Reluctant tourists face up to 'bent' game

Vaughan's men thrown into an unwanted journey as rulers deny encouraging chuckers' charter
Click to follow
The Independent Online

England set out for Zimbabwe tomorrow on the first leg of their winter tour because the International Cricket Council refused to be prevailed upon by politicians. When the team return from their African sojourn in February the law on throwing might have changed forever, thus confirming that the real power lies with scientists.

England set out for Zimbabwe tomorrow on the first leg of their winter tour because the International Cricket Council refused to be prevailed upon by politicians. When the team return from their African sojourn in February the law on throwing might have changed forever, thus confirming that the real power lies with scientists.

The two issues - Zimbabwe and throwing - have come to beset the game. On the one hand there is the resistible idea of playing in or against a country where democracy is a mirage and flagrantly misguided (at best) government policies are causing millions of people to starve. On the other, there is the fraught concept of the legality of bowling actions. Under the game's traditional laws and perceptions, there is no more heinous offence of which to be accused than throwing. It eats at a man's soul, wrecks his reputation and affects his whole life. Confronted by scientific evidence every bit as persuasive as that which has done for smoking, the ICC's cricket committee last week responded with a recommendation to interpret actions differently. Closure on either topic is far from either close or certain.

England travel with heavy hearts. All they want to do is reach Zimbabwe, play their five one-day games and get out. Michael Vaughan, their captain, who will lead an inexperienced bunch, has said as much. They will have 10 days to dwell on it as a team, since their reluctance to be anywhere near the place is embodied by their decision to spend almost their entire practice time in Namibia. They will then play their series in 11 days before leaving with relief for five Test matches and seven one-dayers in South Africa.

Without tempting providence, it looks as if the Zimbabwe leg might just be overcome without incident. For some reason, it has helped that Zimbabwe have been temporarily suspended from Test cricket. England were originally slated to play two Test matches there and that always seemed likely to provoke more of a moral backlash, almost as if one-dayers did not count for so much.

David Morgan, the chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, will accompany the team in Zimbabwe. Throughout, or at least from the moment when he first told this newspaper last April there was no future to be had in taking a lone moral stance and risking a schism in the ICC, Morgan has maintained that England had no option. This time, in his quiet, deliberate way, Morgan has stuck rigidly to the line.

If the series must be examined purely from a playing perspective, England ought to win all five matches. There is no point in floating the thought that Zimbabwe, without their 15 sacked rebel players, have improved and pushed Sri Lanka close in the recent Champions Trophy. Zimbabwe's only two wins in their last 25 matches have been against Bangladesh, and that was before the rebels left.

Four England players have never played any one-day international cricket, but they are professional cricketers in a way the Zimbabweans never will be. In the absence of the rested Andrew Flintoff, England have no recognised all-rounder, but that should not matter this time.

The batsmen who will feature for the first time are Ian Bell, who made a striking Test debut at The Oval in August, Kevin Pietersen, the exile from South Africa who has thrown in his lot with England, and possibly Matt Prior, who is also the reserve wicketkeeper. They may all possess enough of the right stuff, but Pietersen will need all his single-minded approach to succeed.

Freedom to choose for whom he plays cricket is a man's inalienable right, and Pietersen has served his time in qualification for his adopted country. But for all his assurance, he has made a huge decision in quitting South Africa because he disagreed with their affirmative quota policy, designed to offer cricketing opportunities to those who had been denied them for so long. It is not a decision that sits well with a liberal conscience, and for all that he is only 24, unquestionably Pietersen may have to do more than score runs to gain acceptance.

Simon Jones is another to have played no one-day cricket for England. His ability to reverse-swing the ball is a clear asset. But the Dazzler himself, Darren Gough, will presumably lead the attack, defying the doubters who say he is finished. Gough has declared himself as fit as a fiddle; the worrisome knee is behaving itself, and he insists still that he will depart on his own terms. But the fact is that he is kidding himself if he thinks he is the bowler he was, and he deserves better than to go on too long and to be told so. Zimbabwe, however, will hold no fears for him.

Gough was one of those mentioned in dispatches last week when the ICC revealed that they were considering enshrining in regulations a 15-degree level of tolerance for bowlers in straightening their arm in the process of delivering the ball. Biomechanists have been able to calculate that effectively just about every bowler there has ever been has a bent arm to some degree.

The 15-degree mark was hit upon as the new legal limit because that is the point at which elbow extension is likely to become evident to the naked eye. Given the utter and proven unreliability of eye- witness identification in court cases, this is no recommendation at all.

Muttiah Muralitharan is a red herring in all this, for all that his leg-spinning wrong 'un is delivered with a 14-degree elbow bend and that he divides world opinion. The eyes, however, tell you that Murali and many others - Brett Lee, Shoaib Akhtar, James Kirtley and Harbhajan Singh - look as if they are sometimes throwing. But the ICC insist vehemently that this is not a chucker's charter. They also say it is not a seismic shift in the law but a formalisation of existing practice. To which we should invoke bent legs not arms, and invite them to pull the other one. It is not ideal, but the ICC have chosen correctly: science is a much worthier bedmate than politics.

Comments