Thursday, May 29, 2014

Much ado about chucking

Stuart Broad has got himself into a bit of trouble, by commenting on a picture of Saeed Ajmal tweeted by Michael Vaughan. Vaughan tweeted "you are allowed 15 degrees of flex in delivery swing... #justsaying", and attached a blurry picture of Ajmal in mid-delivery. This is what that picture looks like:

Broad replied, commenting that it had to be a fake picture, and later said that “Bowlers can bowl very differently in a lab while being tested compared to needing wickets in the middle”. Ajmal has, of course, had his action tested before by the ICC and was found to be within the permitted 15 degrees of flex allowed (anything less than this is invisible to the naked eye). It's virtually impossible for a spectator to analyse a bowler's action in real time (and I can't remember the last time the cameras did an analysis in slow-mo of one of the more controversial spinners). It doesn't help, of course, that they also tend to wear baggy long-sleeved shirts, although anyone not wearing one in county cricket in May probably comes from a latitude significantly to the north of Faisalabad. But on gut feel, Ajmal is one of those that doesn't quite feel right. To see why, keep the picture above in mind when looking at a picture of his release point:

That arm looks pretty straight to the naked eye and (even given the angle from which the top photo was taken) is definitely more than a 15 degree variation from the one above. This isn't, incidentally, to say that Ajmal is chucking - as I said above, it basically takes work in a laboratory to determine the actual degree of flex. It's just that it looks as though he is to the naked eye.

But then, it looked like Murali was chucking to the naked eye, and he definitely wasn't. I saw him bowl for Channel 4 in a full arm cast, and it still looked like he threw it. Murali had double-jointed wrists and a permanently bent arm - the combination made it look like a throw even though it wasn't. Murali's example, however, has caused a proliferation of unorthodox actions.

Shane Shillingford
Johann Botha
Sachithra Senanayake
Sunil Narine
Some of these have been called for it (Shillingford had his quicker ball banned by the ICC, Botha his doosra), some haven't (Senanayake had his action cleared back in 2011, although Aggers clearly disagrees...). Does any of it matter? Doesn't it just add to cricket's rich tapestry? Weeelll...
Part of me wants to agree: all the bowlers listed are exciting and skillful, and their bowling makes cricket more interesting. On the other hand, if we're going to ignore it when spinners chuck it, why can't pacemen just stand at the crease and hurl it at that batsman like a pitcher? I've played against bowlers in club cricket who blatantly threw it, and it gives them a heck of an advantage. For spinners it makes it much harder to detect which way the ball is turning; for quicks, the ball is that much quicker through the air than you're expecting.
One thing that is perhaps a little odd is that the people who were so exercised when Stuart Broad didn't walk for a nick to the keeper (which isn't against any law of the game) aren't equally exercised by the possible breaking of law 24(3) which says that a ball is only fairly delivered if:
once the bowler’s arm has reached the level of the shoulder in the delivery swing, the elbow joint is not straightened partially or completely from that point until the ball has left the hand.
UPDATE: To nobody's great surprise, Senanayake has been referred to the ICC for having a dodgy action. He can then be cleared in a lab, and return to action, pleasing and convincing nobody either way...


There's a very heartfelt article in today's Times by Matthew Syed on the atrocity on the steps of the high court in Lahore. A pregnant woman was battered to death, by her own family, in the midst of a large crowd (including scores of policemen and lawyers) who did nothing to help or to intervene. Her "crime" was to have married a man of whom her father disapproved. Chances of a successful prosecution of anyone for the lynching must be pretty small. Syed, who is half Pakistani himself, sees only one way for this sort of barbarism to be countered - in Pakistan or in the UK
You cannot win against this kind of barbarism by being nice. You can’t win by beating a strategic retreat, as Sotheby’s plans to do by withdrawing nudes from arts sales because they are terrified of offending Middle Eastern clients. Fundamentalism is too fierce, too implacable, it takes too deep a hold on those who are infected by it, to reach any kind of compromise. Trying to find an accommodation with fanaticism is like trying to cuddle a virus.
This is not a new problem. 150 years ago, in a newly conquered province of the Raj (remembered now, if at all, principally for a Latin pun in Punch magazine) the British Governor General Sir Charles Napier was tasked with imposing law and order on a society with an entirely alien culture and value system. As his biographer (and brother) Sir William Napier recorded in his history of Scinde:
Whenever a woman was guilty of infidelity, or even suspected - and that suspicion was excited by trifles, and often pretended from interested views - one man would hold her up by the hair while another hewed her piecemeal with a sword. To kill women on any pretext was a right assumed by every Beloochee [i.e. Baloch], and they could not understand why they were being disbarred.
While remembering to keep in mind the inevitable problems of orientalism and so on (in other words, that this is a very partial history from a particular source), the attitudes identified should not be terribly surprising - their residues remain in modern Pakistan and elsewhere. I suspect that the general's response would not be considered acceptable today:
A man had been condemned for murdering his wife; his chief sued the general for pardon. "No! I will hang him." "What! You will hang a man only for killing his wife!" "Yes; she had done no wrong." "Wrong! No! But he was angry, why should he not kill her?" "Well I am angry; why should I not kill him?" This conviction of their right to murder women was so strong and their belief in fatalism so firm, that many executions took place ere the practice could even be checked; but finding the general as resolute to hang as they were to murder, the tendency after a time abated, and to use his significant phrase "the gallows began to overbalance Mahomet and predestination."
There may be a lesson here for us (though not that the answer is the return of capital punishment). It is not just that "culture" is not an excuse for murder; it is actually an exacerbating factor. Courts and prosecutors need to be more severe on cultural or "honour" killings than they are on "normal" murders, precisely because while "ordinary" murderers do not commit their crimes under the delusion that it is an acceptable (indeed desirable) thing to do, "honour" murderers do.

