Is there a chapter left in international cricket for Saeed Ajmal, who is 37 now?
Is there a chapter left in international cricket for Saeed Ajmal, who is 37 now?
As the ICC seeks refuge in science, it may have to confront the possibility that nothing we know about chucking - and bowling - is quite as it seems
In its original commission, this was to be a celebration of Saeed Ajmal. The plan was to make Ajmal the cover story for our October issue, looking ahead to Pakistan's season and his role in it, and also looking back on what was peaking into an exceptional career. To the world Ajmal was the best spinner going, but to Pakistan he was more. He had acquired that status, blessed and cursed, reserved in Pakistan for The Last Hope: the one man with the power to ordain a mood to days and nights. Shahid Afridi is a species of one, of course, both a remnant and a portent, but in this latest avatar of Pakistan cricket, in which they are conventional and conservative like a nice but unremarkable office suit, Ajmal was the funky tie, a little concession to the urges of colour and rebellion.
Ajmal won many matches, lost the occasional one, but, endearingly, seemed unaffected by the impostors of triumph and defeat. He was easy to love. When the writer Saad Shafqat met him in Faisalabad for the interview at the core of our planned feature, he profiled an uncomplicated man. My own impressions of him from various interactions over the years matched Saad's: Ajmal was as complicated as a straight line. I once asked him why he bowled the doosra so often, referring to how Saqlain Mushtaq had peeled away the unexpectedness of his own creation. In reply he asked me whether anyone asked Lillee why he bowled the outswinger so often, or Wasim and Waqar the reverse-swinging yorker. In fleeting moments his wit was apparent. How's the pitch? I can't see it for the grass (this, in Abu Dhabi). "Kitni wicktein lenge Saeed," we asked him one day after he had taken many. "Wicktein le raha hoon, aur toh kuch nahin," he replied. I'm only taking wickets, nothing else: the play was on the Urdu for "taking" - le raha - that has, in certain settings, a lewd connotation.
The mauling of Australia in the 2014 UAE Tests showed that Pakistan didn't miss Ajmal anywhere near as much as might have been feared
The mauling of Australia in the 2014 UAE Tests showed that Pakistan didn't miss Ajmal anywhere near as much as might have been feared © AFP
Even the one time Ajmal got into a little trouble with officialdom, he was uncomplicated. Asked during the tenure of Dav Whatmore about the difference between local coaches and foreign ones, he said that the latter were paid more. Straightforward Saeed.
A few weeks before we were supposed to have finalised the Ajmal feature, his action was reported by on-field umpires Ian Gould and Bruce Oxenford, the TV umpire Richard Illingworth and match referee Andy Pycroft in a Test in Galle. Ajmal bowled five balls short of 60 overs in Sri Lanka's first innings and another six in the second: 30 to 35 deliveries were apparently thought to be suspect - not just his doosra but also his offbreak.
Speaking to me in mid-October from Lahore, Ajmal said he felt the "ground had been pulled from under" his feet when he was told about this. "I had been playing for so long and had been cleared [in 2009] and then they did it again." Ajmal played the next Test, bowled 79 overs in front of the same umpires and match referee. There was no awkwardness around the men who had reported him. He was still horsing around with them. "One thing has happened, how long can you wallow over that?" he reasoned.
Two weeks after he was reported, Ajmal flew to Brisbane for tests at the National Cricket Centre. A five-person testing team and a representative each from the ICC and the PCB were present. One observer said Ajmal looked tired from the long-haul flight, but was generally relaxed throughout. The testers were satisfied - even pleasantly surprised - that he replicated his match action from the broadcast footage they had received. Unlike with other bowlers, the unnatural pressures of a career-defining lab test did not make it more difficult for Ajmal to bowl with the same action the umpires had thought flawed. Uncomplicated, straightforward Saeed.
Ajmal felt as if the ground had been pulled from under his feet when told the results of his tests
According to the report, every single one of the 37 balls he bowled during testing - offspin over and around the wicket, the quicker ball, the doosra, offspin from wide of the crease - was delivered with an elbow extension between 36 and 43 degrees, well above the 15-degree level of tolerance. His maximum elbow flexion - the greatest angle of bend in the elbow once the arm has gone beyond the upper-arm horizontal - was considerably higher than in 2009, when he was tested in a different lab. As he came to the final stages of his action his bowling elbow was bent far more - which is not a problem per se - but at the time of release his arm was straighter than it used to be. So the net extension - the maximum elbow flexion minus the flexion at the point of release - was greater than before. In plain words, he straightened his elbow more than he used to. Two weeks after the Brisbane tests the ICC suspended Ajmal from bowling in international cricket.
