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'Muralitharan's law' promises debate

November 19, 2004 11:55 IST

Early next year the International Cricket Council (ICC) will decide whether to re-write the sport's rules on throwing.

For some, the proposals would help bowlers to develop new skills in challenging the dominance of batsmen.

For others, they represent a 'charter for chuckers', set to reduce the art to little more than baseball pitching.

What is not in doubt is that the public debate leading up to the ICC chief executives' meeting in February will be heated, awash with conspiracy theories and revolve around the extraordinary abilities of one man -- Muttiah Muralitharan.

Simply put, the ICC, advised by sports scientists and a committee of former international players, want to increase the elbow flex allowed to bowlers.

High-speed cameras, they say, reveal that most bowlers already bend their arms inadvertently, sometimes beyond the current limits of five percent for spinners, 7.5 for medium-pacers and 10 percent for quicks.

The sport's governing body wants to set a universal limit at 15 percent, when throwing reportedly becomes discernible to the naked eye.

Cricket has long agonised over throwing.

For years, umpires had the unenviable power to destroy a man's career and, indeed, reputation, since accusations of throwing, bizarrely, have always suggested conscious cheating.

The 18-test career of Australian left-arm quick Ian Meckiff died one November day in 1963 when he was no-balled four times in his only over by umpire Colin Egar against South Africa in Brisbane. He was never selected again.

CELEBRATED CASES

South Africa's Geoff Griffin, his arm permanently crooked following a schoolboy accident, was repeatedly called for throwing on tour in England in 1960.

He became the first player to take a Test hat-trick at Lord's but was also called 11 times during the game. In an exhibition match afterwards, he was called again and finished his final over by bowling underhand.

The number of such celebrated cases has declined with the improvement in bio-mechanical analysis and expert coaching.

The case of Muralitharan, however, presaged by that of Shoaib Akhtar, threatens to split the cricket community down the middle.

Pakistan's Shoaib, like Griffin before him and Muralitharan afterwards, is a strange physical specimen, able to bend his double-jointed bowling elbow back on itself.

A superb athlete, he has been timed bowling at 100 mph (160 kph)

but he was called on several occasions and told to change his action, to loud Pakistani protests, before it transpired that he could do nothing to prevent his elbow's hyperextension.

It is Muralitharan, however, who personifies the complexities of the throwing debate.

No one has ever bowled like the Sri Lankan off spinner. Armed with a double-jointed shoulder, a congenitally deformed elbow and an abnormally flexible wrist, he was always going to be controversial. Years ago, he would probably not have been allowed to bowl at all.

The fact that he is on the brink of becoming the most successful bowler of all time, however, has ensured that passions have become inflamed.

JAVELIN THROWER

He was called for throwing while touring Australia in 1995-6 and again in 1998-9, when Sri Lanka captain Arjuna Ranatunga responded by leading his players off the pitch in protest.

Umpire Darrell Hair later termed the bowler's action "diabolical". Former Indian spinner Bishen Bedi said Muralitharan looked like a javelin thrower.

The experts, however, cleared him after extensive camera tests, saying people should believe the science rather than their own eyes. The peculiarities of Muralitharan's physique, they said, merely created the optical illusion of throwing.

The controversy erupted again early this year when match referee Chris Broad judged that a new Muralitharan delivery, spinning away from right handers, was suspect.

The Sri Lankans accused Broad of bias but soon after the 'doosra' was outlawed as a throw.

If the new rules are adopted Muralitharan's 'doosra', propelled by an elbow bending 14.8 degrees, will scrape through as legal, while his stock off spinner will be beyond reproach.

Those opposed to Muralitharan are already accusing the ICC of setting their new standard conveniently at 15 degrees so as to help vindicate the spinner, while keeping the Sri Lankans happy.

Others, however -- and Australia coach John Buchanan is among them, even if his prime minister is on record branding Muralitharan a thrower -- see the new rules as a good development, promising exciting new techniques.

As for the ICC, it welcomes the debate but hopes it will not bubble over into lasting acrimony.

"It's a debate the game needs to have," said spokesman Brendan McClements, "if it's going to deal with this in a mature way."

Tony Lawrence
Source:
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