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Yes, step on it James, it may just speed up a return to spin

Derek Pringle analyses the law surrounding bowlers running onto the pitch and offers an unexpected conclusion

For bowlers, especially angry, fast ones, the laws of cricket can sometimes seem like the regulations of a ‘nanny state’.

Don’t do this, don’t do that. Keep your arm straight, keep your feet behind the line. Don’t curse the batsman, don’t curse the umpire. No scratching the ball. No picking the seam and, as James Anderson discovered in the last Test, no running on the pitch with your follow-through.

Although not everyone will concur, I felt for Anderson after he was banned from bowling in Pakistan’s first innings at Edgbaston. A wholehearted performer for over a decade, he was huffing and puffing trying to extract something from the unyielding pitch.

His experience told him to alter the geometry of his delivery by getting in close to the stumps, in the hope of winning an lbw. But what happens? His follow-through, due to him being closer to the stumps, transgresses onto the protected area of the pitch, often by only a fraction of an inch, and he is warned.

Three of those and you are barred from bowling again in the innings, a fate which eventually befell him. That his ban only occurred after Pakistan were nine wickets down, minimised any compromise England might have felt from his absence, but on another day it might have proved crucial.

It was Anderson’s second follow-through stride which contravened, and only then because his heel splays inwards as it lands to take the strain. But my sympathy extends to him not so much for that quirk, but for the fact that he is a swing bowler and swing bowlers need to use the crease, especially if they are to get late swing. To achieve that, they must follow-through much straighter than those merely purveying seam.

If Anderson is to give us his art, in all its subtle glory, he will occasionally, when wind and slope and effort exhort him, run onto the no-go area of the pitch. I would suggest there was no intent on his part to damage the surface, so that other England bowlers could benefit, but that is impossible to prove, hence the umpire’s intransigent view.

At the time of the warnings Anderson lost his temper with both umpires, something for which he later apologised. But as a transgressor myself, once, I understand his frustrations for what, to bowlers, is one of the pettier laws in the canon.

As it stands, law 42.12, allows bowlers to run down some parts of the pitch in their follow-through. Providing it is not further than five feet down from the front crease, they can even run on that imaginary, sainted corridor, which runs from end to end 12 inches either side of middle stump.

If your feet land beyond the five foot mark, though, and you infringe upon said corridor, the umpires warn you for creating what is known as “avoidable damage to the pitch”, even if none is observable. Three warnings in one innings, the amount Anderson received at Edgbaston, but also at the Wanderers during the winter (so he has previous), and you are banned from bowling again during the innings.

The term “avoidable damage” was introduced during an overhaul of the laws in 2000. Immediately prior to that, any contravention by the bowler was down to the discretion of the umpire, who had to judge whether his running on the pitch was likely to cause damage which might then have assisted the bowlers of either side. That was obviously too woolly for some and it was changed to the current binary decision of: are they or aren’t they? And an immediate caution to those that are.

The genesis of the law is interesting. I have only one pre-1970 Wisden, from 1937, and there is no specific section relating to bowlers damaging the pitch. Only that the umpire, then under law 43, is the sole judge of fair and unfair play, the general section under which it now resides.

They played on uncovered pitches then so umpires might not have been so prissy about bowlers roughing up the strip. But fast forward 20 years, when drag bowling was at its height, and you wonder just how much damage was being got away with and, what was being done about it?

The 1958/59 Ashes series seemed to be a watershed on such matters, at least for the laws. Australia won the series 4-0 but it was their pace bowlers, led by Alan Davidson but supported by Ian Meckiff and Gordon Rorke, who added to the sense of injustice felt by England with their ability to drag, in Rorke’s case,further than had ever been managed before.

It led the lawmakers to act and at the Imperial Cricket Council’s annual meeting in 1959, the laws to both no-balls and running on the pitch were reviewed. Changes to the latter gave the umpires a corridor, similar to today’s except that it began only four feet down from the front crease, compared to five now. There was also the belief, instilled in umpires, that they were justified in preventing bowlers causing damage, something they had been loath to do previously.

What remained uncertain was the protocol for warning a bowler. The first player to be banned from bowling under the new law was Mark Whitaker in 1965. Bowling for Cambridge against the New Zealand touring side, he bowled 47 overs across two innings and took five wickets before being excluded in the second innings following a second warning.

During the Sixties, others like Harold Rhodes and Jeff Jones added to the list of those barred from bowling for running on the pitch, but it remained rare.

Perhaps the most cynical example was Sunil Gavaskar, who used to bowl an over or two for India with the new ball in order to get the shine off for the spinners.

In the final Test of the 1976/77 series, he was removed from the attack after just one over for running down the pitch every ball, in what reports claim was a deliberate attempt to scuff up the surface for India’s tweakers.

While such a tactic is plainly contemptuous of the laws, I believe the current law should be loosened to allow bowlers greater latitude in order for the pitch to be scuffed up more. After all, with pitches uniformly harder than before we are enduring a crisis among spin bowlers, at least those with legal actions, and anything that allows them into the game more should be considered.

It would seem an obvious concession to make especially as the main objection to it, that it would mitigate more against left-handed batsmen, is diluted now there are so many left-arm pace bowlers around.

If fully embraced, it would encourage teams to have variety and maybe even two spinners. Then, Anderson could try to get in close and swing the ball late with impunity, knowing that if he didn’t get wickets there and then, the spinners would have a better chance of doing so later in the game.

This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, Friday August 12 2016

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