But last week, in a non-descript CK Nayudu Trophy game, in the middle of a non-descript phase of play, Shiva put the ‘spin’ in spin bowling. And in the process, he created a bit of a ripple (or should we say, revolution?) in the establishment. It’s not every day that Bishan Singh Bedi tweets a video of a 19-year-old kid’s bowling. But we can see why paaji made an exception here.
Shiva starts running in, usual style, then suddenly turns a full 360 degrees even as he approaches the crease. At one point, he is actually looking at the sight-screen behind him! The next moment, he completes his little jig, coolly re-engages into delivery stride, and incredibly manages to bowl a ball almost on a perfect length. The ball didn’t turn much. Can’t say the same about the bowler.
It’s instructive to watch the umpire’s reaction in the video. Even before the ball has reached the batsman, Umpire Vinod Seshan is seen waving his arms to signal dead ball, the quickness of his reaction signalling his disdain. Umpires speculate endlessly before ruling on boundary-line saves and bump-ball catches, but here there was no doubt at all in Seshan’s mind. He didn’t see the need to have a word with his colleague first.
He then walks up to the bowler with the sort of gesture engineering college lecturers reserve for students who haven’t brought their record notebooks to a practical class. Seshan is seen gravely shaking his head while expressing his disapproval to the bowler. Whether Seshan was right in disallowing the action or not, his reaction (and Simon Taufel’s subsequent vindication of it) made one thing clear - even the umpires feel that this is a batsman’s game, and 360 degree cricket is only for AB de Villiers and co.
This isn’t an attempt to discredit the umpire’s call: he made an on-the-fly decision, while faced with an unusual situation, and it anyway had no impact on the match. However, it is important to discuss just how poorly cricket’s laws on this issue are articulated. Law 41 in the MCC’s section on unfair play is over 5000 words long, but it doesn’t have anything directly related to the bowler’s run-up or action. Taufel’s subsequent explanation invoked Laws 41.4 and 41.5, which speak about fielders deliberately attempting to distract, deceive and obstruct the batsman while he is facing the ball. We can only assume that the laws are referring to the bowler as one of the fielders here.
Even by cricket’s vague standards, these laws seem to be particularly whimsical in articulation and in the lazy equivocation of bowlers with other fielders. Think about this for a moment: cricket at its core is a game where the bowler attempts to foil a batsman’s concentration in order to dismiss him. And one way - nay, the only way - the bowler manages to do this, is by deliberately and successfully distracting and deceiving the batsman. Every single time a bowler smashes a batsman’s stumps, or hits his pads, or gets him to edge, it’s the direct consequence of distraction and deception. Every bouncer ever bowled, every yorker, every googly and every stock legbreak bowled to set up a batsman for the googly - is an attempt to distract and deceive.
Ah come on, I hear you say! These are variations that come into play after the ball is released. The bowler’s action, the run-up and load-up is an entirely different matter. I hear you - and I give you Saqlain Mushtaq, deliberately stopping at the crease before delivering, just to see what the batsman was up to. I give you Waqar Younis, who used his four-fingered left hand to hide the shine on the ball when he was bowling at the death, or his friend Wasim Akram who loaded up distinctly differently at times in the end overs. Should they have been dead-balled?
What about Jason Gillespie, who at one point in the middle of the VVS Laxman - Rahul Dravid day at Eden Gardens was so bereft of ideas that he ran in with his tongue out, and arms spread out wide like a plane? (It didn’t help - Laxman still flicked the ball deep into the leg side.) How about Scott Styris who every now and then would deliver one without lifting his non-bowling arm? What about Sachin Tendulkar, who switched between a longer run-up for medium-pace cutters, and a shorter run for spin variations sometimes in the same over. Distraction? Deception? Dead-ball? No - none of these were called.
The problem with such poorly written laws is that they leave too much to interpretation. These bowlers got away with 'distracting' changes to their actions, because the umpires on the job were ok with them. Taufel, however, feels a bowler twirling 360 degrees in the middle of a spell is unfair play. The MCC itself left the matter to the umpire’s interpretation on whether the bowler was gaining any apparent advantage from the twirl. This is problematic - no one except the bowler knows whether anything he is doing in his action is giving him an advantage!
At a more fundamental level, isn’t ‘unfair play’ too objective a concept to be left to the subjective whims of umpires? Cheating is cheating - how can it depend on an umpire's interpretation?
Enough with bashing the laws. What about common decency? The batsmen are getting away with murder at the other end. Forget Kevin Pietersen's switch-hit - that's too mainstream now; Glenn Maxwell doesn’t even bother to switch his grip anymore, and just swats balls to third man, off the back side of the bat. As any Indian kid would tell you, that’s out even in gully cricket, but the MCC’s laws are fine with it.
AB de Villiers jumps out a metre outside off stump, and bends so low at the crease, he manages to get under yorkers that he calmly swats over fine leg, while he’s spread-eagled on his back. And we applaud his 360 degree batting, despite it being aided by flat pitches, non-swinging balls, Powerplays, bats so big that they would be the most ridiculous thing in cricket, if not for the grounds being so small.
Shiva Singh should be allowed to hop, twirl, twerk, do a pirouette, complete a couple of somersaults, reply to Bishan Singh Bedi’s tweets and perform a backflip as he runs in to deliver the ball. It may or may not help him succeed, but these are desperate times for bowlers, and the laws should not be dead-balling their experiments to survive.
Or, let’s just ask the bowlers to go home, and get a few bowling machines to do the job (with pre-set settings, of course, lest the batsmen get distracted, deceived and obstructed from their pursuit of burying us under millions of runs).
First Published: November 12, 2018, 1:37 PM IST