Ajmal's first reaction was to tell reporters that his "medical reports" had not been considered. This was for long an ill-explained and vague defence of his bowling action: it could have been genuine but equally it could have been an attempt to bandwagon on the physical exceptions clause that allowed for Muttiah Muralitharan and Shoaib Akhtar.
When Saad met him this summer, Ajmal explained he had a naturally flexible body. "I can extend most of my joints beyond what is the typical range for most people." He spoke of a car accident in 2004, in which he fractured his right wrist and hurt his left shoulder. Saad, a practising doctor, noticed unnatural bone contours sticking out at both ends of Ajmal's right forearm. When he was first reported and tested, in May 2009, Ajmal told the lab he had suffered the injuries in a bus accident while on tour with Pakistan (not specifying when, though he made his international debut only in 2008) but indicated that they did not affect his bowling action. That 2009 report made a note of "bony abnormalities, particularly at the wrist, forearm and shoulder". In the recent Brisbane report, however, there is mention of an elbow and forearm injury from 2004, recurrent dislocation of his left shoulder, and a partial dislocation of the right wrist each time his forearm rotates outwards.
Better late than never: the ICC's David Richardson has admitted that the clampdown on dodgy actions ought to have started sooner
© Getty Images
Better late than never: the ICC's David Richardson has admitted that the clampdown on dodgy actions ought to have started sooner © Getty Images
When I spoke to him in October, Ajmal referred to unspecified medical caveats. He had no complaints about the report or the testing, except that "I had a thing about my medical condition and they are working on that. A report is being made about that, so we'll see what happens." There were no further details.
The PCB isn't convinced about the medical condition. A member of the board's medical team told me the effects of an accident on the wrist are unlikely to affect elbow extension, though it may in very rare cases.
Ajmal didn't sound like he was entirely convinced either. In fact, a little earlier in our chat, he had provided an explanation that blurred the medical defence. "I took out some old videos and compared it to the Sri Lanka series and it seemed to me like some problem had come in the action. I don't know whether it was because I put more into the ball because I wasn't getting wickets. I wasn't getting them out, so maybe I put more force into it and that caused it. But I don't know."
Through the entire conversation the lilt in his speech was absent. It could have been the phone line. It could have been that he had just finished a long rehabilitation session with Saqlain and was tired. It could have been from thinking hard and long about his future, which wasn't bright. I asked him what he might do if he could not bowl again.
Dr Jacqueline Alderson works with Murali at UWA in 2004
Dr Jacqueline Alderson works with Murali at UWA in 2004 © AFP
"I am 37 and I had two, three years left…" He checked himself and changed tense. "I still have. If I get cleared I still have maybe two, three years. I can still play for my country. Maybe one year - who knows, this is cricket, nobody knows. Aagey, peechay ho jata hai. [Things can go back and forth.]"
A kind of resignation underpinned these words. "If I don't get cleared I don't have issues. What Allah has given me, he has given me. What has to happen will happen. Otherwise I am happy, there is no tension. No tension. Life is tough… I am relaxed. I used to enjoy and play, even now I do, enjoying time with my family." Que sera sera, except what will be might be the end.
It is impossible not to feel for Ajmal because there is a very real possibility that he will not return to international cricket. In Abu Dhabi, during Pakistan's final ODI against Australia in October, the PCB chairman Shaharyar Khan told me that he thought the chances were 50-50. Others in the board feel that prediction is on the outside of optimistic. After over a month of rehab work, the Pakistan board had Ajmal's action tested privately in November, and though it had improved, it was still not within the required levels. This is an action that is ingrained. It is muscle memory.
Until his exclusion from the side, activity on Ajmal's Twitter account (handled by his agents) was irregular. After his ban it perked up. A few updates from his rehab, some photographs, and most poignantly a series of tweets to the people who, until recently, were so integral to his life. As Pakistan were wiping Australia out in two Tests, Ajmal eagerly congratulated the side. His absence was supposed to have hampered Pakistan. Instead, they flourished; Pakistan's regenerative capacity is heartening but also cruel to the victims of regeneration. Suddenly they had two new spinners and in the yearning of each of Ajmal's tweets the sense that a professional life might be slipping away spilled out.
