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July 21, 2000


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Chuck the laws, not the bowlers

Prem Panicker

To start off, yet again, with an aside before getting to the main topic -- the nationwide raids carried out by the Income Tax sleuths, targetting cricketers, officials, bookies, and prominent punters, should have adequately answered the questions a lot of you have been asking. To wit, is the CBI investigation making any progress at all? And is something going to come of all this?

The CBI probe has to be viewed in context of the fact that this is an open-ended investigation. There are two kinds -- the focussed probes, and open-ended inquiries like this one. The closed probe is where a case has been filed, and the CBI is then given the task of investigating it and coming up with the necessary evidence to close it out. The advantage in these probes is that there is a definite focus, a clear-cut goal. The ongoing CBI investigation into match-fixing, betting et al, though, is an open-ended one. No case has been filed (the one filed by the Delhi police against Hansie Cronje and company being a different affair altogether), and the CBI's brief is not to investigate a particular case, but to probe the whole question in general, then assess the evidence and make recommendations on whether or no there is scope for filing a case, and if so, against whom and for what.

Given that kind of amorphous brief, this particular probe was always going to be a slower process than the more focussed investigations. And interestingly, the CBI is going about it as per the textbook. First, there was the round of soft interrogations, wherein various people -- cricketers, officials, punters, whoever -- whose names have at one time or other cropped up in this connection were called for a round of q&a.

What we saw yesterday was round two (and it would be naive to assume that the IT raids had nothing to do with the ongoing CBI probe, given the identity of the people who were raided), wherein another branch of the state's investigative arm was used. Follow the money is an axiom of criminal investigations, and that is what round two was all about.

Stand by, now, for round three -- wherein the same people who were earlier interrogated will be called again. This time, with the velvet gloves off, as the sleuths get to confront people with hard evidence, documents, etc. Like, right, you told us earlier that you know nothing about match-fixing and betting, cool, now here is your income tax statement, here is your assets list, could you please explain where this money came from? This asset? This property?

Cool -- meanwhile, our best bet is to wait. Sooner or later, this particular nut will crack wide open, so there seems little point in second-guessing the investigating authority.

And now to the main subject -- a certain Brett Lee, latest in the lengthening line of bowlers whose actions are being queried.

As far as the question of his action is concerned, I really see no need for comment. Two umpires expressed reservations. They are entitled to do that. And, to those sections of the Australian media that has been vociferous in protest, it might be worth pointing out that Messers Venkatraghavan and Jayaprakash preferred to voice their concerns to the match-referee -- they did not no ball the player repeatedly, at times even when he switched to the 'unthrowable' leg-spin, as was done by two Australian umpires in the case of Muthaiah Muralitharan.

The match referee, meanwhile, conveyed those concerns to the ICC committee. Which, in turn, has asked Dayle Hadlee to evaluate and report. In other words, this one is being played by the book -- so it is pretty hard to understand what the fuss is all about.

It is a larger issue that bothers me -- namely, the question of just why there have been so many such controversies of late. Incidentally, why is it we remember only Muralitharan, Akthar and Lee? Why have we forgotten Harbajan Singh and Rajesh Chauhan, both of whom, unlike the three others, find their careers in limbo following their naming? Simple -- Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Australia have combative boards, prepared to back up and stand by their players. While we have... well, you know...

Anyways. To return to the question of why such controversies repeatedly crop up. When Akthar was named, Pakistan alleged politics. Now that Lee is named, Australia says the same. At the rate we are going, one of these days an umpire from one country is going to give a batsman of another country out, and next thing you know they'll be saying it is politics, too.

In fact, the Lee incident has led to some of the most ridiculous statements I've heard in recent times. Vide this: "They must have thought, he is bowling so fast, so there must be something wrong!" This, about an umpire of the calibre of Venkatraghavan, who by implication is not even capable of judging an action, but has to rely on guesswork.

By the same logic, did certain umpires think, 'Murali is turning the ball more than our own off spinners, so he must be doing something wrong' when they called him? Or did they go, 'Heck, Akthar is bowling at speeds damn close to the all-time record, so he must be chucking' when they decided to nail him?

