Opinion: ICC bend elbows instead of egos

The crusade against flexing elbows continues. Not a week goes by that someone else isn’t reported for “throwing”, the latest being Mohammad Hafeez who is currently competing in the Champions League T20 for the Lahore Lions.

Why it is that this spate of reports has come about isn’t clear. After years of the ICC pretending that this wasn’t a problem, and it isn’t really, they have come out swinging. It must be some sort of directive, umpires don’t act in unison like this without permission to do so.

The ICC are very secretive about the process. Cricket365 have asked to speak to the scientists that do the testing to understand how it happens, and also asked about the costs involved. Each time the ICC have said that they “don’t comment on this.”

Perhaps the decision to do so is understandable; ultimately this is a player’s entire career that we are discussing. Not making the process a public one might be protecting them. Then again, transparency is rarely a bad thing and would help players and fans to understand how this works and what could lead to someone being reported.

There are all sorts of comments that fly about when the chucking is mentioned. People will tell you it is cheating. It isn’t cheating, it is a no-ball. A bowler delivers a ball, he may or may not do so with a flex in his elbow. It is for the officials to decide, just as it is with a third bouncer in the over or deliberately bowling down the leg side.

Now, a bowler constantly delivering no-ball after no-ball wouldn’t be great, and should be stopped. The issue is that on field officials at international level have abdicated responsibility for front foot no-balls, let alone calling a player for throwing.

The failure to call for throwing on the field does make some sense, because the human eye is completely unreliable. It plays tricks on us all the time. A bent elbow is not the same as a flexing one. More than this, throwing is political and as a result the ICC have made it impossible for the umpires to make the call. From the point that Arjuna Ranatunga led his Sri Lanka team from the field in on Boxing Day 1995 the issue has become all the more murky.

As things stand a spinner throwing the ball is against the laws. Censure for it is completely understandable. Whether it should be is another matter. There is an argument that allowing spinners to bowl with an increased degree of flex is good for the game. Ultimately it makes the game more challenging and interesting, and cricket is about entertainment. As batsmen get it easier and easier giving something back to the bowler is no bad thing.

Those that say it is a bad move will talk of how anyone can take wickets if they are allowed to bowl spin with a bent elbow. This is clearly not true. What Saeed Ajmal does is no less an art than what Shane Warne did with a straighter elbow.

The arguments against are full of false equivalencies about using bats that are three feet wide and bowling off 18 yards. That is very clearly not what is being suggested. What is being suggested is a re-codifying of the laws, not throwing them out the window. This kind of “slippery slope” and “where will it all end” argument is best left to the British tabloids when they discuss how straight bananas will be under new European Union laws.

How a change in the law would be implemented and enforced is one that would need to be discussed and put into practice very carefully, but to suggest a spinner bending his elbow is ruining cricket is absolute nonsense. While there has been an increase in people bowling doosras there has also been an increase in averages and runs scored. If the likes of Kane Williamson and Marlon Samuels were so lethal with their bent arms that straighten they would not be averaging well over 40 with the ball in Test cricket.

There are claims of batsmen with ruined careers. It is hard to think of a single example. Ultimately, those spinners that have bowled with a larger degree of elbow flex and been successful are incredibly rare. And even then they don’t have a record that is any more impressive than other bowlers. Ajmal has an excellent record, but not one that is out of sync with any Test standard spinner. He took wickets in Division Two of the county championship, but any Test quality spinner would.

Some will argue that there those being called are from the less powerful cricketing nations and there is pressure on officials not to report cricketers from the more influential boards. This is easier to say than it is to prove. What you can say is that those that are being reported are facing a completely arbitrary system based on which umpires are at the game in which they are playing. This is once again an issue of transparency. One that will not change any time soon.

Here is the real issue with all this. Cricket is a mess. It is badly administered, struggling with corruption and losing market share and audience everywhere but India. If these massive problems were in hand you could understand getting to illegal bowling actions. They aren’t.

It shouldn’t be an either/or scenario, but when you see the issue of fixing and governance being ignored it is hard not to think that the ICC have picked this one over the others. It is possible for cricket to deal with more than one issue at a time. It isn’t though, it is ignoring the big problems and measuring elbows with protractors.

Peter Miller