Monday, September 22, 2008

Chuck de India

Bishen Singh Bedi goes ballistic every few months. Whenever Murali goes past yet another record, or Harbhajan is in the news (for his bowling that is), Bedi has something to say, with words like "javelin-throwing" or "shot-put" sprinkled about liberally. Bedi believes that these bowlers, and several others in international cricket, are "chuckers" and should not be allowed to bowl.

This is of course a very controversial topic. The ICC has gone about addressing this issue in a very gingerly fashion, testing bowlers for "degrees of flexion", setting an upper limit of 15 degrees, recommending remedial clinics, etc. In earlier times, it was entirely up to the officiating umpires to rule on the legality of a delivery, and call "no ball" if they suspected it was a chuck. Even at the highest (Test) level, this has been done, resulting in abrupt endings to some promising careers. In the modern professional age though, this is seen as harsh (and just asking for legal challenges), and so bowlers are given the opportunity to correct their action and resume their careers after a re-test.

My interest here is to analyse what forms of chucking should be penalized and what shouldn't. It should be obvious that we're trying to prevent the bowler from getting an unfair advantage. The Laws make it clear that it's not a bent arm per se that gives you the unfair advantage. It's the straightening of the elbow during delivery. This straightening can lead to a pace bowler being able to bowl more quickly, and a spinner being able to extract more turn off the pitch, than would otherwise be possible.

Now the ICC discovered using video footage and biomechanical tests that some straightening of the arm always occurs, even in a normal legal bowling action. They came up with this 15-degree limit based on the assumption (ok, maybe fact) that beyond this figure, a "chuck" would be visually obvious to the umpires.

However, the point being missed is whether this 15-degree straightening gives an unfair advantage. In some cases, the straightening occurs well before the release of the ball. Brett Lee, who was accused of chucking early in his career, is an example of this. However, if you consider the arc made by his bowling arm, from the point where it is vertical to the point of release, the arm seems to be quite straight. In other words, the straightening is complete before the arm becomes vertical, and thus, even if that straightening is more than 15 degrees, it shouldn't provide him any unfair advantage.

For a different example, consider Muralitharan. In his case, replays and biomechanical tests have shown that his arm in fact doesn't straighten significantly. And in his case, spin is imparted primarily by that whiplash action of the wrist. The wrist certainly "straightens" far more than 15 degrees, but that is expressly allowed by the Laws.

I personally find Harbhajan's case rather touch-and-go. Even after his remodelling efforts, I get the feeling that his action involves a straightening of the arm at the business-end of the bowling action, which enables him to get extra revs on the ball. Even if that straightening is less than the 15 degrees permitted by the Law, in my mind it constitutes an unfair advantage. Shoaib Akhtar is another perennial "offender" in this category. Again, tests seem to have shown that he's within the prescribed limits. However, it again seems unfair that he gets to ratchet up his pace a few notches, just because of that arbitrary 15-degree limit.

Ideally, players with such dubious actions should never make it to the international / professional levels. Umpires and selectors at lower levels should step in and privately make it clear to the bowler that they need to change their action if they want to step up to higher grades of cricket. And this does happen in some cases...

I remember following Indian domestic cricket for many years in the 1990s, wondering why Baroda's Tushar Arothe never seemed to get a chance for India. In fact he never even seemed to make it to India-A, or Rest-of-India, or any of those stepping-stone teams. This despite being a very consistent all-round performer for Baroda. He was a competent left-handed batsman in the middle order, and an off-spinner. Then one day I got to watch him in action for the first time... I think it was a Ranji or Duleep trophy game at the Wankhede Stadium. Arothe was bowling his offies. And in a minute it was obvious - he was chucking.

In a way, it was quite nice of the selectors and officials at that level - they let Arothe have his career as a Ranji professional, without ever exposing him to the international level where his action would immediately have been questioned. They seemed to have learnt from the case of Rajesh Chauhan, the Madhya Pradesh off-spinner, who had a similar problem. He was pushed into the Indian team, and played with some success. But there was always the suspicion of chucking, and opponents filed their complaints regularly until he was unceremoniously dropped. All this was of course before the ICC stepped in with their new procedures and rules.

My own childhood idol, Karsan Ghavri, was suspected of chucking when he bowled his bouncer. I refused to belive that, of course :-) Another Indian pace bowler in that category was Chetan Sharma. And so was Manoj Prabhakar, although in his case I always got the impression that he used his wrists well, rather than straightening his arm.

All in all, I get the feeling that the game would be better served with a modified Law to deal with chucking. Most people would agree that there are bowlers in international cricket today who get an unfair advantage despite being under the ICC's prescribed limits. That could possibly be fixed by looking at the bowling arm after it reaches its highest point in the delivery action. Beyond the vertical, there should be no further straightening or bending allowed, period. That's really the business end of the bowling action, and it ought to be regulated more strictly. Currently, the flexion is checked once the arm goes above shoulder-level.

Handling of violators is still a tricky issue, because of all the emotions and weird notions of national pride associated with such cases! So the ICC's process of reporting the bowler, testing him, etc. may continue. But maybe, just maybe we'll get to hear less often from Bishen Bedi! :-)

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