Saving Murali's Doosra: Five unsung heroes

By Michael Roberts.

July 06, 2010 (islandcricket.lk): Gunasekara, Wijesinghe, Dhillon, Wijesuriya, Foster. These are five names that should be etched into the commemorative epitaph marking the third stage of the saga around Muttiah Muralitharan.

Photo.Muralitharan, best known as “Murali,” has been a cricketing-weapon extraordinary for some time and, as such, is a national icon in Sri Lanka. His survival in the frontlines of cricket has faced three major challenges. In effect, he has been subject to “triple jeopardy” in the ‘courts of cricket’, something unprecedented in international law.

The first massive effort to get rid of him on charges of being an illegal “chucker’ was in 1995-96; while the second was in early 1998 Oval (see especially Whimpress 2006: 305-13 for detailed accounts). Both were Australian-led. On both occasions the Sri Lankan authorities (led by Dharmadasa and Sumathipala respectively) stood firm; while Arjuna Ranatunga stood out on the second occasion because the resistance was played out in front of a huge crowd at Adelaide (among them this author).

However, there were many others in the frontline trenches on the and in the backrooms who assisted the Sri Lankan authorities in meeting these assaults from cricketing fundamentalists: to cite just a few names -- Duleep Mendis, Anura Tennekoon, Ranjit Fernando and, in 1998, Tony Greig. Critically, too the scientific reports of the bio-mechanic teams at the University of Western Australia and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology exonerated Muraliand demonstrated that the purists were being misled by an optical illusion. These reports converted the ICC on the first occasion in 1996.

The ICC is not as conservative as made out. In the early 2000s they initiated a secret investigation into bowling actions in match as well as staged conditions. By then the technology had advanced and they could deploy high-speed cameras that could freeze 250 frames per second (Sambit Bal 2006: 314). As an improvement of the six-camera shootings in 1996, as many as twelve cameras shooting from different angles were now used -- secretly on occasions. I do not have the precise details relating to when and where these investigations took place between 2001 and 2003, though the names of Dr. Hurrion, Marc Portus and the UWA team under Dr. Bruce Elliot were definitely involved (Roebuck 2006: 321-22, Bal 2006: 314-16).

The Australian Marc Portus’s report on the study of 34 deliveries from 21 pace bowlers from five countries was in ICC hands as early as March 2002. It found that every single delivery was illegal, involving bending of elbows from 3 degrees to 22 degrees. In effect, it placed one cat and several foxes among the pigeons (Roebuck 2006). But it was not till September 2003 that David Richardson recommended to the ICC that 15 degrees should be the tolerance level for bowling, those exceeding that limit being deemed illegal. However, the ICC, having tweaked the no-ball law a little earlier, deferred a decision on this issue for a while.

My account requires a more precise time-line with specific dates and summaries. But the point I wish to get across is that, by 2002-03, cricketing circles – other than those willfully blind – were alive to the limitations of evaluations by ordinary-eye and the complexities attached to bowling actions.

It was at this stage that, after months of practice, Murali unveiled his deadly Doosra. Saqlain Mustaq may have invented it, but Murali perfected it as Kesavan notes. As he bamboozled more and more batsman and began to approach Shane Warne’s pedestal as the highest wicket-taker in Test history, the third media-assault on the legality of his arm-action was launched from several quarters. Several cricketers, old and not-so-old, insisted that it was impossible to bowl the Doosra without throwing. That Bedi was among them is not surprising. That Vettori was another is disquieting (Boock 2005).

At this point in March 2004 one match referee, Chris Broad, reported to the ICC that Murali’s Doosra was suspect after the Third Test against the Australians at the SSC ground. Whether Broad considered it a throw himself, or pragmatically decided to put the issue raised by the murmurs to the test, I do not know. So, this was to become Murali’s third appearance before the ICC tribunal.

It was here that the unsung heroes swung into action. The first venue was Colombo and involved an unholy combination between Murali’s Manager, Kushil Gunasekera, Dr. Mandeep Dhillon of the Apollo Hospital and Mahinda Wijesinghe, cricket historian and former SSC cricketer. Dhillon had approached Kushil and told him he wished to help Murali. Kushil phoned Mahinda. Let Mahinda take up the tale.

