ICC clucking again on chucking

The ICC, at last, appears to have its heart in the right place with regard to ‘chucking.’ Yet, it has to do a lot more about a process that is porous, writes S. Dinakar.

Bowlers are being ‘reported’ by the umpires with increasing frequency in international cricket; Pakistan’s Saeed Ajmal is a high-profile name in the list. The International Cricket Council (ICC), finally, wants to tell the world that it means business on the issue of ‘chucking’. This has been a sensitive subject for long.

Add West Indies’ Shane Shillingford and Sri Lanka’s Sachithra Senanayake to the names of the six bowlers ‘reported’ in the last eight months and the picture becomes clear.

There definitely is something happening on the ground. Yet, does ICC’s ‘process’ in itself allow it to identify and correct bowlers with suspect actions?

The 15-degree flexion rule, introduced in 2005, changed the dynamics of ‘chucking’; a select panel of bio-mechanists concluded that it was at this point (15 degrees) that an illegal action became visible to the naked eye.

These findings have been contested with many arguing that the rule left the umpires unsure even if they believed a bowler was ‘chucking.’

No law in the game prohibits an umpire from ‘calling’ a bowler in any level of cricket but after the 15-degree rule came into being, a bowler is ‘reported’ than ‘called’ in international cricket.

“How can the umpires, under the present laws, be sure whether the flexion is 13, 15 or 17 degrees? That is why they don’t ‘call’ as in the past,” said a BCCI official who added it no longer was a black and white case of “bending and straightening” of the arm that defined ‘chucking.’

Have the bowlers been given an escape route?

Australian pace legend Glenn McGrath believed it was “impossible to bowl with a perfectly straight arm.” Some others hold a different view.

The ICC’s current method to detect and rectify suspect action has several loopholes. There are simply too many unanswered questions.

For instance, it is intriguing why the ICC allows those suspended from bowling in international cricket for possessing illegal action to continue operating in domestic cricket, albeit under the guidance and supervision of the home board.

An Indian coach who didn’t want to be named asked, “This dilutes domestic cricket. Why should ‘chuckers’, who have already been punished by the ICC, be allowed to bowl in the domestic cricket of their respective countries?”

It is hard to comprehend the reasoning here. Even if the ICC provides the suspended bowlers an opportunity to rectify flaws in a match situation, it sends the wrong message to the emerging bowlers.

There are some other grey areas in the ICC approach. Once reported in an international match, the bowler concerned should have his action reviewed by an independent bio-mechanist at an ICC approved facility within 21 days of the home association receiving a copy of the report.

Once the tests are conducted, the bio-mechanist needs to submit his report to the ICC within 14 days. During this period, the bowler can continue bowling in international cricket.

But then, if the bowler is eventually deemed to have ‘chucked’ one or more types of deliveries, it means the cricket’s ruling body has actually given him 35 more days to inflict damage on opposing line-ups.

“Under this rule, a bowler with an illegal action can turn a Test series around during this time. This is grossly unfair,” said an Indian coach.

Although there is a provision in the ICC laws to pronounce a bowler guilty if his action in a biomechanical laboratory is “materially different” from what is seen in the video footage from the match, several bowlers appear to have escaped the axe with subtle but crucial changes to their action while bowling in controlled conditions.

The technology is sophisticated. Several 3-D cameras with infra-red functions combine with retro-reflective sensors on a cricketer’s frame to feed images to a computer. Given the human element — how the bowlers send down their deliveries — the system is not foolproof.

There are penalties in place — if a bowler is found out twice within two years, he can be suspended from international cricket for a year. Several bowlers have returned from a period of suspension and ‘corrective measures’ to bowl in a similar manner; only with a little more caution.

Off-spinners who had been ‘reported’ and then adjudged to have ‘chucked’ the ‘doosra’ — the delivery spinning away from the right-hander — have been known to slip in this potent ball under the umpire’s nose subsequently.

Bowlers found guilty of sending down one illegal delivery — doosra in this instance — can return to international cricket but cannot bowl the particular ball. In the heat of a contest though, an occasional delivery of this nature has gone undetected. Wearing full sleeves is a ploy that is often adopted.

Even someone as accomplished as the late Bob Woolmer said the ‘doosra’ could not be possibly bowled legally. He has his place among the finest coaches in the game.

There have also been whispers that some bio-mechanics act as defendants of a bowler’s action rather than those who were attempting to rectify it. “There are times when a few of them have acted like a bowler’s lawyer than an enforcer,” said an official.

Once suspended the first time, a bowler can ask for a re-examination of his action in a bio-mechanist’s laboratory any time he wishes. The punishment for a first suspension should be stiffer.

A look at a few of the big names who were ‘reported’ tell a tale. Many of them came back to bowl with hardly any noticeable change in action. In fact, till the recent crackdown, ICC was known to be soft on the issue.

The sequence of events following the ‘reporting’ of a bowler seemed almost farcical given how he bowled after returning to big time cricket. Despite the stakes being high, many bowlers with suspect action have carved out successful careers for themselves.

Since N. Srinivasan took over as ICC Chairman, the umpires have been more decisive in ‘reporting’ a bowler. It is also known that Srinivasan himself is keen to change the ICC’s rather questionable procedure vis a vis ‘chucking.’

It can be said too that the increasing spotlight on bowlers with kinky action — the number of sophisticated cameras telecasting a match is a major factor here — may have forced the ICC to change course on the issue.

It is no secret that in the months ahead many more bowlers, some of them prominent, run the risk of being ‘reported.’ A couple of Indian names are doing the rounds as well.

On the positive side, the Pakistan Cricket Board’s (PCB) reaction to Ajmal being ‘reported’ has not been political in nature; the issue had been coloured with racial overtones in the past. The PCB, to its credit, has admitted that Ajmal’s action required correction.

There are three kinds of ‘Chuckers’: 1. Those with a technical defect; 2. Bowlers who have a deformity in the body that results in hyperextension; 3. The ones who do so deliberately to bowl quicker, extract greater bounce, or spin the ball more.

The technical flaws can be ironed out. McGrath said, “A paceman should bowl with a speed and an action his body can sustain.” It can be hard to reform the wilful ‘chuckers’ and almost impossible to correct those with a deformity.

In the past, being ‘called’ in a match put the bowler’s career in great jeopardy; it was a stigma and selectors often discarded the cricketer in question. Men such as Tony Lock, Charlie Griffith and Ian Meckiff were ‘no balled’ for illegal action in the eras gone by.

Now, being ‘reported’ is nothing more than a roadblock. Muttiah Muralitharan — he was actually ‘called’ by Darrell Hair in the mid-90s — emerged stronger from the ordeal. Of course, Hair no-balling Murali proved the catalyst for the 15-degree rule.

The ICC, at last, appears to have its heart in the right place. Yet, it has to do a lot more about a process that is porous.