Where we are faced with cultural behaviours that are drastically contrary to our own cultural values (and these sadly mostly relate to the treatment of women, from "honour" killings to FGM) the state needs to act almost disproportionately heavily. The message needs to be unmissably clear that this is not how we do things here. Charles Napier is probably more famous for his actions against suttee (although in a predominantly Muslim state that would have been less prevalent than elsewhere in India):
He also put down the practice of suttees, which however was rare in Scinde, by a process entirely characteristic. For judging the real cause of these immolations to be the profit derived by the priests, and hearing of an intended burning, he made it known that he would stop the sacrifice. The priests said it was a religious rite which must not be meddled with - that all nations had customs which should be respected and this was a very sacred one. The general, affecting to be struck with this argument replied, "Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pyre. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs!" No suttee took place then or afterwards.
What Napier did was, obviously, imperialism: the imposition of British laws and cultural values on a non-British state. But to follow a similar trajectory in the UK against similar attitudes towards women would be almost the opposite of imperialism: it would be the fierce and principled support of a culture and a way of life that people come here to seek, and that people already here have every right to expect to be defended.

Friday, May 02, 2014

The N word

Somewhere high up on my bookshelves I have three copies of the same book. This is what happens when you merge libraries with your wife, and then get several boxes more from her grandmother. Each copy has a different title. The oldest one (which came in from the grandmother) is called Ten Little Niggers; then there's a US copy called Ten Little Indians; and then there's my old copy from the 80s called And Then There Were None. It's a pretty good book actually, though like all Christies the attraction wears off slightly when you know who did it.

Does the above paragraph make me a racist? I don't think so, although things might be different if I displayed the oldest copy prominently in my window, or made loud harrumphing noises about how it was better in the old days before all this political correct nonsense came along. The reason I ask is (obviously) because of the brouhaha over Jeremy Clarkson's apparent mumblings of a playground jingle of equivalent antiquity - the eenie, meenie, miney, mo one.

It might be worth going on a small diversion here. The current 'anti-Clarkson' narrative is that though he initially denied saying it, he's now admitted to mumbling it, which is just as bad. As Dan Hodges says:
But yesterday he explained that he had, in fact, tried to “mumble” the word. Then, to his horror, when reviewing copies of the unbroadcast footage, he found “it did appear I had actually used the word I was trying to obscure”. Or, to put it another way, the reason it appeared he’d used that word was because he had indeed used it.
'Putting it another way' in this context apparently meaning 'to say something completely different', because what Clarkson has actually said is that he didn't say the word: he mumbled under his breath instead of saying the word. In the note he wrote to the producer he said:
'I didn't use the N-word here but I've just listened through my headphones and it sounds like I did. Is there another take that we could use?'
"This word is so bad that I didn't use it" seems to me like a different story to "Saying nigger is just fine, says racist bigot". Anyway, I'm not sure that this really amounts to anything very much more than that the left don't like Jeremy Clarkson, and will cheerfully grab at any stick to hit him with.

More interesting (slightly) is the argument between Dan and Frank Fisher on Twitter, a medium renowned for its appropriateness for developing complex arguments. Dan's line is that the simple use of the word 'nigger' is itself intrinsically racist. That has the benefit of clarity at least, and used as an epithet the word is unquestionably offensive. Frank's point in response is that whether or not a word is racist depends on the context in which it is used, and the intention for which it is used.

The standard line trotted out here is along the lines of "rappers say nigger all the time; how can it be racist if black people say it?" I am, to say the least, unconvinced by this line of argument (although in fairness, Fisher's point is not actually if they can say it, why not me? but rather, does singing their lyrics make me racist? which is surely a harder question). But it does highlight a hole in the iron 'use = racism' argument. Can it be racist to use the word when discussing whether old books should be edited to reflect modern values? Surely it can't, or you end up in a Kafka-esque situation of not being able to say the word you think should or shouldn't be changed (as I'm sure you know, a major character in Huckleberry Finn is called Nigger Jim and I am, for example, pretty damn sure that Tom Chivers isn't a racist.

So, if it can be acceptable in some circumstances for even a white person to say nigger (including, I hope, in discussing the topic at all, otherwise I'm in trouble myself), is it acceptable to recite an old playground rhyme that includes it? Autre temps, autre mouers after all, and the fact that my grandmother went into shops to ask for bootlaces in nigger brown didn't make her a racist (she was, incidentally, quite definitely racist, but it wasn't the bootlaces that made it so). Well, no I don't think that it is. There may be some limited circumstances where using the word is effectively unavoidable, but school-age doggerel isn't one of them (the version I used said tigger anyway).

Of course, the funny thing here is that despite Dan's hyperventilation, Clarkson clearly agrees with this - that's why he didn't say the word, and when it sounded as if he had he made sure another shot was used. Dan's written a column despairing over the normalisation of casual racism when the story is actually that a popular right-wing broadcaster didn't say the word in question, but has grovelled because a discarded shot sounds almost as if he did. This is more a David Howard story (forced to resign for saying niggardly) than a Ron Atkinson one.