In his 1968 book on chucking, Straight from the Shoulder, the late England legspinner and author Ian Peebles hit upon a truth: "For whilst the chucker causes resentment, confusion and occasionally physical danger, albeit without evil intention, it is he himself who ultimately is the chief sufferer."
It is also impossible to not be perplexed. Here we were one day about to celebrate Ajmal, an affirmation of his place - and by default, his action and others like him - in cricket. And then we weren't. Here he was on the ICC's longlist of nominees for the ODI Team of the Year. And then he wasn't in the ODI Team of the Year. Sure, allow for voter subjectivity, but look at this table. You can imagine the pickle jurors found themselves in, having to now question the idea of recognising the achievements of a bowler deemed illegal. The jury picked Ajantha Mendis instead (and on the evidence that Mendis played only 11 of his country's 28 ODIs in the qualification period, even his country didn't always think he was good enough for their best XI).
This has not been so abrupt a turnaround. It has been coming since early 2009, when the ICC began to understand that the path to enlightenment it embarked upon at the turn of the century was not a straight one. It took a rare and unusual action to do so, that of the England fast bowler Jenny Gunn. At the time Gunn was playing domestic cricket in Australia, where she was reported by the umpires. Tests at the Australian Institute of Sport's biomechanics lab in Canberra revealed that she extended her elbow beyond 15 degrees, and she was suspended from bowling in Australian state cricket. She was allowed, however, to play for England in the World Cup, which began two weeks later.
The PCB isn't convinced about Ajmal's medical condition. A board medical-team member says the effects of an accident on the wrist are unlikely to affect elbow extension
After the first match, against Sri Lanka in Canberra, Gunn was reported again, concerns expressed about her short-pitched deliveries. Four days later, an ICC panel passed her action as legal. Dr Mark King, a senior lecturer at the school of Sport, Exercise and Health Science at Loughborough University, who headed that panel, cited Gunn's case as unique. Her bowling arm went from a near straight position when horizontal to extreme hyperextension, before going back to near straight closer to ball release.
"The unusual amount of hyperextension and abduction may well create the illusion that Ms Gunn throws, but that is not the reality," King said at the time. "Her action complies with ICC regulations and the laws of cricket." But the real takeaway was that two different labs had made two different conclusions, and even accounting for the singularity of Gunn's action, this set the ICC thinking.
Later that year, the ICC held a kind of academic face-off between two labs: the ones at Loughborough and the University of Western Australia (UWA) in Perth - which, by arrangement, had been the ICC's exclusive lab for testing actions since 1999. Their methods differed subtly but significantly. For example, Loughborough calibrated its sensors with the arm above the shoulder, while UWA did it with the arm by the side of the body. The positioning of the sensors on the arm was also slightly different, according to Dr King. "At UWA they place the sensors over soft tissue, while we place them over the joints." A group of independent experts was asked to decide between the testing protocols: for the sake of consistency and because UWA had published more research on actions, UWA's was chosen.
Collateral damage: umpires who call bowlers, like Ross Emerson did Murali, have been scathed to varying degrees
© Getty Images
Collateral damage: umpires who call bowlers, like Ross Emerson did Murali, have been scathed to varying degrees © Getty Images
From this point on, a rift grew between the ICC and UWA. The ICC's aims, after the Gunn case, were twofold: standardise testing protocols and increase the number of testing centres. Perth's geographical isolation had always been a problem. Given it was the sole testing lab, it also meant the ICC was overly reliant on the testing skills of one academic, in this case Dr Jacqueline Alderson, an associate professor of biomechanics. What would happen, one ICC official wondered, if she went on a sabbatical and a bowler was reported in that period?
UWA's retention was premised on three broad steps of action. The first was to implement a number of technical recommendations specific to the testing protocol. The next step was to standardise these protocols, before finally executing them across a number of testing centres (with UWA driving the expansion).
