The Independent Online

Nothing in cricket rivals the emotion evoked by the suspicion of throwing. Match-fixing, graphite bats, ball-tampering, false catches all come close, may indeed all be worse forms of blatant deception, but they do not quite reach down to the primal depths of the game.

There is something improper, not quite one of us about the bowler deemed to be a thrower, and anybody doubting that should ask those who have been accused. The notion that they are being charged with cheating eats at their soul.

Ask dazzling stars of the game, lightning fast bowlers such as Shoaib Akhtar and Brett Lee, devilish spinners like Muttiah Muralitharan and Harbhajan Singh, all of whom have had the purity and therefore the legality of their actions questioned.

Ask lesser lights like the English bowler James Kirtley, who must remodel his action for the second time and despite a network of support is still going through a solitary hell. And ask the two men whose cases are now before the International Cricket Council. They are the Pakistan fast bowler Shabbir Ahmed, who appeared before a Bowling Review Group in Dubai yesterday at which he tried and failed to have a year's ban overturned, and the novice South African off-spinner Johan Botha, who was reported last month after only one Test match and sparked a universal debate on how he could possibly not have been spotted before.

All those men might exchange a place in heaven for the withdrawal of all charges on earth. The only certainty would seem to be that there will be more like them because while the ICC are committed to constant review, the new regulations permitting a 15-degree bend in the arm will positively encourage coaches and their charges to go as close to the edge as possible to gain the maximum advantage. That is why throwing, no matter how inadvertent, is excoriated: it enables the fast man to bowl faster and the slow man to turn the ball more. That is why if you want to see a chucker, go and watch polo.

Throwing and what to do about it have been around for as long as the game, or at least since 1864 when overarm bowling was legalised. There have been several purges down the years: in the latter part of the 19th century, in the middle of the 20th, and now. The system instituted in March last year, and enabled by technological advance, is now being subjected to its most stringent test. Both the latest cases will examine the wisdom of a regulation that goes against the precise tenet of Law 24.

Shabbir Ahmed's Test career of 10 matches has been both successful and chequered. He was reported by match officials after the First Test match against England in Multan last November. As it was the second report in a year and the subsequent assessment supported it, the ban, the first of its kind, was invoked. Following new procedure, he contested the verdict before a specially convened Bowling Review Group, headed by Sir Oliver Popplewell, yesterday. The Pakistan Cricket Board will now consider the panel's unanimous verdict.

More bizarre may be the case of Botha. Summoned belatedly to a tour of Australia, he was immediately selected for his debut in the Third Test and almost as quickly had doubts cast on the legality of his action. The umpires and match referee reported him and he will be scientifically assessed in Perth next week. It seems South Africa are taking a huge risk with a 23-year-old's career by playing him in the one-day series.

David Richardson, the ICC's general manager of cricket, said: "Shabbir's case is going to be a big test of whether the procedure is working. I wouldn't want him to think that he was a testing ground, but he is a very good example of the most difficult scenario when you have a bowler who is on the borderline."

The allowance of a 15-degree elbow extension is undoubtedly a liberalisation but that is also the point when the naked eye can spot something off the straight, so to speak. Dr Paul Hurrion, one of the ICC's expert panel of human-movement specialists, is satisfied. When he first devised his revolutionary computer video software five years ago, he set levels of straightening at five degrees for a spinner, 7.5 for a medium-pacer and 10 for a fast bowler.

"I suppose it's only really as a result of a couple of high-profile players that some of those values were challenged," he said. "The powers that be have gone for the 15-degree value, which I will stand by." But Hurrion recognises ("you said that, I didn't, but I know what you're saying") that it may not be coincidental that several prolific wicket-takers frequently have extensions nearer 15 than either 10 or five.

"I would like to see some of these high-profile players back through the system," he said. "That would clear a lot of the scaremongering and the underlying suspicion. There are a few bowlers, Muttiah Muralitharan and Shoaib Akhtar among them, who haven't gone through the new protocol."

It is natural that new bowlers, especially those bearing an innovation like the doosra, are placed under more scrutiny. It was the doosra and his faster ball that mainly brought opprobrium on Botha. South African authorities are deeply discomfited. Brian Basson, the head of cricket affairs, said everybody was looking for a spinner with something extra. "Johan has risen very rapidly and the doosra is pretty new. The question may be asked why this wasn't picked up. Well, there may be nothing to pick up, but it's embarrassing for us. I suppose in a way it's not a bad thing this happens. Coaches all over need to become more aware."

Botha's case has reopened the argument on whether it is possible to bowl a legal doosra. Hurrion smiled. "You can bowl a doosra under 15 but whether you can bowl it effectively ... It's close. They have changed the whole way spin bowling will be coached. Anybody with half a brain will push it to the limits." Hurrion said it would be possible, if costly, to give a value of extension in 10 minutes while a game is in progress, which would allow a kind of yellow-card system.

Suspect actions may have a bearing on the outcome of a match. Deterioration in Shabbir's action was spotted on the third day in Multan, after which he took five of his six wickets in England's defeat.

At Shabbir's hearing the Pakistan Cricket Board director, Saleem Altaf, advocated something much more contentious and old-fashioned. "There is a law which clearly defines what is an illegal action and empowers umpires to call such bowlers," he said. The technology is now there to support them. It will never catch on.

A YEAR OF CITINGS

1: HARBHAJAN SINGH (March 2005) Reported for his doosra (and under suspicion before) he was allowed to continue playing. Cleared in the laboratory by an earlier test, he has used the delivery more sparingly and the ICC have noticed improvement.

2: SHABBIR AHMED (May 2005) The start of his problems came in Barbados when he was reported for transgressions in both innings. He was suspended after scientists backed the report and until he submitted himself to fresh analysis.

3: JERMAINE LAWSON (July 2005) The fast bowler's first transgression under the new system but he had already been reported under the old one. In the lab he proved to be just 15 degrees, which made it permissible for him to play. But West Indies, realising match conditions differ, thought he still had work to do.

4: SHOAIB MALIK (November 2005) Reported for a so-called "stop and prop" delivery, the off-spinner had also transgressed in 2004. He went to Perth for assessment. He showed the action he used in the match and lab - not the doosra - was within the limits and he was cleared.

5: SHABBIR AHMED (November 2005) In the same Multan Test as Shoaib, he was reported for the second time in the year. Umpires said they noticed deterioration as the match wore on. Lab analysis and a review body supported them and Shabbir is now banned for a year.

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