Little ripples run across the water, spreading outwards from the spot in Sri Lanka where the stone was dropped. . It says something that the waves the story created have not been larger still. As I write this it is only the second sports story on the website of , Pakistan’s largest English-language newspaper, and one of a bunch on , the specialist cricket site. Time was when the announcement would surely have whipped up a storm of conflicting emotions and conspiracy theories. That it hasn’t is, like so much else about this case, part of the legacy of Muttiah Muralitharan, the last great bowler to be subject to such scrutiny.
Of course there have been others in between. Ajmal is, in fact, the fifth bowler to be reported in the last 10 months, every one of them an off-spinner. First were the West Indian pair of Shane Shillingford and Marlon Samuels. and New Zealand’s . The latter two, along with Ajmal, mean that there have been three cases in little over two months. Each of them, oddly enough, has occurred in matches in which the umpire Ian Gould was officiating.
This is not a personal crusade of the kind Ross Emerson and Darrell Hair once embarked upon against Murali. That had, in Emerson’s case especially, an almost vindictive quality. He was still insisting, , that Murali did not “deserve his records”.
Rather, Gould, whether through coincidence or strength of conviction, is at the forefront of a clampdown on Law 24, which governs bowling actions. It is a diktat down from on high, borne out of consensus that, as the ICC’s general manager of cricket Geoff Allardice : “There’s enough bowlers with suspect actions that should be scrutinised that probably haven’t been.” The ICC was unequivocal, according to Allardice. “The cricket committee was of the view that there are some bowlers operating with suspect actions that should be scrutinised a bit more closely.” Gould may well be one of the few umpires who feels strongly enough about it to enforce it.
It is one thing to report Williamson, a batsman and part-time bowler, or Senanayake, a one-Test rookie at the age of 29. Another altogether to do it to Ajmal, 36 and the finest spinner of his generation. Since he made his belated debut in international cricket back in 2008 he has taken 441 wickets across the three forms of the game, more than any other player on the circuit. They have come at the miserly average of 23.53 runs apiece. Among spinners, only Murali has ever taken more for less. In theory one rule should apply for all. In practice it is seldom so straightforward. Murali, for instance, is cut slack because he is physically incapable of straightening his arm. Ajmal, too, has argued that he injured his elbow in a car crash. Certainly tests have shown that he is unusual in that his elbow is capable of a sideways rotation in delivery unlike that of any other bowler.
The rigour with which Law 24 has been enforced has always waxed and waned. This is not the first time that officials have decided to take action against a group of bowlers because they felt that the interpretation of the law has grown too lax. It happened at the end of the 19th century, when Lord Harris led a campaign against throwing in county cricket. The Wisden editor Sydney Pardon was on Harris’s side, and called out the Australian pair Ernie Jones and Tom McKibbin. CB Fry and Arthur Mold were both no-balled soon after. The MCC agreed that the county captains should meet to discuss suspected bowlers, and any reckoned to be unfair by a majority of two to one should be banned for a year.
Finally, in 1901 Pardon was able to write: “If the captains stick to their guns, we shall soon be entirely free from the evil of which not very long ago it seemed impossible to get rid.” And, for 50-odd years cricket was.
The next flare-up started in the 1950s, when a string of England and Australian bowlers were no-balled. It culminated in 1963 when Ian Meckiff was called by his good friend Col Eager. Donald Bradman, then chairman of the ACB, had urged Eager and other senior umpires to crack down on the proliferation of bowlers . Meckiff, like Mold, felt he had been scapegoated, and – ultimately – hounded out of the game.
This, then, is the third wave, one shaped by Murali’s struggle to assert his right to bowl as he did, . Murali’s public trials led to changes in the process used to deal with suspect actions. Umpires are still allowed to call a no-ball for a deliberate throw, but seldom do. More importantly, Murali’s case encouraged cricket’s administrators to turn to scientific analysis, which established two things. The first was that you cannot judge the legitimacy of an action with the naked eye, or from still photos, and the second was that almost every bowler, to one extent or another, flexes his arm in delivery. Hence the regulation allowing all bowlers 15 degrees of flex. What was black and white is now rendered in shades of grey, a relativistic approach that sits uneasily with some.
The stigma of being branded a “chucker”, as Mold and Meckiff once were, has been diminished. At the senior level at least, bowlers are nursed through rehabilitation programmes. But the consequence is that conservatives feel the game has become too lenient, and too liberal in its attitudes towards the doosra in particular. Murali passed tests on his doosra in 2004, which legitimised the delivery for a generation of bowlers. But not everyone is convinced. As recently as 2009 they were refusing to teach it at Australia’s Centre of Excellence. And Graeme Swann is one of many who believes from his own experience that it is impossible to deliver a doosra without chucking the ball. But then Swann has a classical action. Ajmal bowls from front-on, something he has been encouraging Moeen Ali to do as he tries to teach him the secret of the delivery.
Reports say it is Ajmal’s off-break that has been called into question this time. Which would seem odd, if it did not confirm what we already know. Ajmal has been reported before, and passed all the tests with ease. In 2009 his action was cleared after studies conducted in Perth. The ICC panel found that his action was well within the range of tolerance, and that while his arm was bent by almost 24 degrees when he brought it around to his shoulder, he only straightened it by eight degrees before he delivered it. They found too that his arm flexed more while delivering his off-break and his arm-ball than it did when he was bowling his doosra. Despite all that, he will have to prove himself all over again.
Evidently, the sceptics do not trust the scientific conclusionsce. Many argue that a test conducted in a lab is a poor substitute for a match situation, that a bowler can tweak his action to serve the situation, even though plenty of precautions are taken to prevent that happening. So the next step will be to introduce technology that measures the flex of a bowler’s arm during a match without hindering their performance. . In fact, it may be that this latest clampdown is in anticipation of the introduction of wearable technology, which may, after all, prove that Allardice and the ICC are right and that the game has been letting too many bowlers get away with too much for too long. Conceivably, it could also work the other way, and mean that the actions of Ajmal et al will be legitimised. Either way, we may finally be able to end a dispute that has been running for more than a century.
This is an extract taken from The Spin, the Guardian’s weekly cricket email.