Bowling in cricket has seen tremendous changes, from rolling the ball along the turf with an underarm action to adopting an roundarm action which later lead to higherarm actions. Cricket’s attitude towards bowling has seen constant changes. Change in technologies have brought about changes in rules regarding bowling actions. When a lady found her skirt obstructing under arm bowlings, round arm bowling was born. Later Overarm / higherarm bowling was legalised in 1864.
Since then, rules regarding the flexing of arm have gone sundry changes. It is no brainer to state that there has been a lot of misconceptions about the bio mechanics associated with bowling. The rules were inconsistent and were not thorough. This has paved the way for many rule changes. Every time light was shedded on a new finding, ICC shredded its figments and modified the law.
Before 1990s, bowlers were expected to bowl with an absolutely straight arm. “A bowl 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” says the initial law.
However, a testing conducted in the 1990s in England laid the truth bare that practically all bowlers flexed and extended their arms when the arm was rotated around the shoulder. ICC responded with a set of tired tolerance thresholds for the amount of elbow flexion. Fast bowlers could straighten their arm by 10 degrees. 7.5 degrees was assigned for medium pacers and spin bowlers had a limit of 5 degrees. How much was Andrew Symonds allowed to flex, still perplexes me. What drew the line between a medium pacer and a fast bowler still has many cricket fans look up at the heavens and ponder.
The studies conducted during the 2004 Champions trophy saw only R Sarwan bowl within the then stipulated law. With the much improved measurement technology, ICC once again amended the rules, by raising the tolerance threshold to 15 degrees for bowlers of all type.
Since last November, there has been a spree of reporting bowlers, especially off spinners. Shane Shilingford, Kane WIlliamson, Saeed Ajmal. Sachithra Senanyake, Shohag Gazi and lately Prosper Utseya have all been reported for having a suspect action. Off all specialist off spinners only Ashwin, Narine, Nathan McCallum and Nathan Lyon have not been reported yet.
It is understood that even though the art of off spin is easy to master, it is difficult to execute. An off break bowler’s quiver is very small, generally containing an off break and an arm ball. Unlike leg breaks. off breaks do not spin much. Hence, to grapple batting, which has become ridiculously easy, off spinners have adopted several variations that include deliveries like the Carom ball and the doosra. Off spinners have also started using their elbows craftily to get ample rip off the turf. Unlike leg spinners, off spinners depend a lot on elbow extension.
The need to extend the elbow to be a successful off spinner has made several players inadvertently breach the tolerance threshold level. Senanayake’s remedial works found out that, the need to make prompt changes in the length of deliveries during power plays made Senanayake exceed the limits. In the case of doosra bowlers, elbow extension become paramount in achieving the desired result.
An important question comes to my mind at this juncture. With the testing labs found only in limited countries, how does an ordinary bowler know if he is breaching the threshold level? Forget the bowler, how does the umpire know whether a bowler is flexing his elbow by 14 degrees or 16 degrees. Every bowler would inevitably exceed the limit at least once in their spell. If the umpire picks it and the reports him, then the bowler will have to replicate the very same action in the bio mechanic labs, which would earn the bowler a temporary ban. If the bowler is fortunate to be overlooked, then he can persist.
There is inconsistency in the manner in which the procedure of reporting a bowler functions. How can a naked human eye measure elbow flexion? What if a bowler who chucks manages to travel under the radar?
ICC has always managed to find errors in the measurement methodologies. Different studies have revealed different results. Once no elbow flexion was allowed. Later ICC with a new technology found that all bowlers chuck. Then the laws were changed. But what about the players who were victimised by the previous laws? Had all bowlers chucked before the rule change in the 90s, then weren’t those who were banned for chucking victims?
Why does ICC request the testings to be done in Cardiff and not in Perth? Were the testings in Perth not reliable? If so, how on earth cannot the findings in Cardiff be wrong?
The science behind the bio-mechanics of bowling is convoluted. Congenital deformities and hyper extensions have exacerbated the problems. Murali’s naturally bent arm and Shoaib Akthar’s negative flexing have done serious damage to the reputation of these bowlers due to the lack of comprehensiveness in the law. The technology is still evolving. It is incomplete and imperfect. Using such technology on bowlers can jeopardize many bowlers’ careers.
From another angle, why is chucking bad? People speculate that chucking might allow balls to turn square and strike batsmen at impractical pace. But where is the study that vindicates the above speculations?
In baseball, the fastest pitching is around 108 MPH. Shoaib Akthar has hit the 100 MPH mark. So, chucking is not going to make a very big difference in pace. Moreover with strong guards and sophisticated security gears, balls can never kill batsmen. Balls may turn 90 degrees, but that would happen only if the modern pitches allow spin.
The technology to understand bowling is very limited. To eliminate all qualms and to streamline the system ICC should go binary. Either allow elbow extension completely, or completely ban it. Past studies have shown bowling with a straight arm is implausible. Then the only option is to allow chucking. If anyone is going to say that chucking can give unfair advantages to bowlers, then they should come up with scientific studies to prove it.