I once took a phone call, while I was editing The Wisden Cricketer, from a youth cricket coach in the west of England.
He had, he said, written on more than one occasion to the ECB to ask for its blessing to teach his young spinners to bowl like Murali. He had never received a reply, at least not one to his satisfaction, and he was alerting me to his dissatisfaction and insinuating that their dissembling, as he saw it, was indicative of the conspiracy of silence about dubious bowling actions.
He might have had a point. But my point to him, when he asked whether he should just go ahead with his plan, was that if he really could coach a kid to bowl like Murali then please phone me back quicker than you can say 15-degree extension.
I never heard from him again. You can’t coach someone to bowl like Murali anymore than you can coach someone to play football like Lionel Messi. One of the many aspects about the chucking debate that gets under my skin is the idea that the very fact of bowling with a bent arm gains you a competitive advantage. As if it’s short-circuiting the whole bowling process and reducing it to a baseball pitch. Which is clearly not the case. Why does Graham Gooch use his canine ball-chucker if throwing the ball is enough to deceive a batsman. And the only person who fell for Alex Loudon’s doosra was Pippa Middleton and even she worked it pretty quickly.
Bob Willis claiming Saeed Ajmal bowls illegal deliveries is one thing but the whole long-sleeve conspiracy is just embarrassing. It has also dragged the England team into a row they shouldn’t be involved in. Matt Prior’s comments were skilfully put – they hadn’t seen anything they weren’t expecting.
Geoff Boycott’s point on Five Live this morning was that if Murali takes 800 Test wickets then we can’t start jumping up and down when Ajmal takes wickets against England now.
Ajmal’s bowling was a thing of wonder, just like Murali’s was. I’m sure I’d feel differently if I was an England batsman whose reputation was on the line. But the bigger picture for England is dealing with spin bowling effectively not the legality of their opponents’ actions.
Nasser Hussain made the point in today’s Daily Mail that Asian cricketers seem to have a greater propensity to copy their heroes. So Ajmal, for example, is a carbon copy of Saqlain Mushtaq. This might be a cultural nuance or more likely that imitation fills a vacuum that would be filled by formal coaching would be in England or Australia.
Maurice Holmes, the young Warwickshire spinner, was suspended from bowling last year, a ban that was later lifted, because his doosra was considered illegal. Would a player of his age and level of experience in Asia be similarly treated. Probably not. The only serious, objective policing of bowling actions comes once players hit the international age-group radar.
Does any of this matter? As I say, if chucking it from 22 yards was so effective then wouldn’t that be net practice sorted forever more?
Banning guys like Ajmal takes something from the game and it takes a huge amount from bowlers. The batsmen have enough in their favour.