Why throwing is so important in cricket

Throwing has a definite place in cricket. As a means of returning the ball from a fielder to the stumps at either end, it can be an exciting addition to the array of high-class skills on view at any match. As a means of propelling the ball from one set of stumps to the other as in bowling, it has no place whatsoever if the game is to have credibility.

Cricket is all about balances. All changes to legislation are designed to redress imbalances that occur as the game evolves. If the batsmen are gaining continued ascendancy over the bowlers, measures to restrict them are introduced. If the bowlers find some way of preventing batsmen from showing off their wares, restrictions are placed on them.

Nothing is done if there are not blatant transgressions of that natural balance. Nobody complained if there were little extra influences involved in keeping the ball in good shape. If, when cleaning the ball, the seam got ever so slightly lifted or a trace of something other than honest sweat was introduced to the polishing process, it was accepted as part of the game. As soon as ball tampering became blatant and serious, steps were taken to eradicate it.

It is the same with throwing. If an ordinary bowler’s arm does not entirely conform to the regulations concerning bending and straightening in delivery, little if any notice will be taken. If it becomes an obvious chuck, especially when either the batsman’s health or the record books are under threat, something has to be done.

There is, however, a major problem with tackling this issue. To call a bowler for overstepping is to call a no ball, just as it is if a bowler is called for throwing; in both cases he has been gaining an unfair advantage and is penalised. So too is a batsman who is guilty of a short run. In all these cases, the player is being accused of cheating, whether intentionally or not, and is penalised one run. The emotive implications if a player is called for throwing are more serious.

Law 24 (3) of the MCC’s Laws of Cricket states: “A ball is fairly delivered in respect of the arm if, 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.”

In the light of the publicity surrounding Muttiah Muralitharan the outstandingly successful Sri Lankan’s key phrase is “… the elbow joint is not straightened partially or completely….”. But this is where emotive considerations and undertones enter the equation.

From the moment Muralitharan shot to prominence through his extraordinary wicket-taking abilities, doubts have been expressed about the legality of his action. Some say he throws while others will go no further than saying he has a “unique, unorthodox” action. Umpires are undecided, at least in their public pronouncements in as much as several express doubts but a very select band have come out and actually called “no ball” when Muralitharan has been bowling.

When two umpires, Ross Emerson and Darrell Hair, called Muralitharan on two separate tours of Australia, they were vilified by suggestions that there were racial undercurrents to their decision. What they had done was seen a bowler who had, in their opinion, contravened the laws of the game by throwing instead of bowling the ball. If that is what they believed, they took the correct course of action by calling the deliveries as no balls.

Whatever the subsequent inquiries and scientific research into Muralitharan’s action, both umpires made a public statement that he had broken the rules when delivering the balls he was called for. They did not say that every ball he bowled was illegal; just the ones they called.

In the circumstances, footage showing that the bowler in question does not straighten his arm while in action is no more relevant than showing film of a bowler delivering a ball with his front foot behind the popping crease and then claiming that he should never be no balled for overstepping. All it would confirm is that he did not overstep when that particular ball was filmed, and it is the same with throwing: the filmed ball might be legal while others might not.

The Sri Lankan authorities were quick to defend their prize asset. Filming was indeed commissioned and under laboratory conditions, the University of Western Australia found that a congenital deformity prevented Muralitharan from fully straightening his right arm. Enough people seized on the evidence to proclaim his innocence and to allow him to continue with his international career. He was guilty of nothing more than being the victim of a vendetta in Australia.

Of course, the evidence proved nothing of the sort. It simply showed that he could not fully straighten his arm. It did not show that he was unable to bend his elbow at all. Look again at the wording of Law 24: “…the elbow joint is not straightened partially or completely ….”. Again, the relevant word is “partially”.

While a spinner who throws is unlikely to threaten physical damage to a batsman, he does endanger other aspects of the game. Just imagine the ramifications if incontrovertible evidence was to emerge confirming that Muralitharan’s action is illegal (or to revisit a previous position, the action employed during filming was illegal). Could his 500 wickets be struck from the record books? Would the results of matches that he played a vital role in winning be declared void? Of course not, and neither should they. The game, however, would be tarnished.

There is another legacy from allowing dubious actions to be cleared on unproven evidence. Young players Watching the success of a bowler who has a questionable action can be misled into thinking that it is perfectly acceptable to copy him. Gradually, standards are eroded, and the boundaries of legality are pushed further and further back until they become meaningless.

The throwing problem does not revolve around one man. There have been plenty of others who have been suspected or called. Film of the great Harold Larwood bowling during the Bodyline era suggests that his action might not have been pure. It was amazing that the Australians did not pick up on that at the time. Tony Lock, England’s premier left-arm spinner in the 1950s had to remodel his action completely when he saw it on what was, at the time, sophisticated cine film. Brett Lee, Jermaine Lawson and Shoaib Akhtar are more recent high-profile international bowlers who have been forced to have remedial work done on their actions. And Muralitharan will certainly not be the last to be questioned.

Mention of Lee, Akhtar and Lawson highlight the problems when a fast bowler has a kink in his action. They are not alone among international bowlers to have come under scrutiny, but when the Australian and the Pakistani have broken the 100mph barrier, it is not just the purity of the game and upholding of the Laws that are at stake; it could literally become a matter of life and death.

Because it is such an emotive subject, the game’s governing body, the International Cricket Council, have tried to take the heat out of the situation by preventing the umpires from making instant judgements in international matches. The claim is that they can still call them in a match, but the preferred course of action is to report their suspicions to the match referee. He can then report to the player’s board and the ICC Bowling Review Group who take appropriate steps. That same body recently commissioned research into the whole question of throwing and came to the conclusion that there are a lot of bowlers that do have actions that do not conform to the Laws of Cricket. So did all those bowlers get banned? Certainly not. A degree of tolerance has been agreed to accommodate what could have been termed illegal actions.

With these processes in place, it would be a brave umpire who looks at a bowler from his position at square leg and suddenly yells “no ball” –  A brave umpire? Correct that to an umpire who is thinking of resigning from the international panel and who wants healthy advance sales for his forthcoming autobiography.