During his lengthy reign as chief coach at Pakistan’s National Cricket Academy (NCA), the former Pakistani pacer Aaqib Javed ended up dealing with more than 200 bowlers with suspect actions. The list would include the likes of Shabbir Ahmed —the first bowler to be banned for 12 months after being reported twice in one year —and pace sensation Shoaib Akhtar. Then as the national team’s bowling coach, Aaqib would see the likes of Shoaib Malik, Mohammad Hafeez and Shahid Afridi attract the ICC’s attention for bowling with suspiciously ‘bent arms’. Aaqib was also around when Saeed Ajmal’s doosra was reported in 2009 before being cleared within a month’s time. Here, Aaqib talks about not being surprised at the recurrence of the 36-year-old off-spinner’s issues with the ‘bent arm’, and how a combination of incessant workload and a slump in form can impact the actions of bowlers with naturally suspect actions.
I have always believed that there are two scenarios in which a bowler’s action can go awry in a match situation. Firstly when he’s bowled a long spell and his body is tiring. Or when he’s desperate for a wicket and things are not going his way.
In Saeed Ajmal we have someone who’s had to single-handedly shoulder the workload of the Pakistani attack for close to five years. And he’s done that manfully, along with being extremely successful. But at the same time, we are also talking about an off-spinner whose bowling action has always been one which is borderline. In fact, I wasn’t surprised when he was reported. With the kind of bowling action he has, there is always a chance that an umpire will raise suspicion.
In both scenarios that I mentioned, it’s the extra effort that a bowler puts in that impacts his action. Wickets weren’t coming very easily for Saeed in that Sri Lanka series. In such circumstances, the bowler is under the pump, and he can’t think about whether his arm is exceeding the 15-degree bend or to what extent his action is fluctuating. All he cares about at that time is taking wickets. So whenever someone like Saeed, with that action, puts in additional effort, there is always a chance he can get an umpire interested.
We had an off-spinner in the UAE team, who too got reported last year during a World T20 qualifier. He was having a bad day at the office and was going for a lot of runs. He was clearly putting in a lot of extra effort. Even I was shocked when I saw him bowl that day, because it was nowhere close to his natural action.
Like Saeed, he too is an off-spinner who could bowl the doosra. But when he went to the lab after his action was reported, he got cleared. They couldn’t spot any problem. But when you compared his bowling action from the match and what they saw in the lab, there was a big difference. I have seen many bowlers go through this process. Some get cleared, some like Saeed aren’t that lucky.
It’s a very unnatural atmosphere in a lab. The ground reality cannot be replicated in a lab. Technology has many limitations too. The pitch is artifical, run-up is artifical and you can’t wear spikes.
The law in its present form is confusing for an umpire as well. All umpires are extra alert when they have a bowler with a doubtful action playing. An umpire is also under immense pressure to decide when he thinks the bowler is ‘chucking’ and when he’s not.
It’s not a straightforward decision for him. Everyone’s calling this Ajmal suspension as the ICC’s way of drawing a line in the sand. But for an umpire it’s extremely difficult to know where to draw the line when it comes to decoding the legality of a bowling action.
The same goes for a bowler. He bowls thousands of deliveries and nobody raises an eyebrow. Then one day all his hard-work is compromised. Because you had an umpire who came into the match with the mindset of scrutinizing the bowler’s action very minutely and taking him to task. You can sit back and watch thousands of his deliveries from the last few years and find them to be slightly suspicious. But then no umpire reported him. Yes, you’ll always have opposition teams crying foul whenever they have lost a match or have seen either Saeed or Muttiah Muralitharan run through their batting line-up.
Even now, a lot of people question Murali’s action and the many wickets he took in his career. Some have even claimed that he dismissed 800 batsmen in Tests by running them out. But this is a result of the enormous ambiguity that exists about the ‘chucking’ law.
Till now most people’s objections were generally only about Saeed’s doosra. But now the ICC is saying all his deliveries are illegal. The 15-degree guideline itself is too vague.
And that is is why I have always insisted that till the time they don’t bring in a system where they can assess bowling actions on the field in a match situation, the ‘chucking law’ will remain confusing. It’s very easy to use different actions in a match and then in a lab. Any bowler can bring that subtle change in. I have dealt with 200-odd bowlers, in terms of trying to correct their bowling actions after doubts have been raised over them.
The ICC do seem to have become stricter with regard to suspect actions. But the only way they can come close to finding a permanent solution is by discovering technology where they put sensors on a bowler with a suspect action and observe him in a match situation.
— as told to Bharat Sundaresan