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Seeing no balls in black and white...

After several decisions in the first Test between Australia and South Africa were overturned through no balls, MCC's Laws Department replies to those suggesting the Law should be more lenient...

The recent Test Match between Australia and South Africa in Brisbane saw four wickets fall from deliveries that were ruled as No balls; three of the four were called after referrals to the third umpire. This is not a new problem – in Pakistan’s tour of England in 2001, four England batsmen were dismissed in the last session of the match from balls that would have been No balls but were not called by the Umpires.

The debate that ensued after Brisbane, featuring MCC World Cricket committee member Barry Richards and, on ESPN Cricinfo (opens in a new window), Mark Nicholas, questioned whether the No ball Law is too strict and if the bowler should get the benefit of the doubt on a “marginal” No ball - particularly if a wicket falls from that delivery.

Before addressing this issue, it is worth reiterating the No ball Law itself. Law 24.5 explains that for a fair delivery, the bowler’s front foot must land with some part of the foot, whether grounded or raised, behind the popping crease. Law 9.3 additionally defines that the popping crease is the back edge of the crease marking.

It is not the marking itself, but the back edge of it, i.e. the edge closest to the stumps at that end. Commentators often say that the line belongs to the Umpire, and “on the line” is actually beyond the crease. If the bowler’s heel is on the line and nothing is behind the crease, then the delivery is a No ball. It also makes no difference how thick the crease markings are, as it is the back edge of the line that matters.

This rationale is consistent in other Laws too. When we see close Run out decisions being replayed for the third umpire, he is looking for some part of the bat or person being grounded beyond the white line and again, on the line is Out. Away from the pitch, the boundary is defined as the inside edge of the boundary marking – therefore if the ball touches the boundary marker, a boundary has been scored.

In all these areas, there has to be a black and white point at which the delivery goes from being a legal one to an illegal one; or where the batsman is in or out; or where a ball running towards the boundary goes from being a non-boundary to a boundary. There can be no room for grey.

Furthermore, you could redefine any of these Laws but you would be only shifting the problem, rather than solving it. In the suggested No ball example, the umpire would have to look to see if the line was touched or completely overstepped – the same problem but moved to a different area.

The problem here is not with the Law, but with bowlers overstepping. MCC accepts that a centimetre here or there won’t necessarily give the bowler an unfair advantage but, unless there is a clear point at which legal becomes illegal, the confusion will only increase.

Shades of grey may currently be popular but, in the case of the No ball, black and white is essential.

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