The ICC says it did not get past the first step, and from that point the rift turned into an outright dispute. In March this year UWA officially withdrew their services. To them it had become an intellectual-rights dispute, centred on the usage of the testing protocols. "One testing centre was never going to be sufficient and we at UWA agreed with the need for expansion but not the handing over of our intellectual property (developed from 1995 onwards) to the ICC to use in the new centres without some recognition of such," Daryl Foster, a former coach and biomechanics expert at the lab, said to me in an email.
The ICC disagrees, claiming to have used a combination of existing public research and expert views from within to develop a different protocol. It suggests that UWA was attempting to exploit its testing monopoly by planning to charge licence and training fees to the new centres, and that they approached one such centre with a quote without telling the ICC.
In the new protocols there is significant advance in matching the bowler's action in a lab to that in the game he was reported in
In mid-October, Alderson of UWA complained to ESPNcricinfo about the "lack of transparency surrounding the current [ICC] testing". At a press conference in Dubai in late October, Geoff Allardice, the ICC's General Manager-Cricket and the man overseeing the current drive, had an ice-cold retort. "The accusations by UWA were based on the fact that they hadn't seen [the protocols]. We haven't got a relationship with them so weren't going to give it to them." Allardice said that several biomechanists were providing the ICC with regular feedback on their protocols, and these were also the subject of an external review. "All the results we have seen so far are very encouraging with the testing system."
The end result is that under the ICC's new testing protocol, developed at Cardiff University, eight bowlers have been reported between June and November 13, and five suspended (with Malcolm Waller's results pending). Newly accredited testing centres have sprouted, in Loughborough, Cardiff, Brisbane and Chennai (and two more might, in South Africa and Pakistan). It would be easy to ascribe the sudden spurt of suspensions to the difference in testing protocols, and thus implicitly taint UWA by suggesting their testing didn't do enough to find bowlers guilty.
The protocols are different because, as one official familiar with both says, "there is no right way or wrong way of measuring 15 degrees". UWA's Alderson has publicly expressed her concerns, for example, about how the ICC identifies the moment of ball release, especially for spinners, and where markers are placed. On the other hand, in the new protocols there seems to be a significant advance in matching the bowler's action in a lab to that in the game he or she was reported in.
From May 2011, no specialist bowler has bowled as many balls (13,346) in all formats as Saeed Ajmal. How can a bowler have the same action across such a vast number of deliveries?
© Associated Press
From May 2011, no specialist bowler has bowled as many balls (13,346) in all formats as Saeed Ajmal. How can a bowler have the same action across such a vast number of deliveries? © Associated Press
"In the old procedures, we'd come into the lab and we'd test the player and compare their action to what they did in the game and we would make a comment and say we don't think it's the same," Wayne Spratford, a biomechanist who worked with Cricket Australia and is familiar with both protocols, told me. UWA's report on Ajmal's action in 2009 corroborates Spratford's point, contending that it is not possible "to say conclusively that bowling actions in the laboratory testing are identical to that displayed on the playing field, the comparison in this instance is significantly hampered by the limitations in the provided match footage". Under the new procedures, says Spratford, bowlers bowl until it is clearer that the lab action and match action are the same.
If the end product of the testing protocols - the reports they produce - is any gauge, then there is a difference. The report on Ajmal's action by the UWA in 2009 is eight pages long; the ICC's report from the Brisbane lab is 23 pages. It is a superficial measure, of course - length is no judge of quality - but the difference was noted by several board officials. More cameras have been used for the newer testing and more images have been made available. Ultimately, however, the ICC and Alderson both acknowledge that in the instances of the current bowlers and their relatively large ranges of extension, the differences in testing methods make little difference. This clampdown hasn't arisen so much from a variance in testing methodology as from an administrative correction of the laxness of the last decade. "It is arguable that we should've taken this action earlier," David Richardson, the ICC's chief executive, conceded at the Dubai press conference when asked why now.
Bending of the elbow
Straightening of the elbow
The point at which the bowling arm is horizontal to the shoulder as it comes up in its swing
Maximum elbow flexion
The greatest angle of the elbow between upper-arm horizontal and ball release
Flexion at ball release
The angle of the elbow at the moment of ball release
Over the last couple of years, the ICC has kept its cricket committee abreast of developments in testing protocols with a series of presentations. Once it was confident it had everything in place - a process speeded up after UWA's withdrawal - it updated the committee in June this year. In turn, the committee issued a statement encouraging umpires to start reporting bowlers again.
