[This is a follow-up, loosely speaking, to the item I posted on Murali's bowling action. Last year Gideon Haigh spoke at a seminar at the MCG involving umpires, journalists and others. His subject was the new 15 degrees allowance for bowlers. This is what he said.]
There have been several occasions in the history of the game where the word 'throwing' has been bandied about, to distinguish a style of delivering the ball from bowling, and it's worth bearing in mind that the first two of them are associated with the transitions from under-arm to round-arm bowling, and from round-arm to over-arm bowling.
It's funny that we look back on those technical changes as though they make perfect sense, and yet we now regard the idea of someone delivering the ball with other than a straight arm as an offence to truth and beauty and fair play. Are we, I sometimes wonder, living on the cusp of a new age, the transition from the straight-arm to the bent-arm period? Will future generations look back on us and go...?
Isn't it curious that people at the turn of the 21st century regarded the idea with such horror? What a quaint archaism was straight-arm bowling. How limiting. How dull. Just think of the things we can do that they cannot. Cricket would never have prospered without moving to the bent-arm style. Nowadays, we get 25 overs an hour, because the bowlers take no run-ups, and we finish our Tests in three days.Consider a few parallels too. John Willes started bowling round-arm in about 1807. It took nine years to proclaim a law in response, and the law is worth reciting for its sheer unintelligibility:
The ball must be bowled, not thrown or jerked, and be delivered underhand, with the hand below the elbow, but if the ball be jerked, or the arm extended from the body horizontally, and any part of the hand be uppermost, or the hand horizontally extended when the ball is delivered, the umpire shall call no ball.It then took another six years for anyone to enforce said law, whereupon, it is said, Willes threw down the ball, stormed out of Lord's and galloped off on his mare never to play again. But there was then a bowler so brilliant in the new style, William Lillywhite, that the cumbrous law was changed to accommodate the round-arm in 1828. It took about 20 years, but cricket entered a new dimension.
Over the course of the next 35 years, the horizontal arm veered steadily towards the vertical, until in 1862 Edgar Willsher was no-balled for transgression by William Lillywhite's son John - rather piquant really. The equivalent would be Darrell Hair being discovered to be Ian Meckiff's love child. Poor Willsher. A good man by all accounts and the controversy destroyed him, and he seems to have been singled out rather harshly. William Caffyn tells us:
There is no doubt whatever that Willsher was often in the habit of bowling above the shoulder but then so also were 9 out of 10 bowlers of that time... the old law was an absurd one, and one wonders that it should have remained in force so long.And two years later, the authorities agreed, changing the law to allow it.
Interestingly, I think, this really saved cricket. A game that had remained under-arm would perhaps not have lasted. It would have run out of variations. It would have been too slow and gentle to satisfy the public ardour for drama and, yes, violence. So we've a lot to thank those cheating chucking bastards like Willes and Willsher for.
2005 represents the third occasion on which the law has been changed to accommodate a style of bowling introduced to the game by a small group. In the case of Willsher, the law was apparently a recognition that most people did it already, and the law had to catch up with technique. That's three changes since the original code in 1774. No wonder Lord Hailsham once said that the MCC committee made the Tory cabinet look like a bunch of Trotskyists.
Now there are differences, and important ones too. John Willes and Edgar Willsher were both consciously pushing the law to its edge; it transpires, we are now told, that most bowlers have been bending the law as a matter of course. In fact, it would be surprising were this not so. The Australian umpire Jim Phillips, who is identified with the first fatwa against throwers just over a century ago, commented:
Just as one bowler, in his desire to make his delivery more difficult, gets as near the return crease as possible, and occasionally inadvertently oversteps the mark, thereby bowling a 'no-ball', so another bowler will, in attempting an increase of pace, use his elbow, especially if he be a bowler whose arm is not quite straight. In each of these instances it does not seem just to suppose that either bowler is wilfully unfair.That's a very interesting commentary, I think, and a fair-minded one. We're inclined to think of the Victorian age as a pretty starchy one, yet Phillips was quite prepared to accept the bending of the arm as a technical transgression rather than a moral one. I'd contrast it to the sometimes farcical and I think vicious attitudes struck where Muralitharan is concerned, in which the reverse is true. I've lost count of the number of conversations I've been involved in where I've listened to the sentiment: 'He's a cheat and he should be thrown out of the game.'
At the moment, we have an unworkable situation. Unilateral action by a strong umpire à la Phillips has been deemed unpalatable; multilateral action à la the Imperial Cricket Conference circa 1960 doesn't seem an option either; biomechanical technology, to which cricket's governors turned in search of certainty, has simply introduced another layer of uncertainty. Degrees of tolerance for arm straightening have been introduced in the light of studies revealing that most bowlers do, quite unconsciously and naturally, flex their arms while bowling. For reasons of politics and law, it would seem, we are torn between a law that is enforceable and unacceptable or one that is acceptable and unenforceable. I'll be delighted if the new dispensation works, but it's inherently unstable, and I would be very surprised if it did. It's certainly of no earthly use to the umpires in my grade of cricket, who have nothing but their naked eye and judgement.
Thus my feeling that, by default, we're in a transitional stage, rather like those in the 1820s and 1860s, in which bowling will change, I hope painlessly and without too much recrimination. (Gideon Haigh)