Will this be the end of Ajmal?

Source:  Dawn.com Published in Sports on Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Somewhere at the end of the 18th century Christina Willes, sister of cricketer John Willes, was bowling at him in their backyard. Her long, flowing dress made it impossible for her to bowl underarm so she raised her arm higher than was usual. Unbeknownst to her, the fashionable Christina had started somewhat of a revolution and while there are many other theories, the Willes family will always be credited for sowing the seeds of a major paradigm shift in the sport.

By early 19th century, the balance between bat and ball had drastically tilted towards the former and to counter this imbalance, bowlers started breaking customary bounds of nobility. John mastered the art of round-arm and became its first true exponent. Marylebone Cricket Club, which was founded in 1787 and are the ‘guardians of the laws of the cricket’, was quick to respond and banned round-arm bowling by 1816.

In 1822, John bowled round-arm for Kent against MCC at Lord’s and was no-balled. He threw the ball, mounted his horse, and rode away, never to play a major game again. However, the fire he had started had spread far and wide.

Sussex was declared as unofficial champion in 1826 and had achieved its success on the back of two round-arm bowlers, James Broadbridge and William Lillywhite. Umpires had been given the authority to no-ball round arm bowling but it often depended on individual umpires and batsmen who objected to it. Some did, but most didn’t.

The law was again amended in 1828, and MCC allowed the bowler to raise the arm to elbow height. This law further added to ambiguity; everything was left to interpretation of the on-field umpires, which drastically varied. By 1835 MCC had given up and permitted round arm-bowling. Bowlers kept pushing boundaries, and the arm was soon above shoulder height. In a bid to save the game from malpractice, the purists pushed MCC to re-revise the laws in 1845; the umpires were now calling no-balls in every game. But the practice did not stop, instead, it flourished.

More and more bowlers tried bowling over arm in an effort to fight other imbalances that favoured the batsmen. In 1864, MCC allowed the bowler to do anything but throw the ball.

Fast forward over a hundred years to the age of on-side strokes, helmets, ODI cricket and high-tech bats. Add air travel, space travel and nuclear energy to that list and we come to a world that has no resemblance to the times of under arm cricket. However, some trends have remained consistent through time and space; the regular shift of balance in favour of the batsmen, innovations in bowling methods to counter imbalance, the resistance to change from purists and establishments, and the eventual change itself.

Different forms of bowling evolved over time and it was the faster men that caused maximum ripples in the sport. However, off-spin too played its part; earlier Jim laker and then Lance Gibbs were almost sole flag bearers of their skill with EAS Prasana and Venkatraghavan also shinning occasionally amongst others. But in the latter half of the 21st century, off-spin was a dying art that was not taken very seriously.

Similar to the backyard legend of Kent two centuries ago, there was then a revolutionary change taking place on the roof tops of Sialkot. A young Saqlain Mushtaq was experimenting with new deliveries on his terrace with a table tennis ball which he found easier to grip. It is there he unearthed the “Doosra” (which in Urdu means the “Other One”). This single delivery was to change off-spin bowling forever.

Muttiah Muralitharan self-admittedly picked this delivery by watching Saqlain bowl and became its finest exponent, ending up with a record 800 Test wickets. However, while his road to glory was showered with petals by fans, it was also paved with thorns by his detractors. On boxing-day in 1995, Murali was no-balled for the first time by umpire Darrell Hair. This started a series of debates, controversies, biomechanic tests and bans; leading to changes in cricketing laws one more time.

In 2004, an ICC biomechanic research showed that according to the prevalent laws of cricket, almost every single bowler ever to have played the game was a chucker. Five degree bends for spinners, seven and a half for medium pacers and ten for fast bowlers was deemed as acceptable. Findings showed that bowlers like Glenn McGrath and Shaun Pollock, known for clean actions were bending their arm as much as twelve degrees. Thus, the bar was now set at fifteen degrees for all bowlers, a bend that could be visible to the naked eye.

The law was put in place but the matter was far from over. Murali was diagnosed with a born abnormality in his arm and he could not straighten it, no matter how hard he tried. Shoaib Akhtar was another case; his hyperextension gave an illusion of a bend. Both these cases were cleared after hours of lab testing.

There were other bowlers who were reported with a suspect action, but it was the ones who had followed Saqlain’s path that were curtailed most. Ten out of the fourteen bowlers called for chucking from 1995 to date have been off-spinners. And all of them bent their arm a few degrees more while bowling the Doosra.

While bowlers like Shoaib Malik and Johan Botha were banned from bowling the Doosra, Harbhajan Singh and Saeed Ajmal were given clearance to carry on.