This is as important a point as the UWA dispute or any protocol enhancements. The ICC is keen to paint umpires as equal victims in the recent history of the fight against illegal actions. Umpires who have been strong on actions, from Colin Egar, who ended Ian Meckiff's career, to Darrell Hair and Ross Emerson, who nearly did likewise with Murali, have come across as officious moral crusaders. But is there another side, a stigma in being the umpire who reports a bowler? In his book Peebles records that Egar's no-balling of Meckiff earned him loud and consistent booing from one section of the crowd. And in the long run, in the battle between Hair, Emerson and Murali, the latter won: both umpires ended their careers before time, their reputations considerably scathed.
That is why the ICC had relieved umpires of the pressure to call a player on the ground, allowing for a report to be made after the match. But in recent years, as they saw a number of bowlers return cleared, umpires grew more wary of reporting any bowler.
"They watch cricket like all of us," Allardice explained at the press conference in Dubai. "They have their suspicions. They are looking for support. Over the years they felt like they were being victimised for identifying bowlers with suspect actions. The other thing they want is a testing process and results that match up to their observations on the field. They are the two things that go together to give them the confidence to express their views."
It is getting to be a blameless cull. The ICC is enforcing laws as they stand. Bureaucracy and science are winning
It was a telling comment. Through a number of off-the-record briefings, the ICC was eager to stress to me that it did not have issues with UWA's testing rigour. But publicly stating that the umpires wanted a protocol that matched their observations - and implying that hitherto this had not been the case - was not exactly a ringing endorsement of the UWA's testing in recent years.
In science, cricket is seeking refuge from morality. Since they began allowing biomechanists to rewire brains about bowling actions in the mid-1990s, it is what the ICC has been moving towards. Officials are now keener than ever to frame illegal actions as a purely technical aberration: they are not chuckers trying to cheat good men out of a game but possessors of faulty actions developed through coaching neglect, which can be rectified.
"For me," stressed one ICC official, "it's a guy trying to bowl to the other end and his body and muscle memory just goes through the motion. We see it as a scientific issue. The umpires' role is just to identify the bowlers there are concerns with and then it's up to science. We don't judge the bowler. He's going about his business and it's up to the umpires, as the first step, to enforce the laws. We make no judgement on the bowler."
It is getting to be a blameless cull: umpires are unidentified, and in any case merely reporting concerns, not ending careers. The ICC is simply enforcing laws as they stand. Bureaucracy and science are winning.
Given the hyperventilating faux-morality that has historically accompanied the issue, this is no bad thing. Ajmal did not go through the haranguing that forced Murali to undergo two reality-show-style public trials to prove he wasn't cheating. None of the bowlers reported in the latest cull has endured that, which is progress of a kind.
Shoaib Malik undergoes testing in Perth in 2004
Tony Ashby / © AFP
Shoaib Malik undergoes testing in Perth in 2004 Tony Ashby / © AFP
But it still isn't pleasant. "You chucked that one mate," one player was heard taunting Ajmal on the stump mic earlier this year. The irony was that he was Sri Lankan, Murali's countryman. On Twitter, Michael Vaughan and Stuart Broad spread mischief, using a grainy long-distance shot of Ajmal's bent elbow in action from a county game for Worcestershire. "You are allowed 15 degrees of flex in your delivery swing.... #justsaying," Vaughan tweeted, attaching the picture. Broad replied, first in mock shock - "This has to be a fake photo?!" - and then with commentary: "Bowlers can bowl very differently in a lab while being tested compared to needing wickets in the middle." Once Ajmal was suspended, others twisted the knife. Chris Rogers took it upon himself to blame Ajmal for the end of Eoin Morgan's Test career in 2012. Again the ignorance: Ajmal took 24 wickets (in the three Tests against England in the UAE) but Morgan's only twice; Abdur Rehman dismissed him more times. Paul Grayson, the Essex coach, identified Ajmal and his wickets for Worcestershire this season as the reason Essex failed to gain promotion.
I put to Ajmal that surely the malice in these statements must have hurt him? "I don't look out for news [like this]. I keep myself to myself. They can say what they want, I have no tension. Masla hi nahin hai [This is not an issue]. Keep saying what they want, no tension. I keep myself to myself, I keep playing." At the time, however, he did ask his board to lodge an official complaint with Broad's board.
