George Dobell, in ESPNcricinfo, 14 October 2014, where the title is “Secrecy the sticking point as ICC falls out with testing centre”
The ICC’s recent concerted campaign against illegal actions has brought it into a position of significant professional disagreement with the agency long involved in its tests. Experts at the University of Western Australia (UWA), whom the ICC relied upon for the last 20 years to develop models and protocols to test illegal bowling actions, have criticised what they call the “ridiculous” secrecy surrounding the new procedures and say they have raised doubts over the reliability of the recent tests that have seen several bowlers suspended from various levels of the game.
The dispute provides a disturbing backdrop to the sudden toughened approach towards the monitoring of potentially illegal actions by the ICC only a few months before the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. Leading offspinners such as Pakistan’s Saeed Ajmal and Sri Lanka’s Sachithra Senanayake have been called in international cricket, while West Indies’ Sunil Narine was reported in the Champions League T20.
As new ICC testing centres are rolled out in Brisbane, Cardiff and Chennai, UWA biomechanists have branded the ICC’s approach as “extraordinary” and have expressed concerns that the testing could be carried out by relatively inexperienced staff with limited training. The result, they fear, is that the recent tests may be based on unreliable evidence. Jacqueline Alderson, an associate professor in biomechanics at UWA, suggests that her team is “astounded” by the limited opportunities for peer-to-peer reviews of the model used to measure elbow extensions, and by a general lack of information provided to the home boards or the testing centres carrying out the work.
The ICC, however, insists that a clean-up of bowling actions is both necessary and justifiable, and that it now has a system in place that is more scientifically advanced than the previous methods. It says it is utilising some of the best qualified biomechanists in the world to review its procedures and that the UWA has only been excluded due to the deteriorating relationship between the parties.
It also privately justifies taking the testing process “in-house” as an attempt to develop testing centres with a consistent approach around the world and to end a system of over-reliance on one provider. Most of all, it insists that the adapted process is more accurate and, while empowering umpires, also allows bowlers the opportunity to remediate and return to the game.
On the charge of secrecy, the ICC says that testing protocol has been provided to “a number of institutions”.
The belief at the Perth centre, which was for so long the ICC’s only resource in the fight against illegal bowling actions, that their methods have been unsatisfactorily adopted and adjusted is also officially rejected by the ICC, which states that “the new protocol is based on research, know-how and available literature”.
What is undisputed is that the disagreement has brought about a breakdown in relationships between UWA and the ICC to the extent that lawyers have been involved. As a result, UWA voluntarily withdrew its testing services to the ICC – the break is believed to have taken place in March this year. “We have withdrawn our services,” Alderson told ESPNcricinfo. “We were initially aggrieved by the ICC leveraging our research without our knowledge or permission. However that is now compounded by the lack of transparency surrounding the current testing.”
|One of the key areas of mistrust concerns the methodology used to place markers on the bowlers’ bodies to determine whether a delivery is illegal.|
The UWA team also states that the ICC is throwing its support behind replicating already existing methods that rely on rolling out “old technology”, and lacks “vision” with respect to the “holy grail of quantifying illegal actions during match play”.
In search of that “holy grail”, Alderson is researching the potential to compare 3D footage in laboratory tests with 3D footage in matches – although the current relationship with the ICC makes it improbable that such research will be utilised.
Biomechanists at UWA insist that they strongly support a clampdown on illegal bowling actions – to the extent that they freely contend that the ICC’s laxer approach in recent years had been a contributory factor in recent events as they seek to make amends for years of relative inaction.
Specifically, UWA expressed concerns about the monitoring of Ajmal’s action after it had cleared the bowler in a previous assessment in 2009 – including comments it made to Geoff Allardice, the ICC’s general manager of cricket, earlier this year. The ICC, however, does not regard it as appropriate for a testing centre to pass comment on monitoring procedures, which it regards as outside its jurisdiction.
Marlon Samuels is another player whose action has been an issue. He was cleared by the ICC to bowl deliveries falling under a certain speed, a decision the UWA now presents as flawed. As one academic told ESPNcricinfo, “We did not think his report was valid as he, in our view, appeared to not replicate his match action in the lab testing. But the ICC didn’t act. We found it ridiculous that he was cleared to bowl deliveries under a particular speed given the error associated with measuring speed via speed guns during a match.”
The ICC defends the decision to concentrate on Samuels’ quicker deliveries by quoting from the report provided at the time by UWA, which stated: “It is the view of the UWA biomechanics testing team that Mr Samuels should not be permitted to bowl until he has undertaken remedial work to address excessive elbow extension, specifically in deliveries where ball speeds exceed 80 km/h.”
One of the key areas of mistrust concerns the methodology used to place markers on the bowlers’ bodies to determine whether a delivery is illegal.
Alderson states that individuals conducting the testing are not fully aware of the influence that marker placement – or misplacement – might have on the result. “Indeed, the black box approach [software tests where the method of evaluation is not revealed to the testers] being rolled out means the testers can have no real understanding of how their actions might influence the results,” she claimed. “These are important issues concerning the level of confidence that can be placed in the data coming out of these facilities.”
Alderson argues that concerns will be heightened once Dr Andrea Cutti, tasked with developing the ICC’s new model, and a colleague abandon the ‘initial training programme’ they have undertaken, being present at all the tests so far.
Not so, says the ICC, which insists its biomechanists are suitably qualified and will be perfectly capable of independent assessments. The governing body added: “An extensive accreditation procedure and detailed documentation on marker placement has been developed by the ICC and now forms part of the accreditation of Brisbane and Chennai.”
The seeds of the current issue were sown long ago. After a disagreement between academics over the most effective testing process – the UWA had one belief; academics in Loughborough, in England, which is currently seeking ICC accreditation status, another – both groups were asked to nominate independent examiners to decide which testing protocol the ICC should implement.
According to ESPNcricinfo sources, a majority of nominated experts favoured the UWA method, largely due to the more extensive published research they were able to demonstrate, and, between 2010 and March 2014, testing was conducted exclusively using the UWA approach.
The ICC was concerned, however, that the only testing centre was in Perth, Australia, which is geographically isolated and where the testing was reliant on the skills of one academic. It was also keen that the UWA adopt a few recommendations – believed to relate to testing protocol – from the expert panel.
Eventually, frustrated by the failure of UWA to adopt such recommendations, it privately resolved in a medical committee meeting in May 2013 to open more centres. It hired the independent assessor nominated by UWA, Cutti, an Italian biomechanist with no previous cricket experience, and he was tasked with creating the “new model”.
For a more detailed look at the sticking points between UWA and the ICC on the testing process, click here.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo