Cats, Elephants and Flex Testing in Cricket

The cat is finally out of the bag.  At 12.30 yesterday on the third day of the third Test, Sky broadcast contrasting clips of the actions of Graeme Swann and Saeed Ajmal.  Under the direction of commentator and former umpire David Lloyd, the editor froze the action when their right arms were showing a quarter to three in their deliveries.

Lloyd said, “You see the bent arm of Saeed Amjal – it’s within the 15 degrees allowed by the law, it’s legal – this is the reason why Amjal can bowl the doosra and Swann can’t.”

And with this admission by a senior member of the commentariat (and without contradiction from any of his colleagues) the elephant had finally been acknowledged to have been in the room all the time.

The game of cricket has evolved a further step.  The Laws of Cricket had ‘jerked’ on to accommodate 15 degrees of flex in 2005 like a straightening arm catching up with practice and now, when sufficient time has passed to allow us to forget the strange anatomical and skeletal fictions that had previously been peddled before the amendment, everyone can be open and above board; The Special Ball Cannot Be Bowled, it Can Only Be Thrown, But That’s Legal.  

Anatomically the only way sufficient momentum can be given to a ball released with counter-clockwise rotations with the back of the hand facing the batsman is to jerk the arm straight from a bent position.  Provided that straightening is no more than from 15% of bend the ball is a legal delivery.  This flexing also allows more rotations to be placed on the ball for the clockwise ‘off-spinner’ (counter clockwise for ‘slow left armers’) as countless practitioners of erroneously called finger spin has known for many years; increasing dramatically the potential for drift, dip, turn and bounce.

When in May 2009 an ICC sponsored biomechanical report cleared Amjal’s action the ICC spokesperson was emphatic in stressing that the report “simply confirms that Ajmal is capable of bowling with an action which complies with ICC Regulations” and therefore  “whenever Ajmal bowls in a match in the future, his action will be under the scrutiny of the match officials”.

The spokesperson continued, “according to the ICC regulations, the match officials will use the naked eye to determine whether his action complies with the Laws of Cricket. The permitted degree of elbow extension is 15 degrees and the level of tolerance was set at the point at which such elbow extension will begin to become noticeable to the naked eye. Accordingly, any degree of extension which is visible to the naked eye must and will be reported.”

This of course provides the match officials with an enormously difficult challenge and the game will soon have to accept that a method of adjudicating each delivery will have to be implemented. 

At present the ICC maintains that beyond 15 degrees of flex the ‘the throw’ is visible to the naked eye, but most cricketers will continue to believe that a ‘throw’ can be spotted at degrees of flex lower than 15 degrees.  

Lloyd’s assertion that Amjal’s bent arm for that particular delivery is within the 15 degrees tolerance is exactly that; an assertion.  Big Cricket must now bring in technology to adjudicate on the degree of arm straightening by bowlers.  

Lovers of the game, many of whom still find it difficult to accept the 15 degree tolerance should nevertheless be supporting Shane Warne and Terry Jenner in their campaign for on field testing recently reported in the Daily Telegraph.

This is not the first time that forms of release have been experimented, perfected, performed, protested against, ignored, tolerated, accepted, and finally accommodated in the Laws of Cricket. 

In or around the 1750s Richard Nyren either before coming to Hambledon or soon after his arrival, (probably responding to the demands of ‘bowling’ against John Small (Snr) on practice nights), decided to raise his arm from the grubber ‘bowling position’ at the moment of release to somewhere around waist height – how awkward it must have felt and looked!  How vexing to the ‘legitimate’ bowlers from Slindon, Dartford and Sevenoaks!

It was twenty years later that Nyren’s apprentice, David Harris, took the action to its extreme, to terrorize the poorly protected batsmen of his day by jerking the ball out from a position under his armpit with a mixture of push and flick worthy of a juiced up East European shot-putter from the 1960s.

Again in the 1790s Tom Walker – Old Everlasting – practicing during winter in a barn worked out that he could generate even more pace and bounce than Harris by letting the arm swing out sideways in a ‘round arm’ fashion with the release at or around shoulder height.  

Cricketing authorities first banned the practice with a Law prohibiting ‘round arm’ bowling in 1816: The ball must be bowled (not thrown or jerked), and be delivered underhand, with the hand below the elbow. But if the ball be jerked, or the arm extended from the body horizontally, and any part of the hand be uppermost, or the hand horizontally extended when the ball is delivered, the Umpires shall call “No Ball”.

Gradually this form of bowling burrowed its way into the game and by 1826 Wm Lillywhite and Broadbridge were winning the County Championship for Sussex with round arm bowling.  Batsmen among the legislators were losing their rear-guard action against the practice and in 1835 the relevant part of the Law was amended to read: if the hand be above the shoulder in the delivery, the umpire must call “No Ball”

A voluntary code was soon made mandatory when in 1845 the umpire’s view of the incident was made final.  Ho! Ho!

Our story now moves on to the 26th August 26, 1862 and The Oval where the England bowler Edgar Willsher deliberately bowled overarm to the Surrey batsmen.  In a foretastee of the 1995 Boxing Day Test, Willsher was no-balled six times in succession.  He and his eight fellow professionals in the England team then walked-off the ground in a suspiciously orchestrated protest.

This time the authorities rushed to catch up with practice and in 1864 amended the Laws to allow the bowler to bring his arm through at any height providing he kept it straight and did not throw the ball.

Strictly, cricketers stopped ‘bowling’ the ball the moment two hundred and sixty years ago when Richard Nyren ‘stood up’ to release the delivery, stopped bowling the ball (along the ground) and ‘pitched’ the ball at a length between himself and the batsman adding an extra dimension to the problems of striking a ball with a bat.

Innovation is driven by the tussle of ball and bat.  There are many social and political forces behind the acceptance or the prohibition of innovation but once acceptance has been codified a further difficulty arises over enforcement.   It is a truth universally acknowledged that an unenforced law is irrelevant to the actions and consciousnesses of those to whom the law is meant to apply.

In David Lloyd’s low key admission, yesterday, cricket admitted that it cannot stuff the cat back in the bag, but it has yet to shoot the elephant.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Cats, Elephants and Flex Testing in Cricket

  1. Lovely post TM, as are most of them. I’d make a much simpler rule: the point of the bowler’s elbow cannot be facing down the pitch on release of the ball (that is, it must be pointing more than half way towards square, or away from the batsman as judged from square leg). If you watch footage of questionable bowling, it is the the elbow pointing forward that makes it look like a “chuck”, even more than the straightening. It is also much easier to look for the elbow direction (even as the arm rotates) than judge the degree of straightening. It rules out some notorious bowlers, but so be it, the game can move on.

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