It isn't so much about what people say - and all the specific accusations are questionable - as it is about the intent. The comments betray vindictive strains found in a tabloid name-and-shame campaign. The ridiculous idea that the actions of an elbow are somehow not virtuous conduct is the remnant of morality of a much earlier age, when it was decreed that an illegal action was not only deliberate but also seeking an unfair advantage. Peebles' book, an admirably clear-headed one, is dated on the science but remains progressive on the morality. One paragraph, at the end of his introduction, is worth reproducing.
There is one point which should be clearly underlined. It does not impugn the personal reputation or question the honesty of purpose of any one of the various bowlers involved in this controversy. For one very good reason it would be quite illogical to do so. Surely the essence of sharp practice of cheating is the covert and deliberate disregard or breaking of a rule or agreement. The suspect bowler subjects himself to the judgment of the umpires and up to eighty thousand people. He makes no attempt to conceal anything, in the confidence that, in his own judgment, he is in no way infringing the letter or the spirit of the law.
John Arlott once wrote in the Law Journal that to produce a definition of a throw was a job for a lawyer and anatomist, not so much a cricketer
Peebles writes of the case of Tony Lock, the England left-arm spinner whose faster ball was called several times by umpires in the 1950s. Lock had practised for a while in an indoor school and found the overhead net too low to accommodate his natural flight. He flattened his trajectory to deal with this, but in the process developed a kink in his natural action. When he played for England, he was no-balled. On eventually seeing slow-motion video, Lock was disturbed enough to correct it.
Spratford, now conducting research on spin bowling at the Australian Institute of Sport, recalls an Under-19 Australian bowler whose action was legal until he underwent shoulder surgery. That "reduced his range of motion just through scar tissue and not stretching, and all of a sudden he was illegal when we tested him, just because he couldn't have the range of motion out of his shoulder. So to compensate for that, he was using his elbow to extend to get his arm around."
We like to think bowling actions are repeatable, when, in fact, they cannot be. From May 2011, when Ajmal established himself in all three formats, until his suspension, no specialist bowler had played as many internationals and none had bowled as many balls (13,346). Since the day his action was cleared in 2009 (May 24), Ajmal has bowled 18,310 deliveries in internationals. And then there are the domestic matches. Given such a load, is the body going to deliver the ball in exactly the same way, with the same forces and positions, as it did five years before?
Geoff Allardice is the man behind the ICC's latest attempt to clean up bowling
© Getty Images
Geoff Allardice is the man behind the ICC's latest attempt to clean up bowling © Getty Images
Foster, among others, thinks not. "Ajmal has carried the Pakistan attack in all forms of the game. He must have bowled thousands of deliveries in that time and at training. He also would have spent a fair amount of time developing his variations. I don't believe any of the 50 to 60 international bowlers we have tested at UWA since 1995 have deliberately attempted to bowl with an illegal action, but they do over time and under pressure develop bad habits."
At the core of the debate on illegal actions is not the answer but the question. The answer, since 2004, has been that beyond 15 degrees of an arm straightening, a ball is not bowled but thrown. This is what is integral to cricket, at least since overarm bowling was legalised: that the arm must be straight. Anything else is not cricket.
A pedantic point first. Actual ball-throwing is a very different action. In calling that which is not bowling a throw, cricket reveals an age-old tension with baseball and pitching, stemming most likely from the hazy, intertwined origins of both. "Cricket is not baseball" is the argument of the most rabid critics of illegal actions.
The more accurate reference would be, as Peebles pointed out, a javelin thrower, or shot-putter (Bishan Bedi at least got this right when he once compared Murali to a javelin thrower). Peebles illustrates the point with a photograph of a javelin thrower just as he is about to release. When I saw it, I immediately thought of Shoaib Akhtar and his front-on action.
The real point, however, is this. Once cricket was told by science that an arm could not be rigidly straight in a certain phase of an action and it introduced degrees of tolerance, it stood at the top of a very slippery idea of what is, or isn't, legal bowling. It is little wonder John Arlott once wrote in the Law Journal that to produce a definition of a throw was a job for a lawyer and anatomist, not so much a cricketer. In the hope of further clarity but at the risk of more complication, should not there be an accompanying question? Namely, at what point do bowlers begin to gain a definitive performance advantage, if they ever do at all? What, if any, are the performance consequences of breaking the law?
