There has been much talk in cricket circles over the past few weeks of mystery deliveries. It started in August, when Pakistani off-spinner Saeed Ajmal said that he would unveil a "top-secret" delivery against England in the series early next year.
Ajmal's chief claim to fame is that he bowls with an arm so bent he makes that of Muttiah Muralitharan look rod-straight. Heavily influenced by Saqlain Mushtaq, he designed his whole action around the need to accommodate the straightening of the arm from a bent position that most of us would require to bowl the doosra – the off-spinner's "other one", which turns like a leg-break and has provided Ajmal with many a victim.
Perhaps, then, Ajmal's new delivery will be bowled with a straight arm. Even if it isn't, we should be sceptical about his claims to have anything resembling a new delivery. A ball can spin from leg to off or off to leg, or go straight on; and it can have over-spin, back spin, or side-spin – or, more usually, two of the three. And spinners are forever claiming they have new deliveries, when none exist.
Shane Warne said before one Ashes series that he had 16 deliveries in his armoury. This could of course simply mean the same leg-break bowled from 16 marginally different positions on the crease; but so intoxicated by his propaganda were England's batsmen that they undertook extensive research into it. Ajmal is not in Warne's league, of course, and Andrew Strauss's men would do well to play the ball rather than the bowler.
The other recent mystery delivery comes from England's current bowling unit, one of their finest ever (especially if a recalled Chris Tremlett can learn to bowl half a yard fuller). The cricket writer Scyld Berry reported a week ago that James Anderson and one of his colleagues – presumably Stuart Broad – experimented with this delivery during a private net session at the Riverside Ground.
An Indian source told Berry that the mysterious element didn't pertain as much to the delivery as the moment before, during which the ball was tossed from left hand to right. Not long ago, Broad tried a variant of this method in a game, placing the ball in his left hand and waving it at his mid-off man as he ran in, before transferring it. The ICC warned him not to do it again.
That James Anderson should have been practising it so soon is, therefore, a concern. The least reported but most joyful aspect of England's brilliance this summer has been the spirit in which they have played the game – tough, but fair. Yet a late transference of the ball from one hand to another contravenes Law 42.4 of the game: "It is unfair for any fielder [ie member of the fielding team, so including the bowler] to attempt to distract the striker while he is preparing to receive or receiving a delivery".
Don't do it chaps. The spirit of cricket is precious and fragile. Such playground tactics imperil it. What, in any case, is gained by them? A slight distraction to the batsman's well-rehearsed pre-delivery routine, perhaps. But if you want to confuse him over the ball's trajectory, just hide it from view by placing your left hand over it – as bowlers have done for centuries.
And much better to try other, legal variations, like suddenly bowling off a shorter run-up (as Dominic Cork did effectively), or bowling the odd delivery from next to the umpire, so creating the illusion of a slower ball (because it has to travel further) but with the arm coming round at full speed. Saqlain was the master of that trick, and if Ajmal's "top secret" delivery was in fact a revival of it, I might start to take him seriously.