Jerry Seinfeld: I have to dribble. If I give it to you, you just shoot. You are a chucker.
George Costanza: Oh, I’m a chucker?
Seinfeld: That’s right. Every time you get the ball, you shoot.
Costanza: I can’t believe you called me a chucker. No way am I a chucker. I do not chuck. Never chucked. Never have chucked. Never will chuck. No chuck.
Seinfeld: You chuck.
Costanza: Kramer, am I a chucker?
Kramer: Oh, you are a chucker.
Costanza: Oh my god, I’m a chucker. All these years I have been chucking. You never told me?
Seinfeld: Well, it’s not an easy thing to bring up.
Kramer: Do you know this is the first time we ever saw each other naked?
That’s from the last episode of season three of Seinfeld. And they are talking of some other sport, possibly handball. Just replace Seinfeld with the ICC, Kramer with the new cricket committee that is single-minded in its drive against chucking and Costanza with all the bowlers who have suddenly found out their actions are illegal. Sadly, despite the absurd corner the ICC has played itself into, there is no Kramer-like comic relief. Nobody is asking if this is the first time they have seen each other naked, thus forgetting the chucking issue.
Chucking is a very serious issue. In fact, you can imagine any bowler going into a Costanza-like meltdown when told he chucks. Those found guilty of match-fixing have come back and played representative cricket. Chuckers used to have their careers ended; such was the taboo. That’s until a smiling Sri Lankan with a freak arm forced us to rethink actions. He had loosely jointed shoulders, a forearm that he could not straighten enough to go parallel to the ground and a wrist so malleable it could do wicked things to the ball.
Most striking, though, was that bend in the arm, a handicap if you will, that gave the impression that he was straightening it too much. He demonstrated it wasn’t so by bowling doosras while wearing a cast that made sure he couldn’t straighten his arm. Now the ICC had a question to answer. Does it ban this extremely skilful bowler because of his handicap, or does it let him bowl, knowing full well that when he is shown taking wickets on TV, a whole country, nay a whole continent, will ape his action, and they won’t have a deformity to fall back on as a reason?
The ICC chose the more humanitarian option, the latter one, but you have to wonder if the callers of the game, and then the coaches at the grassroot levels, did enough to educate kids that what their hero was doing could not be emulated. MohnishParmar, for example, a spinner from Gujarat who was a Murali clone, played his formative cricket under coaches who were happy to bend the law and let him win them matches. One fine day, during the Under-19 World Cup in Sri Lanka, he was told he couldn’t do legally what his hero could do. He is not the only one.
Elsewhere too tolerance for wonky actions increased. Any doubt over an action now began to become a big political or racial issue. The ICC reached a Seinfeld-like state in which chucking “is not an easy thing to bring up”. In post-Murali years, every team other than Australia had some sort of tryst with chucking. Offspinners and left-arm spinners almost all began to bowl in long sleeves, so that what they were allowed to do by the ICC did not look too blatantly ugly. Almost everybody was after the mystery ball and extra accuracy that a straightening arm allowed him. Once the ICC began to look away, there was libel involved in questioning an action from the outside. It reached a stage at which the popular discourse was to celebrate these actions as a fitting response to bigger bats, smaller outfields and fearless batsmen in the T20 era.
Another fine day, though, Kramer came along. This, in all likelihood, is the cricket committee empowered by the three boards running world cricket today (India’s, Australia’s and England’s), because the crackdown began after the ICC was restructured and the three boards assumed control. It suddenly became okay to talk about the elephant in the room — except that it had been left too late. The elephant had made itself comfortable. SaeedAjmal, for example, had taken 178 Test wickets before being told he chucked. A whole team had been built around him. He has millions of fans, and not just Pakistanis. And it wasn’t just Ajmal — Shane Shillingford, Sunil Narine, Kane Williamson, Prosper Utseya and a few other bowlers who took part in the Champions League T20 have also been reported.
It would be natural for them to react as Costanza did: “Oh my god, I am a chucker. All these years I have been chucking. You never told me?” A lot of other questions have sprung up, in a mess the ICC has created for itself. Why now, so close to the World Cup? Why so secretive? How has Ajmal’s straightening gone from being tolerable one day — which would mean under 15 degrees — to 40 degrees the next? Why new labs? Where is the apology for having let them – if they are so far above legal limits – operate for so long? What about the wickets they have already taken, the matches they have won? What of an entire next generation of bowlers that has grown up watching and emulating these bowlers?
A bigger question is being raised by some. Batsmen wear protective gear, so bodily harm is largely ruled out. Is chucking such a bad thing then, they ask? The bowler has been marginalised for generations; let him strike back, they say. Not all reverse swing is within the laws either, it is contended. Those in this quarter ask for scientific proof that chucking results in an unfair advantage. Even if they are provided scientific proof, they might counter by saying it is a skill that is only enriching the game, and not everyone can execute that skill.
There was a time when playing to leg was considered cheating. Now, batsmen switch their stance to turn off side into leg side so they can find gaps there. The game has always had this room for individualism. Maharaja Ranjitsinhji, who gave the world the leg glance, is one of the most celebrated cricketers today. Those who believe there should be no room for impure actions in cricket — me included — should take a pause and ask themselves if the taboo against chucking in this day and age of spacesuit armour is akin to the one against leg-side play back in the era when amateurs and professionals changed in different rooms.
That’s where the discomfort creeps in. The ICC is so secretive about this whole operation that you wonder if it has been properly thought out. They refuse to be drawn into a conversation in which they spell out the unfair advantages of chucking. Some influential people can’t even define chucking. “You should be able to tell with the naked eye” is the refrain.
Hopefully, the ICC has asked itself these questions, taken into account the complications and compared the advantages of chucking against the prospective enrichment of the game before beginning this crackdown, for this is the second time in two decades that a mixed signal is being sent to the kids learning the sport. Surely there is no U-turn from here. Surely the parties involved don’t want to see each other naked. Again.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo