Friday, 19 September 2014

Column 29, 2014 – Chucked out

Printed in The Cricket Paper issue 101, Friday September 19, 2014.
[Full text below]

NOTE: The Paper prints 'per cent'. This is wrong: it's degrees.
It's right in the full text below.

On 26 August 1862 at The Oval, Edgar Willsher was no-balled for an illegal bowling action. In the ensuing hoo-ha, WG Grace said he could see no alternative than to change the laws to accommodate Willsher’s action. The game must adapt, change was inevitable. What was Willsher’s controversial new action? He bowled overarm.

The rules, clearly, did indeed change to allow overarm bowling. As a footnote, following the infamous Chappel brothers incident in 1981, they changed again to outlaw underam bowling.

The point is, the game evolves. And that evolution is driven by those who play it at the highest level.

Last week Saeed Ajmal, the number one bowler in the world, was banned by the ICC for an illegal action.

Today’s Law 24.3 states that: “…once the bowler’s arm has reached the level of the shoulder in the delivery swing, the elbow joint is not straightened partially or completely from that point until the ball has left the hand…”

That Law is useless. Extensive research around the turn of the last century suggested that over 99% of all bowlers, amateur and professional, contravene Law 24.3 with every ball they bowl. The vast majority of people are physically incapable of bowling without straightening their arm.

The ICC playing conditions (why not the actual Laws?) were changed in 2000 to allow a straightening of 5° for spinners, 7.5° for medium pacers and 10° for fast bowlers. This proved unenforceable. In 2004 a panel of former Test players and biomechanical experts recommended a flat rate of 15° tolerable ‘elbow extension’ be used to define the difference between bowling and throwing. It is still in use today.

Indulge this apparent non-sequitur for a moment. I remember a real lightbulb moment whilst learning to read and write music. It’s so long ago that it seems like somebody else’s memory, but it was a realisation that instantly inverted what I was struggling with, and all its daunting complexity suddenly made sense: music theory exists because of music, not the other way around. Imagine! Its purpose is not to confuse and infuriate music students, as I was hitherto convinced, but a valiant and inevitably flawed attempt to describe something indescribable.

Is there something similar going on with the illegal action conundrum? Are we allowing the theorists to get in the way of the virtuosos? 15° is an arbitrary figure applied by rule makers – theorists. It is only definitive because they say it is.

Saeed Ajmal is one of the most watchable cricketers in the world game. He makes it more thrilling and less predictable, and consistently tests the skill of the best batsman in the world.

Ajmal’s average elbow flex when tested was completely unacceptable under the current rules. But whether it’s a change in the rules, a change in Ajmal, or some sort of compromise, I can’t escape the conviction that the game must accommodate him somehow. It is poorer for his exclusion.

- ends 488 words -

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