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Attack, But Skilfully

5 May 2010.

At no point in the history of one-day cricket has as much emphasis been put on taking wickets as there is now – though not too many are getting it quite right.

In a recent Twenty20 match against Australia played in the land of the long white cloud, Tim Southee produced one of the most accurate and effective overs seen in recent one-day campaigns. Called upon to deliver to batsmen with mayhem in mind, he ran to the crease in his boyish way and landed his six offerings on the proverbial saucer located under the batsmen’s feet. Try as they might, the willow wielders could not put him away. The Kiwis tied the match two overs later, and won when Southee did it all over again in the ensuing six-ball contest arranged to break the deadlock.

Tim Southee bowling

Tim Southee bowling.
Photo © Paul Burgess, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The fresh-faced youngster is not the fastest or most talented bowler running around; indeed, he sends the ball down at a pace widely regarded as tempting. Joel Garner was the master of the yorker, but then he was lanky as a lamp-post and fast enough to push batsmen onto the back foot. Only towards the end of his career did Garner begin to miss his mark. Till then he was the best one-day bowler on the market, a point he often proved in Lord’s finals, only to be denied recognition as Man of the Match by a succession of brilliant batting displays from Vivian Richards.

None of the other West Indians, let alone anyone else, could match the Barbadian’s laser-beam precision. Malcolm Marshall was a supreme attacking bowler, blessed with high intelligence and with an extraordinary array of deliveries at his disposal, but his trajectory was flatter and swing was his main weapon – so he tended to pitch the ball up a yard further than his contemporary. Curtly Ambrose, Garner’s successor, was his closest rival. The Antiguan was the better man as regards short bowling (even when Dean Jones had not ruffled his feathers) but Garner had the deadlier sandshoe crusher.

Not that yorkers were reserved for pace bowlers. In the 1970s Lancashire fielded a rotund offspinner going by the name of Jack Simmons and universally known as “Flat Jack” owing to his ability to project the ball at the batsman’s toes. The Red Rosers could use him to slow progress in the middle of the innings or else to curtail the charge in the closing overs. Spinners of the generation were as accurate as darts throwers, but by and large they did not pin the ball as much and were not as versatile as the current crop.

Unsurprisingly bowlers began to practise their yorkers with a view to improving their returns in the biff-and-bash contests that were rapidly changing the balance of their careers. Inevitably batsmen began to find ways to punish these offerings. Even now I can remember Neil Mallender bowling the last over of a match reduced to a 15-over contest by rain, to Ravi Shastri in Cardiff. Mallender was an old-fashioned English seamer, in that he was accurate, honest and fond of beer. Usually he landed his yorkers well, so his captain, your correspondent, was surprised to observe two of the deliveries despatched over the boundary at long-on. As we trooped disconsolate from the arena, the cover fieldsman came across and remarked how interesting it had been that Shastri had taken his stance a foot inside his crease. Suffice it to say that captain and bowler pointed out how much more helpful this comment would have been two minutes earlier.

Yorkers were duly replaced by slower balls, a strategy introduced in the closing overs by Steve Waugh, a medium-pacer without much to offer except nerve and deception. Waugh’s policy was to aim at the stumps, thereby limiting the range of shots available, and then to vary his pace with due disguise so that the expected blows were likely to be miscued. Facing him, batsmen could not so easily set themselves to play a favoured shot. Decisions had to be delayed and aggression was more risky. Especially on slow pitches, Waugh’s strategy often worked, and inevitably others followed in his wake.

Franklyn Stephenson and Simon Hughes developed clever slower balls delivered from the back of the hand and so without any change in arm speed. Others spread their fingers or held the ball back deeper in the hand; some released from a yard behind the crease – anything to fool the batsman. Before long the slower ball was the new orthodoxy and the talk of the town. Apart from anything else it was almost as popular with the romantics as short extra-cover and short midwicket, placements that invariably draw high praise, and never mind that catches are taken in these positions about once a season.

Arguably the slower ball has long outlasted its usefulness. It’s been rumbled. Now and then a batsman is caught on the boundary, but mostly the offerings are anticipated and put out of their misery.

Arguably the slower ball has long outlasted its usefulness. It’s been rumbled. Now and then a batsman is caught on the boundary, but mostly the offerings are anticipated and put out of their misery. Bad slower balls are as dangerous as malfunctioning traffic lights. Moreover the element of surprise has long been lost. Like yorkers, the margin is small and the cost of error is high.

