May 20, 2005

Does anybody care about Harbhajan Singh’s plight?

By H Natarajan

One feels sorry for Harbhajan Singh. And I hope the International Cricket Council (ICC) shows a human face by appreciating the agony and anxiety he has been subjected to rather than reacting to media headlines like “Harbhajan slams ICC” and slap on him fresh censure for speaking his mind against authority. As per the ICC review procedure, Harbhajan was required to undergo biomechanical tests within 21 days of his action being reported on March 20, the final day of the Kolkata Test against Pakistan. Nearly two months have passed by and Harbhajan is awaiting the ICC probe that will examine the legality of his doosra. It has left him understandably bitter. Whatever the reasons maybe for leaving Harbhajan in limbo, the ICC has not done justice by the protracted delay that has denied a professional from carrying on with his job in a manner he would have liked to.

"It's very frustrating. I have lost my mental peace, not because of my own fault but because of the drama by ICC. Instead of concentrating on the game, I am just passing time awaiting clearance from the ICC," Harbhajan said, giving vent to his feelings.

What is the Indian Cricket Players’ Association doing? Does it not deem fit to take up Harbhajan’s case with the BCCI in asking ICC to expedite the matter? And why should the BCCI not take such a step on its own accord? Nobody seems to be in any hurry, leaving Harbhajan to suffer in solitary helplessness."How many times should a bowler have to undergo the test, which he has already cleared?" Harbhajan asked. "I am playing international cricket for the last seven years and it is really frustrating that you have to undergo the test every time, whenever you are pointed out for the same suspect action."

Harbhajan may be justifiably peeved. He was first reported in 1998 following that he went to England for rehab work with Fred Titmus. He was again reported in December last year on the tour of Bangladesh and subsequently cleared by biomechanical experts in Western Australia. But match referee Chris Broad had problems with his action in the second innings of the Kolkata Test against Pakistan in March this year which has got him in another round of agony and suspense. But the way things are, be it Harbhajan or anyone else, green signal from ICC-appointed biomechanical experts is no guarantee that a bowler won’t be called again… and again and again.

In a perfect scenario, the legality of a bowler’s action or a particular delivery should be probed technology and not the naked eye, and in a match situation and not in a non-match ambience. But the 3D analysis technology that has been deemed a necessity by the ICC to conduct such examinations cannot be done with TV footage. So, what the match referee and the umpires do is to ascertain with naked eye if there is straightening of the arm by a bowler. And if and when they do ascertain, report it to the ICC, who then wants the bowler subjected to biomechanical analysis to ascertain the legality of the delivery in question or the action itself. In effect these biomechanical tests become a mockery and waste of time and money, because the same charade is likely to be repeated – as it has in Harbhajan’s case. What is achieved and who is wiser at the end of it all?

A more reasonable solution would be to leave it to the on-field umpires to take immediate action if a bowler’s action or a particular delivery is found suspect to the naked eye till such time technology is available to judge bowlers in match situations. It also means that justice – to the opposition – is not delayed and the bowler with a suspect action is unable to play a part with his illegal action. For sure the human eye is not infallible, but it certainly is better than resorting to technology off the field to determine on-field situations and create a greater mess. In any case, ICC has left it to the judgment of the naked eye to determine if a bowler’s is straightening the arm within the permissible limits. Now how error-free can the eye be in determining if the bowler is bending within the permissible degree or exceeding it by a degree?

Tests now reveal that 99% of the bowlers resort to some degree of bend, among whom is Glenn McGrath. I have often heard, in personal conversation, international cricketers naming any number of bowlers who they believe chuck. And this includes several Indian bowlers as well. But not one of these bowlers ever came close to being called. The reason is simple: the chuck was used as a weapon to catch the batsman unawares with the lethal pace and disconcerting bounce. I once saw a West Indian medium-pacer ‘bowl’ what was the perfect javelin throw in a ODI in Australia. Richie Benaud was doing the commentary and all he had to say - and just before the bowler was on top of the run-up to deliver the next delivery – that “the previous ball was bowled with a funny action”, or something to the affect. Another West Indian paceman bowled what to me looked a blatant chuck in the MCC Bi-Centenary match at Lord’s.

Chucking is such a touchy subject that nobody wants to open a can of worms. Imagine the pressure on the umpire if he were to call a bowler for chucking. His job and livelihood could be on line. So everybody is smugly going about in a way that keeps all happy without actually solving the problem.

In view of the findings that most modern bowlers tested bend the arms, biomechanists feel the law needs to be amended to accommodate an acceptable degree of straightening of the arm. The prescribed tolerance limits are five degrees for spin bowlers, 7.5 degrees for medium-pacers and 10 degrees for fast bowlers. No delivery has caused as much heartburn as the doosra. In fact, there are genuine fears that it could be outlawed because it’s now widely accepted that the doosra cannot be bowled without bending of the arm. Proponents for the potent weapon are largely from the Asian region, which is only understandable considering that the main exponents of the skill are Harbhajan, Murali, Saqlain Mushtaq and Shoaib Malik.

EAS Prasanna, the great off-spin wizard of yesteryear, is of the view that there is no need to ban the doosra. Instead, he advocates, bowlers should be told to make technical adjustments in their mode of delivery so that they can continue the use of the weapon without inviting suspicion or censure. Once part of the International Cricket Council's Illegal Deliveries Committee, Pras is of the opinion that if the bowler goes from open-chested to side-on, his action will pass muster. Incidentally, Prasanna used to bowl a beautiful floater without a negative word ever about his action.What concerns me most today is that there is a distinct possibility that a young and highly promising bowler like Harbhajan could be lost forever if he is subjected to go through repeated probes after biomechanical experts have given conclusive evidence in his favour.