The accidental chucker must be helped

Bowlers who are reported are given the chance to revise their action under the guidance of their own board, assisted by a variety of experts. At this stage they can continue to play international cricket. If they are challenged a second time, they may have to spend a year out of the game while they attempt to correct their action, writes TED CORBETT.

I wondered how long it would be before Jermaine Lawson was accused of chucking.

A combo picture of Pakistan's controversial paceman Shoaib Akhtar during a practice session at the Bangabandhu National Stadium in Dhaka, in January 2002. Akthar's action has been questioned thrice in the past. -- Pic. AFP-

Two reasons. First, I had a double take the first time I saw that rough and ready, strong and purposeful, very variable action. Second, it is never more than a few overs before one expert or another decides that a new fast bowler is operating outside the law.

It's been going on forever. No doubt some shepherd in the Sussex hills shouted: "That's not bowling; he's throwing'' back in the 16th century shortly after the old hurdle they used for a wicket had been knocked flat. Now that shepherds are rather rarer it is the commentators, the match referees and the umpires who shout these remarks. All too often, all too soon, in my opinion.

Lawson, an exciting prospect as West Indies try to rebuild their side, was not kept waiting long. He was in the middle of his seventh Test when he discovered that the umpires thought he had a suspect action.

More significantly it came after he had shot the Australians out almost single-handedly and, with some of the most hostile bowling seen even in matches involving Brett Lee, Glenn McGrath and Jason Gillespie, taken seven for 78 in the fourth and final Test at St. John's, Antigua.

Lawson is young, gifted with exceptional pace and the new West Indies powerhouse in the line of succession that reaches back to Learie Constantine, Wes Hall, Michael Holding and Patrick Patterson.

Like Charlie Griffith, Andy Roberts, Courtney Walsh and — right at the start of his career — even the great Curtly Ambrose, the announcement that he was to be investigated for throwing arrived as inevitably as Bradman hit centuries.

Even though Lawson, aged 21, only had time to bowl 1257 Test deliveries and pick up 29 wickets, the suspicion was raised as soon as he snapped up those seven wickets. No one mentioned it before.

At the end of the second day, match referee Mike Procter asked for video of the Lawson action from the television people transmitting the series round the world.

That might seem a hair-trigger reaction except for the behaviour of the best umpire in the world. David Shepherd, a cunning cove if ever there was one, had been watching Lawson in five of his seven Tests. No doubt he had had his doubts before but he waited until he was sure. It is a course of action others should follow.

Umpire Dravid Shephered had been watching jermaine Lawson in five of his seven Tests. No doubt he had had his doubts before but he waited untill he was sure. It is a course of action others should follow. -- Pic. REUTERS-

For all the hope Procter had of keeping his request secret he might as well have announced it over the public address system. Long before ICC made their announcement Lawson had been analysed, dissected, argued over and — in some cases — damned. As I write, the ICC process is just beginning and, as the ICC bend like Beckham to be fair, it is not a moment that will inevitably mean the end of Lawson's career.

But he must be thinking: "Welcome to Test cricket, Jermaine!'' He must feel you are guilty until you are reported, sent to the specialists, had your action doctored and sent back into the middle without the confidence that ought to be the right of any youngster. He is, after all, averaging better than four wickets a Test, the mark of the men who are going to send shivers down the spine of the batsmen and raise the expectation of spectators.

Accusations of throwing seem to have arrived with every newcomer bowling at more than fast medium. They were even thrown at Fred Trueman; yes, he of the classical side-on, round arm, outswinger and the devastating off-cutter whose natural ability to bowl the right line and the perfect length made hundreds of batsmen grope for the ball on leg stump at about the same time that their off bail was being caught by first slip.

That charge came as Trueman arrived in Australia at the start of an Ashes series and you don't have to look much further to detect the source of the hints about Lawson.

No doubt Proctor began his investigation, prompted by the umpires, in good faith. He was hardly an orthodox fast bowler in his playing days — although no-one thought he threw — so he may be expected to have some sympathy for the young man. Thirty years ago you could have seen him bowling off the wrong foot, confusing more batsmen than he will want to remember. But for the ban on South Africa playing Test cricket at that time, he would have had a brilliant record.

In Lawson's case Proctor may well be right. Michael Holding, who has now become the foremost member of the ICC committee that looks into reported actions, has worked with Shoaib Akhtar to straighten out his action and guided the thoughts of ICC into chucking in general. He believes that there are too many in the game already.

But is the ICC method fair?

They fall down in one major respect. They must begin to ask how it is that men like Shoaib Akhtar, Brett Lee and Jermaine Lawson reach Test level, after coaching as schoolboys, as club players and at an Academy with this serious fault in their bowling action.

I had a long talk with Brendan McClements, the head of ICC's corporate affairs, about the way they conduct these inquiries. He told me that they had revised their system four times in recent years and that they were constantly reviewing the process. "Our main aim is to ensure that the Laws of the game were obeyed,'' he said. You cannot argue with that.

Bowlers who are reported are given the chance to revise their action under the guidance of their own board, assisted by a variety of experts. At this stage they can continue to play international cricket.

If they are challenged a second time, they may have to spend a year out of the game while they attempt to correct their action but their board can apply at any time if they feel the right amount of progress is being made. It is, to say the least, a kindly method for such an important subject.

Bowling the ball is basic to cricket. It is not a conservative view to say that we don't want to turn our game into baseball; it is the only way to keep cricket, with all its faults and foibles, pure.

In some senses the game is a religion and part of the way to feel we are indulging in a special activity so as to maintain the old standards whereby only the wicket-keeper is allowed to wear gloves, in which the umpires' decisions are not to be questioned and the ball is bowled, not thrown. These parts of the game must be strengthened not watered down; they are the sacred writ which distinguishes cricket from other games.

Once we surrender those fundamental truths cricket loses its purity and values and that must not happen.

If ICC are right and the stain of corruption has gone away the game will be stronger for its experience and be seen by more and more people as having standards that other sporting activities can only aspire to achieve.

So too with throwing. The chuckers must be eliminated and, as they search for the perfect method of dealing with this perennial problem, ICC seem to be on the right track. Weakness has its own reward as we saw on the fourth day of the Antigua Test when a series of spats between McGrath and Ramnaresh Sarwan were allowed to get out of hand.

On this occasion the umpires failed to act as promptly as they should and the elegant game was reduced to a brawl. Firmness at the right moment would have put a stop to this noisy quarrel; the game was uglier as a result.

That is why it is important for ICC to throw off its reputation for indecision, but at the same time find a way in which young bowlers are not ruined by over-zealous accusations. The world's governing body must see that the system for weeding out the law breakers is perfected.

The accidental chucker must be helped without having a stigma permanently attached to his career record but there must be no sympathy for the men — and they have been around throughout cricket's history — who chuck the ball once a day "to make sure the old arm is still working properly" as Tony Lock put it after his action had been reshaped.

Most of all there must be no rush to justice, but rather a slow, measured ritual in tune with the game that is still developing after more than 200 years spent weeding out its worst excesses.