Ah heck, never mind -- statements such as those are increasingly a dime several dozens. What is interesting, though, is the question of why this keeps happening -- could it, do you think, have anything to do with the way the rules are written?

The most recent version of the laws of cricket is the one dating back to circa 1980. In which the relevant section (2) relating to bowling reads thus:

"Fair Delivery -- The Arm: For a delivery to be fair, the ball must be bowled not thrown.

Definition of throw: A ball shall be deemed to have been thrown if, in the opinion of either umpire, the process of straightening the bowling arm, whether partial or complete, takes place during that part of the delivery swing which directly precedes the ball leaving the hand. This definition shall not debar the bowler from the use of the wrist in the delivery swing."

I'd much rather try and make sense out of the Quantum Theory, wouldn't you?

So the wiseheads who run international cricket got together and decided the law was so clumsily phrased, there could be as many interpretations as there were umpires. And so a committee was comprised, to rewrite it. Bobby Simpson, one of the members, in fact said the objective of the committee was to simplify the laws, make them unambiguous, and ensure that we could all make sense out of them.

Fine -- so, after a year and a bit of hard labour, what did this committee come up with? Here is the revised version:

"Fair Delivery, The Arm: For a delivery to be fair in respect of the arm, the ball must not be thrown.

Definition of fair delivery: A ball 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. This definition shall not debar a bowler from flexing or rotating the wrist in the delivery swing."

Now then, how is the law, circa 2000, in any way different from that of 1980? All that has been done, is a rewrite. The old one defines a throw, the new one defines a fair delivery -- but the words are equally obstrusive, equally capable of being interpreted by different people in different ways.

And as long as you have such vague laws, you will have trouble. It reminds me of a law they used to have in California at one time. The law said that to shoot a man dead was a crime, but to fire a bullet into a corpse was not. Erle Stanley Gardner, writing as A A Fair, came up with a book titled The DA draws a circle. In it, he came up with an interesting concept. A goon kills a man, then goes and tells his shyster lawyer what he has done. Said lawyer promptly takes out another gun, goes to where the corpse is, and fires a bullet into the same spot as the fatal one.

The case comes to court. And nothing can be proved -- because to prove who did the killing, they first had to prove who shot the fatal bullet, and who fired a bullet into a corpse. Which they couldn't do.

Look at that from a commonsense angle -- suppose your law said that to fire a bullet into a human being, dead or alive, was actionable, that was it. Simple, no loose ends, no loopholes. But no, they had to go and complicate things, by dragging in a needless codicil about corpses.

Strikes me, the case with chucking is very similar -- the whole thing is being unnecessarily complicated by the lawmakers, and in the process, causing a lot of heartburn. Sunil Gavaskar in fact hit the nail on the head, once, when he pointed out that the whole thing is very simple, really. 'Cricket,' Sunny said, 'from a bowler's point of view is a straight arm game. So, your law has to say just that: No part of the arm may be bent at any point in the delivery swing.'

There -- that took what, 15 words? And it leaves no scope for interpretation, no room for argument. If the hand is bent, the ball is illegal. Period.

What, you will then ask, of those who have deformities? Muralitharan, as per the testimony of the doctors who examined him, has an arm that was bent at birth, and cannot be straightened. Now, we are told Lee has a similar problem.

Fine -- in such cases, all that the lawmakers had to do was make it mandatory for the respective boards (Lanka in Murali's case, Australia in Lee's, and so on) to ensure that if they are fielding at the international level a bowler with a problem, he should first be examined by a competent panel of medical and cricketing experts, any deformity certified, and the resulting kink in his action cleared by the committee. This information would then be circulated among all umpires doing duty at the international level. And that, as far as I can see, would be the end of that.

What do you think?

And one final thought -- to really solve the problem, you have to do one other thing. You have to have a rule which says bowler's have to operate in short-sleeved shirts. Those long, floppy sleeves a few of the guys are sporting these days hide a lot of sins.

Postscript: There is one other aspect of the chucking affair, especially that section involving Brett Lee, that merits discussion in depth -- namely, the way the media has utilised it to settle scores, to create confusion, to raise bogeys where none exist. But that, we will leave for Monday. Till then, adios.

Prem Panicker

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