At preliminary discussions at the SLC headquarters which took us nowhere] it was my view that the ICC was drawing red herrings across the track by camouflaging and confusing the issue with 'flexion' and 'degrees' and a whole host of technical terms.

I suggested to Dr.D that many moons ago, the redoubtable CB Fry when accused of 'chucking' bowled with a splint on his elbow in the nets and proved the point that he was not bending the elbow at the point of delivery.

Dr.D was elated with this idea. He immediately asked for a brace to be brought from their stores. They were able to unearth only an ankle brace. However Dr.D put it on Murali's elbow and asked him to go through the motions. Murali tried it and said that it is no problem!

Next we booked the Sri Lanka Cricket Foundation indoor cricket nets at the NCC grounds and ensured that nobody would be there. (By the way, it was I who designed the SLCF indoor nets when I was the first Executive Secy) That day, in the presence of Mohan de Silva (the then Interim committee Chairman), Dr.D., Murali and myself the experiment began. It was also being videoed. And Murali bowled at me!!! He bowled without any problem wearing the brace.

It was later that Dr. D. manufactured a brace made of plaster with steel splints and Murali gave a demonstration at Lord's (nursery grounds for Channel 4?) with Mark Nicholas as compere and with cameras focused from all angles. And Murali bowled his whole range.I still remember having seen the video of how Nicholas, after the demo held the brace in his hands and said: "Cross my heart, you cannot bend this". In other words, there was no problem about 'chucking'.

This, then, is a story of inventiveness and serendipitous interaction that depended in part on historical knowledge, which just goes to show the bibliographical old fogies – sorry Mahinda, but I am part of the club too – have their uses!

Colombo being low in the pecking order of world-cricketing power, it was in England, as Mahinda’s summary indicates, that the critical second stage occurred. This public demonstration of Murali’s unique arm, and the legality of the Doosra through the high-profile eye of Channel Four, was rendered possible by the initiative of Glucka Wijesuriya, a Sri Lankan migrant and lawyer who happens to be a friend of Sri Lankan cricket and a friend of Murali. This was a major breakthrough.

It was consolidated later at Premadasa Stadium though the good offices of ESPN and Ravi Shastri during a series of international matches in Sri Lanka when Murali bowled to Michael Slater, one of the commentators, under the eye of several cameras. Slater is an open book and his acceptance of the evidence, with Shastri already on board in the background, must surely have reverberated through the airwaves, especially among Indian cricket fans who had not taken the jaundiced position of some Australians and who now had one of their own, Dr. Dhillon, as a backroom-boffin to add to their list of unsung heroes.

But Daryl Foster? Where does he come in? Foster was an experienced cricket coach from Perth who also had coached Kent in the late 1990s. He was approached by the Rienzie Wijetilleke Committee around the year 2000 to set up the fast-bowling academy in Sri Lanka with Rumesh Ratnayake as understudy. His financial terms were extremely moderate and perhaps for this reason, but also because he gelled with the Lankans he was employed as a bowling consultant during subsequent tours in 2002-03.

Unassuming and quiet Foster was part of the team for several series though rarely in the public eye. He was subject to shoddy treatment during Sri Lanka’s tour of England in 2003 when the new Hema Amarasuriya Committee refused to fund the extra costs involved in rushing back to Perth because one of his grandchildren was near death. This horrendous act did not deter Foster from a clinical assessment of Murali’s action as one member of the UWA scientific team given the task of forensic review of Murali’s Doosra (Cricinfo team, 30 April 2004).

At this stage the ICC was working under a rule of thumb which delimited 5 degrees of flexion for spin-bowlers and 10 degrees for pace bowlers. That is, it had not yet moved to the sensible position of having one rule for all, that of 15 degrees tolerance limit because no advantage was gained by any bowler till that point was passed. So, Murali’s tribunal was evaluating his Doosra at a point where ambiguity clouded the investigative process and the rule-making.