"It is possible to bowl some kind of doosra legally, the ball out of the front of the hand. I've got data from guys who play high-level cricket"
Spend some time talking to biomechanists and it becomes clear that cricket is hurtling to the point where it must consider the consequences of transgression.
Dr Marc Portus was one of the first men to seriously research actions. It was on the basis of his findings, and those of Dr Bruce Elliot and Dr Paul Hurrion, that the ICC decided in 2004 to implement the 15-degree rule. In a 2007 paper that he co-authored, published in the journal Sports Biomechanics, Portus found that "a small but statistically significant correlation existed between elbow straightening [of over 15 degrees] and ball speed". But crucially, he questioned the cause-effect mechanism of the finding, and whether or not it was actually in reverse:
That is, bowlers bowling faster, probably for other physical and technical reasons, such as strength, an efficient trunk technique, or run-up speed, may cause more elbow straightening because of the inertial load of the ball and the higher accelerations experienced by their arms near release.
In simpler words he told me: "The point we were making was that [it] might be more a result rather than the cause. They might be bowling faster, they might be running in faster, the rhythm better, the arm acceleration might be faster towards release… that was the point. We didn't prove it but we were just saying there could be an effect."
The causality - that elbow extension results in greater ball speed - has been questioned elsewhere in academia. Kane Middleton, a biomechanist at UWA who was also part of the lab team involved in Ajmal's 2009 testing, is another who believes it has not been proven definitively. In his PhD thesis, Middleton looked at the determinants of ball speed and, as one focus, the elbow extension's relationship with it. He carried out research on 12 bowlers from grade cricket in Western Australia and made unexpected discoveries. Each bowler bowled 20 deliveries. Middleton fed the collated data into a model through which he amplified the flex and extension of elbow angles and the impact of those on ball speeds.
Tony Lock's dubious quicker delivery was revealed to be the product of practising in an indoor facility with a too-low overhead net
© PA Photos
Tony Lock's dubious quicker delivery was revealed to be the product of practising in an indoor facility with a too-low overhead net © PA Photos
"What I found was that ten of my 12 bowlers actually flexed [bent rather than straightened] just before ball release, which is not what you would see with a lot of spinners. I think it is fairly common around pace bowlers that they actually flex the elbow just prior to ball release. What we found with the amplifying is that the guys [pace bowlers] who actually flexed their arm prior to release increased in speed. The guys who extended [straightened rather than bent] actually decreased speed. That is really counter-intuitive to what the rules state and the way it is looked at, at the moment."
Middleton sent me another paper, published in Sports Biomechanics, which questions the entire basis of how illegal actions are measured. Rene Ferdinand and Uwe Kersting argue that the speed of the extension rather than the degree is more important in determining whether an action is illegal.
"Even if it is accepted that most bowlers who throw violate the current 15-degree limit," the report said, "this study has shown there are bowlers who can achieve throw-like actions while remaining within this limit… If it is decided that these actions do not conform to aesthetic requirements of a cricket bowl, then further measures such as elbow-extension angular velocity through release and absolute elbow angle may need to be considered."
The idea that the actions of an elbow are not virtuous conduct is the remnant of a much earlier age
The idea that the actions of an elbow are not virtuous conduct is the remnant of a much earlier age © AFP
There is much more, too much more. Spratford is on the verge of completing his own PhD on how Australia can get more out of their spinners. The concluding portion of his thesis has data about spinners who can bowl the doosra - which Australian coaches have made a point of not teaching - based on testing of over 60 offspinners from Australia and around the world.
"They're all different. What one person calls a doosra is kinematically different to someone else, and what I've found is that bowlers can bowl it legally," Spratford said. "But there is a difference in technique between people. And then there are people who are extending 40 degrees trying to bowl it. It is possible to bowl some kind of doosra legally, the ball out of the front of the hand. Extending your elbow helps you get the arm through. I've got data from guys who play high-level cricket who bowl a doosra that is legal. But they are not people who you would ever suspect of having an illegal action. It is possible to bowl some kind of doosra legally."
