Island Cricket

Monday, April 14, 2008

Murali's redemption, and our arrogance

A brilliant piece by Amit Varma for Cricinfo.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

9.40pm IST - What the chuck!

I received a number of interesting mails after my first post on this topic, about the rather convincing documentary Muttiah Muralitharan has made to prove his innocence, the nature of the optical illusion that his action creates, the unrelenting attitudes of both his supporters and his opponents, and the possible solutions to the whole issue of chucking. A lot of people agreed that Murali has done enough to be spared the trauma of repeated accusations; but a number of others raised objections that were reasonable and well argued.

Martin Brown, Arvind Sampath, Martin Bride and Chris Higginbottom all felt that bowling with a brace - and, thus, a legitimate action - for a documentary does not prove anything, because it does not mean that his action will remain in a match situation. Bride wrote, "If there was an inadvertent straightening that resulted from forces on his bowling arm the brace would prevent that from happening. Then, when he bowled without the brace, the same degree of straightening would occur."

Well, the documentary did prove one thing to me, that I had doubted earlier: that there is an optical illusion caused by Murali's bowling action. If he appeared to be straightening his arm with the brace on, when he obviously could not have done so, then the mere visual evidence alone, during a match, is not enough to convict him. It is not enough to exonerate him either, but we do presume a man innocent until proven guilty, and the fact that he appears to chuck is no case for the offence.

Another objection, raised by Vivek Shenoy and Prasanna Ganesan, is that he may have bowled his usual repertoire of deliveries cleanly during the tests, but he could still be chucking the odd ball during matches. Prasanna writes that the process of judging a bowler's action has "a fundamental flaw. It assumes that either a bowling action is flawed or it is not, and does not admit the possibility that a bowler can chuck the occasional ball without chucking all the time."

That's absolutely true - of any bowler. The effort balls of fast bowlers and the doosras of offspinners are often considered suspect, and this is a problem that the ICC will have to address at some point of time. Prasanna says, "In an ideal world, we would run an instantaneous test on every ball that is bowled to check whether it is a chuck or not. Technology to enable that seems far away. But the least we can hope for is to identify whether a ball is chucked or not from video footage of a match." I'm not sure if that is possible yet, given that a camera essentially throws up a two-dimensional picture that is often flawed, as in Murali's case, but I'm sure that if a bowler's action is covered from every angle, one can come to a judgement while accounting for optical illusions. In any case, that argument holds true for any bowler, so why should Murali be regarded with special suspicion?

The popular belief that Murali chucks is due to the optical illusion his action creates, but Arvind and Martin (Bride) also point out that his action for the doosra was, after all, found to be illegal recently, as per the current guidelines which define five degrees as the acceptable limit of flexion for spinners. The University of Western Australia, which came to this conclusion (and corrected his flex from 14 degrees to ten), also recommended that the ICC review their guidelines for chucking as they were flawed. If one accepts their authority for one observation, then why ignore the other one?

As the ICC recently admitted, some degree of elbow straightening has been detected in 99% of bowlers, including the likes of Courtney Walsh and Glenn McGrath. By the letter of the law as it has stood for over a century, thus, most bowlers are chuckers. In the light of this, the law clearly needs to be amended, and the ICC has tried to do just that, with its recommended guidelines of what degree of flexion is permissable. These guidelines, as Mukul Kesavan explains in the excellent piece that I linked to in my last post, are arbitary, and should be modified so that they are "uniform and enforcable".

The big question here is: what degree of flexion is acceptable? As Dave Richardson said, "Even a solid metal bar if rotated fast enough will display a degree of movement." Do we put the limit at the extent that is caused by these physical laws of movement and resistance? The opinion of the biomechanical experts, like the ones who made the recommendations of revisiting these guidelines, is critical here, and until the ICC delivers its judgement on this matter, and its rationale for that judgement, I'll remain an agnostic on whether 14 degrees is too much or not.

(Note that if you accept the report of the biomechanical experts that shows the flexion of the doosra to have been 14 degrees, you should also accept previous reports which have cleared Murali's offspinner and topspinner, and accept that the 500 or so wickets he took before he started employing the doosra are legitimate. Let's not be selective in our acceptance of the evidence here; that would be the confirmation bias at work.)

Among the others who wrote to me was Rajakumar, who said: "While the entire cricketing world was focussed on Murali's action, many of the fast bowlers have merrily chucked their way to glory and profit." Hmmm. Well, I have heard from reliable sources that a fast bowler whose name has been taken quite often in this context was found by the biomechanical dudes to have a flexion of forty degrees. This information isn't in the public domain yet, perhaps for political reasons, but clearly, something needs to be done about it. Whatever happens in that case, though, Murali deserves the benefit of the doubt.

Will he get it from the Australian prime minister? Theena writes to me: "I am going to sit back and wait for John Howard to amaze us with his cricket acumen if asked to comment on Murali's action. I wonder if he would say - 'Yes. They proved it on TV with that brace thing.'"

Now, wouldn't that be fun?



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