Much of this testing work was kept secret but The Hindu newspaper managed to penetrate the screen and its revelations entered a cricinfo report. The UWA report with Foster as key hand ran thus:

"Murali, who has been tested more than any other bowler in the history of the game -- 1995, 1999 and now -- possesses different physical characteristics which make him a unique bowler. A straightening of ten degrees when he [Murali] bowls his 'doosra' is not excessive and that should not therefore be deemed advantageous.

We contend that because the speed of his upper-arm rotation is as fast, and in some cases quicker than fast bowlers, his level of acceptability for elbow extension should also be set at the ten-degree mark.

A case can certainly be made for some spin bowlers such as Muralitharan to have the same range of acceptability in elbow angle to that of fast bowlers. With no spin-bowling database to make a comparison, this would seem both a wise and prudent recommendation.”

Remarkably, as the last sentence makes clear, ICC had not yet evaluated the Doosra being bowled by Harbhajan Singh Saqlain Mustaq and Shoaib Malik.

The UWA report, then, seconded by the elbow-brace tests initiated by Dhillon and company, paved the way for Murali to continue bowling the Doosra. I do not have the full details of the chronological time-line in this story, but we do know that this process reached sensible determination when the ICC abandoned its tiered scheme for bowlers and settled on a 15 degree tolerance limit for all bowlers.

Problems do not end with such decision-making. Dogmas remain and dogmatic people remain adamantine. Gilchrist continues to believe that the no-ball rule and 15 degree tolerance limit for bowlers was invented by the ICC in order to protect Murali. That intelligent people can be so obdurate and bury their head in the sand like the proverbial emu should be no surprise to political science, yet it does continue to amaze me.

That is why I present Mahinda Wijesinghe, Dhillon, Gunasekera and Wijesuriya as heroes. Publicizing Murali’s special arm and its unique feature, not least a plasticine wrist with 180 degrees flexion, was a vital political act of defense. But not every cricket buff witnessed the Channel Four and ESPN broadcasts. One would presume that few Australians did. Such Australians as Barry Jarman, Terry Jenner and Darrell Hair have been among the most obdurate and incorrigible critics of Muralitharan. It is within this setting that I mark the significance of another little broadcasting episode, this time on radio on ABC Grandstand, a premier sports channel in Australia.

I listen to radio only when driving and caught a discussion between Glenn Mitchell and Daryl Foster by accident. Mitchell was interviewing Foster about the bent-arm issue and pressed the argument that a bent arm assisted spin-bowlers more than it did pacemen, with the further suggestion that Asian spinners were the principal culprits. Quietly and in measured tones Foster simply decimated Mitchell’s positional prejudices.

It is not only forensic testing by bio-mechanic scientists that one requires. Lucid expressions in oral as well as written documentation are critical weapons when facing knotty issues. I point readers towards Glucka Wijesuriya’s account of the Channel Four broadcast and the issues under investigation as an instance of masterly forensic presentation. Cap this reading with that of Mukul Kesavan’s presentation on web in cricinfo and then one derives lessons in English prose and critical analysis.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Boock, Richard 2005 “Cricket: Updated bowling rules almost beg to be exploited,” http://www.nzherald.co.nz/category/s...ectID=10347894, 30 Sept. 2005.

Bal, Sambit, 2006 “The Throwing Controversy: Save the Doosra,” in Michael Roberts, Essaying Cricket, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, pp.314-16.

Kesavan, Mukul 2006 “Is Murali the greatest spinner ever?” Cricinfo Magazine, July 2006, and http://www.cricinfo.com/magazine/content/story/255809.html

Roebuck Peter 2006 “Secret Filming Reveals Extent of Bowlers who Chuck,” in Michael Roberts, Essaying Cricket, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, pp. 321-23.

Whimpress, Bernard 2006 “Murali’s Chucking Episodes in Australia,” in Michael Roberts, Essaying Cricket, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, pp. 305-13.

Wijesuriya, Glucka 2006 “Murali and the Bowling Issue,” in Michael Roberts, Essaying Cricket, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, pp. 317-20.

Wisden Cricinfo Staff 2004 “Murali’s Doosra should be allowed says report,” 30 April 2004.

This article was first published in April 2010 on Michael Roberts's blog: cricketique.wordpress.com

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