Why bowling no balls is no 'crime'

The word "crime" has been peddled from the commentary box and seeped into our conscience by the game's laws to dehumanise the concept of overstepping the mark. 
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Over three days, seven sessions and four innings, there were 1,131 legal deliveries bowled in the Indore Test of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. In a low-scoring Test match, 10 bowlers hit the delivery stride 1,136 times. Nearly 190 overs. Yet, in the aftermath of the Indian defeat, batting legend-turned-commentator Sunil Gavaskar felt the single biggest determinant of the result was the no-ball bowled by Ravindra Jadeja on Day 2 of the gripping tussle between the two best Test teams. 

Having been bundled out for a paltry 109, India needed early wickets on a raging turner that also experienced inconsistent bounce. They got one in the form of Travis Head and had Australia 14/1 when Marnus Labuschagne chopped a wide one onto his stumps facing Jadeja. The Indians were celebrating, recognising it as a big moment, with Labuschagne easily Australia's second-best player. 

14/2 with a new man in could've been a different ball game, even if that man happens to be the best player in the opposition camp and the world. Maybe this is India's chance to bounce back and potentially put Australia under deep strife in the fourth-innings chase. But wait, Jadeja has overstepped and Labuschagne has an early reprieve. Australia have gotten the luck and respite they needed. 

While never truly in on a treacherous wicket, Labushagne managed to reaffirm his guard and stitched an invaluable 96-run stand with top-scorer Usman Khawaja. Australia did suffer a late-order collapse but registered a decisive lead of 88 runs and finished with a rare victory on Indian shores, turning the tables on the home side's much-vaunted spin assault. 

 "If you look back on the Test match, you would say that is probably what cost India the match," Gavaskar said on Star Sports with billions watching across the globe. "(Marnus) Labuschagne was out for a duck, and they (later) stitched the partnership of 96 while India were dismissed for 109. I think that was probably the turning point. I think that no-ball cost India the match."

So it was all Jadeja's fault, right? Wrong!!!

Gavaskar and his friends in the commentary box may take the convenient route and play to the galleries in identifying one no ball to be the most influential cause of the result in Indore, but they couldn't be more imprecise and misplaced in their assessment, for the game of cricket doesn't work that way. No single no ball has ever decided the outcome of a cricket match. Never ever. 

Notice how the assertion to Labuschagne's wicket being the 'big moment' in the earlier lines got your juices flowing as a cricket fan. You were feeling vindicated in your belief that Jadeja had indeed cost you a Test match on home soil with a no-ball. It's this tendency of the viewer that commentators like Gavaskar take the full luxury with and down their convenient path, end up dehumanising the no ball. 

Without us realising as cricket viewers, we're robbed of the quality that our emotional investment deserves. When we're constantly told of such 'big moments', we're inadvertently learning that other moments in the game are not as influential to the end result. Commentators do this trickery with our conscious and subconscious minds, telling us why a Labuschagne wicket at the point may have tilted the scales decisively in India's favour and why the no ball by Jadeja cost India the 'big moment' that they had to win. 

Test cricket is a sport decided over days and overs by each ball that gets played. Each delivery in play is intertwined in importance with the next in dictating the overall performance of a side and the end outcome. When commentators tell us that Jadeja's no ball was the be all and end all of the Indore Test, they're hiding their inability to explain or properly narrate it was the fact that Jadeja had failed to produce another wicket-taking opportunity until Australia reached 108/1 that truly plagued India's wings in the more decisive fashion. 

That was Jadeja's failure in this Test match. The inability to stitch together balls of relentless precision and incisiveness that one has come to associate with the great left-arm spinner. It's not the three no-balls he bowled from a combined total of 202 times he rolled his arms over and produced a wicket off one of them. And, for all of what you've been told about that 'moment' by Gavaskar and his ilk, that is no crime.

Commentators are responsible for dehumanising the no ball

Gavaskar has been doing commentary for decades since his retirement. A bonafide legend with a deep cultural impact on India's rich batting heritage he remains. But his commentary has failed the test of times quite miserably.  Lack of open-mindedness and an effort invested to the nitty-gritties of the sport aside, his work behind the mic has tended to lack basic understanding and empathy when it comes to the no-ball. 

There have been countless assertions on the word "crime" whenever a spinner has bowled the no-ball. The idea being that since spinners only take a few steps into their delivery stride before releasing the ball, they shouldn't be overstepping the mark at all. This idea has been peddled by commentators over the years to create a narrative, wherein the viewer starts to genuinely believe that come what may, their favourite team's man or woman in operation should not step outside the popping crease before the ball is released. 

The failure to do so is likened to a 'crime' since it is the moment that supposedly dictates the outcome of cricket matches. And when former cricketers on broadcast say this, the belief further seeps into the public conscience. Social media has given a platform for such understandings to play themselves out, be discussed, and collectively diss bowlers. 

Any form of revolt against the idea that a no ball is just one instance where a bowler has crossed a thin-sized white line by the barest possible margins is treated as an act against a religious belief. In reality, such people are only fighting a battle to protect what they've come to believe due to poor commentary. It's a pandemic of a different kind, one that has persisted for ages and will do so till the time broadcasters cater to the immediate interest of the masses in appointing their favourite former cricketers to the job above people who could be good at commentary, analysis and education.

