The recent spate of bowlers who have been called for, and subsequently banned for, ‘chucking’ the ball in their action has brought to mind the fairness in the battle between bat and ball; the battle that defines this great sport.
Batsmen have always had something of an easy ride, at least from the view point of innovation within the game. It used to be frowned upon to score runs into the leg side. Then batsmen started doing just that, led by Ranjitsinhji and his leg glance.
As the game grew and progressed, scoring all around the field was brought into play. Then sweeping became a normal sight, followed by reverse sweeps and then switch hits. A batsmen is allowed to stand back in his crease or he is allowed to dance down the track. His bat has grown in size and stature, its edges have expanded and its sweet spot is infinite.
Now, all of this has led to increasingly explosive cricket. The sight of a batsman dancing down the track to loft an almighty six into the stands is one of the games great sights. But cricket is also a game of subtlety, not just of brute force.
When it comes to innovation, captains and bowlers have constantly found themselves tethered to the regulatory lamppost. 1932-33 saw the death of leg-theory, or bodyline bowling. So prolific had Don Bradman been, that England captain Douglas Jardine decided to expand upon the existing field setting of packing men behind square on the leg side in order to utilise the pace of his bowler, Harold Larwood to neuter Bradman and the Australians.
It worked very well. It then died, drowned in an ocean of Australian tears. Later came restrictions on the number of bouncers, or short deliveries, that a fast bowler could send down in an over. He is restricted to two per over. This was in part a response to the West Indian side of the 1980s that went around fracturing skulls and striking the fear of God into batsmen. They too, were hugely successful.
Then came the rise of the unorthodox spinner. Bowlers like Muttiah Muralitharan and Harbhajan Singh were called for their actions and now we find ourselves at the same crossroad as the ICC has clearly decided to clamp down on suspect actions.
The innovation in bowling has, recently, been in response to T20 cricket. Those heavy bats, smashing the ball to all corners, need taming. Bowlers like Sunil Narine and Saeed Ajmal have proved masters at this art.
Yet both now find themselves, temporarily at least, on the periphery of the game, banned from plying their trade as a result of questions over their actions. Those capable of the doosra, too, have always found themselves questioned. It cannot be delivered legally, can it?
If a batsman switches from right handed to left during a bowlers delivery stride, there is no problem. If a spinner moves the ball opposite to its usual movement, then there is a fuss kicked up.
Rules need to be introduced to prevent the game from hurting itself. That’s why batsmen cannot be adjudged lbw if the ball pitches outside leg stump – it would lead to dreary bowling and dreary games. Field restrictions exist for the same reason.
But are Narine and Ajmal hurting the game, or are they, actually, brilliant entertainers who get people talking and get people watching? I know where I stand on that one. The arm bends, the ball spins – the game has moved on and their varieties are something that the game would be better served embracing, not eradicating.
The ICC cannot sort out slow over rates, on pitch behaviour or the infinite number of breaks in play, things that genuinely hurt the game, but they can rip out some of its best entertainers.
In the contest between bat and ball, there always has been and always will be, only one winner.
By Miles Reucroft