Once again the game has moved along. Nowadays bowlers feel obliged to mix up their deliveries, a difficult task at the best of times and even more so at the end of a tight match with a huge TV audience watching, the crowd agog and the parents crossing their fingers. Modern thinking insists that Southee’s success was an aberration. Batsmen are ready for squashers and are trained to punish them. Bowlers need to be able to master several deliveries and failing that are well advised to mix up their deliveries to keep the batsman guessing.

Beyond doubt the bowler’s task is more formidable these days. And the reason is simple. Batsmen have developed a new shot, one that takes heavy toll of all except the finest yorkers and slower balls. Amid all the talk about scoops and other fancy additions, the truly significant change in batting techniques over the last three seasons has almost escaped attention, yet it is almost as important to the game as the growing realisation that batsmen have been standing the wrong way around for 150 years (coaches doubting that point ought to consider the growing band of right-handers batting left-handed and vice versa).

Classical technique insists that the straight drive, lofted or otherwise, is executed with foot close to the ball, left shoulder leading (for a right-hander), hips straight and the entire body aligned. That notion has been thrown out of the window. Modern youngsters practise opening their hips and throwing their hands through the ball. Hour upon hour they stand in the nets rehearsing hitting straight drives with an open chest and a slightly cross bat. It has released, perhaps even revolutionised, batting in one-day cricket.

And it has forced bowlers to think again. After all, the two parts of the park hardest to protect are the areas behind bowler and keeper, gaps the scoop and the new straight drive seek to exploit. Just that the straight hit is much safer. Already captains are responding by putting men almost directly behind the bowler. Kieron Pollard was caught at straight mid-off in the IPL final, and never mind that an orthodox long-off had also been placed.

Clearly these innovations work better on slow and reliable pitches. Much less was seen of them when the IPL and Champions Trophy were played on spicier South African tracks. Nevertheless the bowlers have been forced to think again. Cricket has always been a battle between bat and ball, and mostly the odds have been stacked in favour of the willow. Accordingly the bowlers have been forced to fend for themselves, and various ruses have emerged, including picking the seam, running on the pitch, polishing the ball with sweet mint, chopping up the leather and so forth, all of which promptly provoke indignation amongst batsmen past and present.

Fearful of discovery and retribution, seeking legitimacy, bowlers and captains have also been obliged to live ever more on their wits. And their response has been good for the game. At no point in the history of one-day cricket has such an emphasis been put on the taking of wickets. Unable to defend, fielding sides have decided to attack. To that end they have opened the bowling with spinners, sometimes at both ends. Scorning the mundane, they have relied on wrist-spinners blessed with the art of deception, or explosive fast bowlers capable of forcing the batsmen backwards. Against most expectations, Twenty20 has helped promote legspin. Somewhat to the game’s cost, it has become the focal point of express bowlers fearful of hurting themselves in longer versions and anxious to make money whilst their bodies hold together.

If the strategy is clear and attractive, the execution is often ordinary. An awful lot of tripe is sent down in Twenty20 matches. The craftsmen of yesterday must blanch at the number of full-tosses delivered. Tom Cartwright, Derek Underwood and their contemporaries could go an entire season without producing a single full-toss. Far more modest practitioners could say the same. Now highly regarded bowlers can send down three in an over, as Rory Kleinveldt did the other day against India. It was money for old rope, and it happens an awful lot. Bowlers get away with it because almost everyone suffers and it is only a question of degree.

Plain as day, panic is the problem. Everyone is scared about enduring the terrible over, costing 20 runs and changing the course of the match. Desperation sets in and they forget the lessons learnt over the years, concentrating instead upon pitching the perfect ball. Usually it goes wrong and a boundary results, whereupon the bowler is under intense pressure for the rest of the over.

Obviously another development awaits. The tactic of pressing for wickets is correct. The need to vary the length, pace, angle and movement of deliveries has been proven. But it all goes to nothing unless the strategy is skilfully carried out. Nothing is simpler than to hit a bad slow ball, unless it is a full-toss or long hop pretending to be a bouncer. Last night’s leftovers and beef stroganoff are both stews but they don’t taste the same.

Bowlers can escape serious punishment in two circumstances. When the pitch is grumpy or grassy they can take wickets simply by performing as normal. When the pitch is firm, though, and the boundaries are short, as is often the case, their success depends on calm thinking and precise execution. At present the batsmen are ruling the roost and it’s up to the bowlers to stop making life easy for them and to start turning the screws on them. The bowlers are right to attack, but it’s no use charging wildly towards the guns. Scorning defeatist sentiment, leather flingers need to stop offering rubbish and start making life harder in the enemy camp. Cricket is a game of pressure. All too often in the IPL and other Twenty20, bowlers are providing the release valve.

This article was written for ESPN cricinfo.
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