The crescendo against the no-ball is not just borne out of incompetency but also the lack of empathy towards the contemporary cricketers, ironically often by those who have been in those shoes themselves in the past. It reflects a cycle: Gavaskar may have grown up hearing radio commentators dehumanise the no-ball and so when he got the mic himself, he only revealed his understanding or lack of in the matter. It's why questioning beliefs and cultivating a natural distaste towards irrationality should be encouraged and not be treated with disgust or considered a sign of disrespect and threat to the rituals that we have come to uphold. 

This writer is grateful for a different experience from Gavaskar in this regard. At the heels of what was retrospectively a final push into fulfilling my cricketing ambitions, I happen to join an academy in East Delhi. One day, one of the coaches in pain over the repeated number of no-balls delivered by us in the nets got his wards aligned before telling us in no uncertain terms: "One more no-ball and I can assure you guys will regret..". 

We did. The punishment was one whole lap of the ground for each time we overstepped. This exercise ran for the whole week, and slowly but surely as the weekend closed in, the coach started to see tighter delivery strides and a gradual decline in the number of no balls we bowled. But the coach wasn't satisfied. He wanted to absolutely eliminate the 'no ball' from our system and so the exercise was persisted with for another ten days. 

Encouraged by the precedence of the first week, the coach really thought he could eliminate the no balls we bowled. He failed. We failed. The no ball could not be eliminated to the cent precision that the coach had envisioned and desired. He had to end the ploy there itself, recognising and finally accepting that come what may, these no-balls will persist. There were sporadic, rare, marginal no balls but no balls that we still bowled. Life moved on. 

The story reinforces a simple fact that millions get to see no-balls through their television sets and on streaming platforms: the no-ball is a rarity and most no-balls are marginal. The moment that ill-fated siren goes berserk at a cricket venue and our TV screen zooms into the bowler's front-foot, we undergo collective exasperation sitting on our comforting sofas at home. Seldom do we make any conscious effort to recognise that it was by only a couple of inches that the bowler had faltered in essentially going through his bowling action correctly. So often it's the heel on the line or aligned by the crease in the air, and that's it, the bowler has to pay for a few inches that he couldn't control his foot by.

We don't invest time in introspecting, instead all the energy is reserved for counter-arguments like this: "But why can't he just work extensively hard in the nets, control his front foot press and bowl none of these? surely it's in his control!!" Hear this out: it's notIf bowlers could eliminate the no-balls, they would've done it ages back. If anything, they have indeed worked extensively hard to minimise the number of no balls you see. 

It's at that exact moment when a no-ball gets delivered, there is a man behind the mic catering to our instant judgment, calling it a 'crime' to further crucify the bowler and to sharpen our virtual knives. Such commentary can give broadcasters extra eyeballs for a few extra seconds on air, each counting for financial gains, if the commentator says exactly what the viewer wants to hear. Not so much what he needs to or what the man behind the mic is simply not capable of telling. 

Also Read - Why India certainly can, but shouldn't, make Indore-like Test match pitches

Further dehumanising the no ball are the laws of the game as they are. The no-ball law has evolved over time but the heel on the line has belonged to the umpire. The officials are quick to jump the gun and call it the no-ball. It can be argued with no brash confidence that a large percentage of the no-balls will stop being called if the heel on the line starts belonging to the bowler. It's a thin-wide white line created on a roughed-up surface and we feel a few inches parallel or beneath it after the motion that the bowler partakes should be the difference between a legal and an illegal ball. Think about it. 

The free hit is another concept that indirectly breeds poor discourse around no balls. Used extensively in T20 cricket over the years, the free hit basically gives the batters a free hand to blaze it away without the fear of dismissal unless they are run out. In a close encounter, these free hits often play a role in deciding the end result because we allow them to. 

By giving the batter such a major, unearned, unfair advantage in order to penalise the bowler for some uncontrolled inches, we basically reinforce the age-old adage about the 'batter's game'. When all that a no ball is a rare error made in executing an action and a run-up, we are telling a youngster watching the game that he must reconsider his choice of skill or risk losing his future job if he happened to overstep a few inches. Do we even take a second to consider how far-reaching an impact the whole no-ball crescendo has? We don't. We, in fact, celebrate the sixes hit off these extra balls. 

And so this whole noise against bowlers who overstep will go on. It won't stop because we've allowed it to establish such a stranglehold on our sport.

Ravindra Jadeja may have bowled 646 times in this Test series and erred from keeping his foot inside only nine times - 1.39% from 646 balls - but someone in the commentary box will keep telling you it's a 'crime'.

You will continue to lap it up and villainize the bowlers, express anger against them, celebrate boundaries hit off free-hits, run social media campaigns to vent out your frustration against the protagonist on how he lost you the game by erring against a tiny white line. 

Jeez... 'crime'? There are people doing far worse things on the face of this earth who deserve the word associated with their names, not well-meaning, hardworking and sensitive cricketers.