Though cautious because his research is not complete yet, Spratford suspects the subcontinental physique - looser and nimbler of limb - lends itself more to the delivery than those of players from Australia or England. He also thinks greater elbow extension leads to greater ball revolutions but cannot say definitively right now; whether that is a performance advantage, and a deliberate one, is an altogether greyer area.
Testing actions in match conditions is the Holy Grail for cricket's biomechanists - a potentially seminal moment
The consequences of spending too much time in this world should be clear even after this brief visit. Almost everything we believe to be true about bowling actions is probably not quite true (Portus even says there is, scientifically speaking, a difference between straightening and extension). Everything else we believe to be true is only the start of it. The three biomechanists I spoke to know it too, and each of the three, it should be pointed out, are happy with the current levels of tolerance. They understand that going finer, at the moment, may bring unmanageable complexities. They understand that the level is primarily an aesthetic appeaser to keep the essence of the game intact - the integrity of it, or the etiquette, whatever you want to call it. That is the decision, as David Richardson reaffirmed at the Dubai press conference, cricket stuck to in 2004. There was debate about performance advantages then and it is a debate that can still be had, Richardson said, but for now, "the overall majority of people still believe that we should stick to the old principle of keeping the arm straight, simple as that." Perhaps more appropriate would have been to say a semblance of a straight arm, or maybe an illusion.
Middleton, Spratford, Portus and the others might become prominent very soon. The ICC is two-thirds of the way through a game-changing project in which all three are involved. By late 2016, bowlers could be wearing sensors on their arms during matches, sensors that will, in theory, be able to provide readings of a bowler's action as he delivers during an international game; sensors that will, in fact, bring to light many of the points raised above and probably more complex ones beyond.
The sensors are light and operate on the same technology that detects a switch in the orientation of tablets or smartphones. They are placed inside a casing strapped on the bowling arm; each delivery bowled is recorded and the data downloaded onto a computer. They were trialled in practice sessions during the U-19 World Cup in the UAE earlier this year, where players bowled one or two overs before the data was downloaded. These are the developments of the first two stages of the project and the ICC is happy with the science behind them.
The third stage, underway now, is the critical one. In an ideal world, the final stage will make it possible for the biomechanical legality of each delivery to be instantly available to a TV umpire. This is the stage where it will be discovered whether, for example, the sensors work well on a hot, sweaty day in Chennai, or how the sensor's calibration is affected if a player wearing it dives. It is not yet certain whether perfect immediacy will be achievable. There are a host of bigger questions too: who will wear the sensors, and by dint of some wearing them and others not, will it not become unfair? How will bowlers react physically and psychologically to wearing them?
All sensored up: Johan Botha gets tested
© Getty Images
All sensored up: Johan Botha gets tested © Getty Images
Testing actions in match conditions is the Holy Grail for cricket's biomechanists. Each of the men I spoke to referred to it as a potentially seminal moment in illegal-action testing. Even with the new ICC protocols, actions in labs are unlikely to be 100% identical to that in a match. "There's no doubt," Spratford says, "that if you're called for an illegal action and go into a lab, you would consciously or subconsciously change because you want to be legal." With wearable sensors, that is no longer an issue, real life being the greatest laboratory of them all.
This is the precipice. Does cricket plunge into this science utopia, where lies truth - but uncomfortable, complicated truth? Middleton has just submitted an abstract of a paper to the ICC, which may get a viewing during a conference at the 2015 World Cup. In it, science clashes with morality head-on: the research is into the intent behind bowlers who extend. Preliminary data indicates to him that bowlers who extend may be actively trying not to extend, to slow down the extension, or even to flex.
Maybe the fact that illegal actions have been such a persistent trend tells us something about the unnaturalness of maintaining a straight overarm action. (A doctor once wisecracked to me: "I don't think evolution had cricket in mind." He probably didn't do likewise to the demon Fred Spofforth, who was so dismayed by the rise of throwing that in January 1897 he exasperatedly wrote that if all remedies failed, "the best way is to legalise throwing, and in one season it would bring about its own cure".) Performance advantage appeals as a more logical marker of what is illegal. But on the precipice, it's also easy to see it as a limitless, overwhelming pursuit, as if cricket's toes are partially dipped into the ocean of science and there is a great wave approaching.
Osman Samiuddin is a sportswriter at the National
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