Saeed Ajmal bowls


 Throw 'em a bone

There was a time when cricket needed a moral climate against chucking. Not anymore

Simon Barnes

Saeed Ajmal has been reported for chucking. After tests it was found that his arm flexed and straightened at around 40 degrees with every type of delivery he bowled. It seems that Ajmal is quite exploded. It would be remarkable if he ever bowled again.

And I'm a little grieved. I'm inclined to think that cricket has lost more than it has gained. I look at a cricket team coming out to take on the might of the opposition batsmen and note that you can always pick the spinner: even on the most oppressive days, he alone is wearing a long-sleeved shirt: the better to hide any tell-tale kink in the arm. No spinner wants his action scrutinised too closely.

Spinners struggle to stay competitive in modern cricket. They are operating on the edge of sporting possibility. They need to put as many revs on the ball as is humanly possible, and that means they must push as close as they can to the limits of legality. And maybe beyond. If they don't, they get hit out of the park - but if they get reported for doing it, the end of a career is looming. Being a spinner is a nervous vocation in modern cricket.

Chucking is seen across cricket as something far more heinous than a technical failing or sneaky bit of cheating. There have been books written about it. Can you imagine that translated into other sports? A History of Crooked Put-ins? Handball Throughout the Ages? The Decline and Fall of the False Start? Incorrect Marking of the Ball and the Rise of Capitalism? I think not.

The one exception is drugs, and drug use is a sporting crime that goes much deeper than the theft of an advantage. In a sense, drug use is a war on the entire concept of sport. So we must wonder why chucking is not entirely dissimilar. Does chucking really threaten the whole fabric of cricket and of sport itself?

A few years ago I wrote a piece about Muttiah Muralitharan in Wisden. I suggested that these days the only people qualified to judge the legality of an action are experts in biomechanics with access to comprehensive video data. That didn't stop a few chunterings - from Australia, obviously - saying the hell with science, they knew Murali was a chucker because they felt it in their water.

The primeval horror of chucking is now directed at people who bowl at 50mph or so. I don't think they are the ones destroying cricket

An accusation of chucking is a particularly adhesive form of mud. There are people - not experts in biomechanics - who refuse to give Murali any credit at all for his 800 Test wickets. In most sports he'd be universally admired as an athlete who turned a congenital disadvantage into an advantage: but instead, he is a seriously divisive figure.

The horror of chucking is based on a view of the game that is at least 50 years out of date. When cricket was played on uncovered pitches with very little protective gear bar pads and a box, throwing was physically dangerous when a fast bowler did it. Batsmen, short of physical protection, needed legal protection. They needed a moral climate in which chucking was seen not as a misdemeanour but a sin: a source of eternal shame and ignominy.

Deliberate chucking at pace can be devastating. I knew a Steady Eddie club bowler who was - mostly - naggingly impossible to put away. But occasionally a batsman from a higher class of cricket would take a fancy to him, and in such circumstances Steady Eddie would chuck one - only ever the one - from 18 yards. That tended to recalibrate the batsman's concept of respect.

But these days it tends to be spinners who are reported for chucking, and they are unlikely to kill anyone even with their quicker ball. The primeval horror of chucking is now directed at people who bowl at 50mph or so. And I don't really think they are the ones who are destroying cricket.

Every change in cricket over the last half-century has been to the batsman's advantage. Pitches are covered, protective clothing reduces much of the need for old-fangled physical courage, modern diets and training produce bigger, stronger players, modern bats send mis-hits whistling to the boundary, groundsmen in all forms of the game prepare flat wickets on which a big man can stand up and swing through the line without fear.

Was Murali's quicker ball ever likely to harm a batsman?

Was Murali's quicker ball ever likely to harm a batsman? © AFP

But the ball is still the same. Bowlers who manipulate the state of the ball are the second-worst cheats in the game, while those who chuck it are chucked out of cricket. Shouldn't we be chucking out batsmen who use heavy bats? Or at any rate the bats?

Cricket has made one change in the bowler's favour: they are no longer required to bowl with a fully non-straightening arm. They now have 15 degrees of tolerance. But this didn't change the way people bowl: it merely recognised that the classical action is just another of cricket's myths. Ultra slo-mo revealed that hardly anyone has ever bowled with an un-kinked arm.

There is a part of me that feels that it should be open season, at any rate for spinners: let 'em send the ball down however they like, as pitchers do in baseball, and let the batsman - the one with all the advantages on his side - sort it out. I also realise that this isn't entirely a practical solution.

But we can, at least, divest the crime of chucking of some of its horror. Bowlers are no longer capable of undermining the entire edifice of cricket. Cricket has always been about the balance between bat and ball and in ancient times bowlers had most of the advantages - which is why batsmen were so lavishly protected.

They still are - even though they no longer need to be. The spiked white boot is on the other foot. Spinners with extreme actions are not destroying cricket: they are trying to restore that ancient balance. Damage to the essential nature of cricket won't come from them. It comes from the fact that all the advantages in cricket have swung towards the batsman - and cricket hasn't really noticed.

Simon Barnes is a former chief sportswriter of the Times and the author of more than 20 books