There seems to have been a recent change in stance by the ICC in clamping down on bowlers with suspect actions. New Zealand's Kane Williamson (July 2014), Sri Lanka's Sachithra Senanayake (July 2014), West Indies' Shane Shillingford (December 2013), and South Africa's Johan Botha (October 2013) have all been reported and subsequently banned from bowling. Bangladesh's Sohag Gazi ((August 2014) and Zimbabwe's Prosper Utseya (August 2014) have been reported and will undergo testing.

And now the brakes have been put on Ajmal's career as well.

Interestingly, all the above bowlers have been off-spinners, and conspicuously, all have been reported in games with English umpire Ian Gould officiating.

Skeptics have raised doubts over tests carried out in a controlled environment. A bowler could easily change his action during a match to give it that extra tweak, especially while bowling the Doosra. However, the ICC is very close in clearing the cloud over that too. And Ajmal's tests have found "all his deliveries to be illegal."

In tests conducted on Ajmal in 2009, results showed that his arm was bent at 24 degrees when he brought it around his shoulder, but most importantly, he only straightened it by eight degrees before delivering the ball. Recent reports say it was Ajmal’s off break that raised a few eyebrows. Earlier test results showed that oddly enough his arm flexed more while delivering his off break and arm ball than it did when he was bowling the doosra.

How did Ajmal's action deteriorate so much that now all his deliveries are exceeding the 15 degrees level of tolerance permitted under the ICC regulations? Did it happen overnight or was it a gradual slide? How were the experts so convinced in 2009 and even in 2012 when there were slight murmurs over his action. Or has the technology improved drastically since then?

The ICC has been under pressure by the purists such as Ian Botham and Micheal Holding to rid the sport of dubious actions. From personal experience, Graeme Swann has been one of many who believe that it is ‘impossible’ to deliver the Doosra without chucking the ball. But then Swann with his classical action could never bowl the Doosra, and many modern day off-spinners bowling the Doosra have adopted a front on action, like Ajmal’s.

Previously, bowlers like Saqlain, Murali and Harbajhan had reinvented off spin bowling, and now bowlers like Narine and Ajmal have further enhanced the art and skill that enriches the sport. Many of their mould are already in production world over.

The laws of the game are of prime importance, but they have evolved over time. It is the spirit of cricket that has always been kept alive, and hopefully the new policy adopted by the ICC will help rehabilitate and blossom more exciting off-spinners rather than shun and restrict their kind.

It is essential that the ICC keeps a strict control over the legality of bowling actions, but it is equally important that these laws are implemented in a uniform manner with consistency between its enforcers; the umpires.

“Every law in cricket has changed since its inception, other than the length of 22 yard the pitch,” said Dean Jones during his recent return to the commentary after his racial comments about Hashim Amla eight years ago. While it is difficult to verify Dean’s comment and historically trace the origin of every single cricketing law, one fundamental aspect of the game that has truly evolved over time is the art of bowling.

"Make no mistake that bowling a Doosra and reverse swing are brilliant skills.. Do we want the Doosra banned?" Jones said in reaction to Ajmal's latest ban.

Former English allrounder Adam Hollioake perhaps described the latest development aptly: "Ajmal been banned for throwing? I don't get it. Just let them play. All the best bowlers chuck anyway!"

Did the ICC then make a mistake in 2004 by allowing a tolerance of 15 degrees for suspect actions? Should it have taken a different stand then? Has it allowed a situation to mushroom and now acting in haste to correct it? How far will the ICC's recent decisions go in curtailing innovation in bowling?

Most importantly, for Pakistan, will Ajmal be able to comeback from this now that all his deliveries have a problem? At 36, could this be the end of his career? Again, did the ICC make a mistake in the first place by allowing leeway to the bowlers?

History is witness that change remains the only constant in this world, everything else changes with time. Australia and England, two countries who have prohibited the doosra from being taught in academies, will soon have bowlers that will bowl the doosra and their resistance to change will have been washed away with the tide of time.

In a game that is primarily built on a battle between bat and ball, the balance between the two remains at the heart of every enthralling contest. While the bowler’s ammunition; the cricket ball has more or less remained the same over the years, the batsmen are constantly provided with a new and upgraded weapon in their hands: the modern cricket bat.

Ajmal now has the option of appealing through the PCB but that too is wrought in technicalities. For cricket, it is a very sad day because all of a sudden it seems a little short of magic.

Will this be the end of Ajmal, or the doosra?

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Written by Shaan Agha

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