The not-so-straightforward issue of straightening the arm
Friday, 19 September 2014 02:04
By Renuke Wijayawardhane
When the ICC’s General Manager of Cricket Geoff Allardice announced in June that “there’s enough bowlers with suspect actions that should be scrutinised that probably haven’t been”, few would have guessed what was to follow. But with six bowlers (five being off-spinners) getting reported for having suspect actions and three of them being suspended from bowling within a period of three months thereafter, few would be doubting the ICC’s intentions now: They are on a crusade against bowlers with suspect actions.
The signs emerged during the latter part of 2013 when West Indian spinner Shane Shillingford was suspended from bowling and his teammate Marlon Samuels was also suspended from bowling his faster delivery.
In July 2014 Sri Lanka’s Sachithra Senanayake and New Zealand’s Kane Williamson were banned due to illegal bowling actions. Then the ICC caught the big fish: Pakistan’s Saeed Ajmal. Curiously, the last three bowlers were reported in matches officiated by umpire Ian Gould. Zimbabwe’s Prosper Utseya, Bangladesh spinner Sohag Gazi and his teammate Al-Amin Hossain were also reported for having suspect actions thereafter. Effectively what the ICC suggests is that these bowlers were not bowling in the proper way; they were all throwing.
There are many misconceptions in cricket regarding throwing. What constitutes an illegal delivery? As per the ICC laws, for a delivery to be fair, the ball must not be thrown. A ball is fairly delivered if, once the bowler’s arm has reached the level of the shoulder in the delivery swing, the elbow joint is not straightened from that point until the ball has left the hand. This does not, however, prevent a bowler from flexing or rotating his wrist in the delivery swing.
So, if one goes by this theory, no bowler can straighten or flex his arm during the delivery swing. However, it is not so straightforward in practice.
The applicability of this law changed after the ICC conducted scientific analysis of bowlers’ actions when Muttiah Muralitharan was reported in 2004. When Murali underwent biomechanical tests, it was revealed that his arm was straightening at the point of release in some of his deliveries. But the panel of experts who tested Murali also made an interesting discovery. Many bowlers who had perfectly orthodox actions had a minor flex in their actions and were straightening their arms as well. As a result, in 2004, the ICC decided to allow all bowlers a flex in the arm up to 15 degrees. Before this change, the ICC had permitted a flex of 10 degrees for fast bowlers, 7.5 degrees for medium pacers and 5 degrees for spin bowlers.
Many believe that the ICC introduced the 15 degree rule as a compromise to allow Murali to continue bowling. Murali’s arm was bent but he could not straighten it due to a deformity. Therefore, it was physically impossible for him to flout the law. The ICC realized (from the studies) that plenty of others, who were supposedly having clean actions, were also flexing. So it was unfair to penalise only Murali for straightening when several others were also doing it. The study revealed that a bowler’s arm has a natural flex in the latter stages of the delivery swing which cannot be detected by the naked eye. It also proved that it is humanly impossible to bowl with a straight arm, which meant that all bowlers flouted the law. The 15 degree rule was actually introduced since the human eye could not detect anything less.
Misunderstanding the law
There is a belief that it is illegal to bowl with a bent arm. This is completely wrong. The law does not prevent a bowler bowling with a bent arm. If the bowler’s elbow has a 90 degree angle, it is perfectly legal to bowl with that angle through the release. What is illegal is to straighten the elbow from 90 degrees to more than 105 degrees during the release. When the arm is straightened, it provides extra pace, if you are a fast bowler. Throwing is related to how much the arm straightens - not how much it is bent. This is one of the most common misunderstandings about the law.
Bowlers with certain deformities have made this issue even more complicated. Murali could not straighten his arm due to a deformity and his double-jointed wrist created an optical illusion that he was chucking. Shoaib Akhtar had a hyper extension of his elbow when bowling, and due to this, to the naked eye, it looked as if he was chucking. Saeed Ajmal’s elbow had been injured due to a car crash. It has been found that his elbow can be rotated sideways when delivering the ball.
Then the debate on the doosra, referred to as ‘the second one’ in Urdu. Many are convinced that it is impossible to bowl the doosra without chucking. In 2009 several Australian spin legends, including Shane Warne, criticised the doosra and some even suggested that it should be banned from coaching books in the country. Oddly, a couple of months later Saeed Ajmal was reported for the same delivery, and cleared later. This time even his off-break was questioned.
Ajmal doesn’t appear to use the normal off-spinner’s action when bowling the doosra. He places his middle finger at the back of the ball and flicks his wrist to generate spin. This way he bowls the doosra in the same off-spinning action. Ajmal was the most successful bowler during the past six years, and few would disagree that he is a delight to watch.
None of the bowlers who have been reported for having suspect actions recently represent the ICC’s ‘Big Three’: India, England and Australia. It would have been interesting to see the predicament of Saeed Ajmal if he was playing for say, India.
One important issue arising from the ICC’s latest crackdown against bowlers with suspect actions is what the future would hold for spinners. Will this result in only a bunch of stereotype spinners such as Monty Panesar being left in the game? Do we want to stick to traditional norms by determining what is pure and what is not, and let the game become dry and rigid in the process? The playing conditions are already skewed towards batting in all three forms of the game, leaving little room for any imaginative bowling. The doosra is perhaps the single most important discovery in terms of bowling in recent times. Cricket would be a lot less interesting without innovation and a bit of mystery.