It has almost been drilled into us. Over and over again. If you have watched enough cricket, you would have heard Sunil Gavaskar talking about West Indies and about fast bowling. And once the conversation turns in that direction, the great India opener invariably brings up Andy Roberts.
“I think Andy is the finest fast bowler I have ever faced,” he once said. And given that he faced a lot of genuine fast bowling, that isn’t a compliment to be taken lightly. The reason the West Indies stalwart was rated so highly was a simple one: he was intelligent. Always thinking, always evolving, and it didn’t matter if you were past 100, you always had to be watchful against him.
One of Roberts’ favourite party tricks was his bouncer – a two-paced weapon of deception that almost no one could ever quite call. Some would call it a slower bouncer but the pace legend himself revealed that it wasn’t the slower one that did the damage, rather it was the quicker one that followed.
The slower bouncer, bowled at around 85 mph, would lull the batter into thinking that they could easily play the pull or hook against it. And just when it looked like they had found their comfort zone, Roberts would unleash a quicker bouncer – around 90 mph or more – and get the wicket.
At the end of the day, batting is all about timing. Get your bat down to meet the ball at the right time and the ball will speed off in the desired direction. Get it wrong and it will go nowhere; worse still, you could get dismissed. Roberts’ change of pace would rob the batters of timing, and often that is all that was needed.
There were others who did it too (Dennis Lillee and so many others liked their cutters) but Roberts was the scientist, experimenting with pace, seam/cross-seam, lines and angles. It was an all-consuming passion. But when the fast bowler retired in 1983, for a while it seemed like the slower ball variation went into hibernation as well.
However, with ODI cricket taking over and batters started to feel the pressure to play shots, bowlers started dipping into their bag of tricks once again. Reverse swing was a weapon of choice, but Wasim Akram found ways to combine that with slower balls. It made him unstoppable and it made the tactic a must have.
Now, every bowler worth his salt worked on a slower ball. Some clues were derived from baseball, some from the past. The cutters and the slower bouncers were soon overtaken by the back-of-the-hand and knuckleball varieties. The split-finger variation had limited success.
With reverse swing starting to go out of the game due to two balls being used from either end, the change of pace has become vital for bowlers.
The faster the game got, the harder the batters tried to hit and the more easily they got suckered into playing the false shot. The trick, though, was always in the set-up.
A different timing
Australian all-rounder Ian ‘The Freak’ Harvey could reportedly bowl a different kind of slower delivery for every ball in an over but he believed that the most important thing was knowing when to bowl it.
And that is an art Jasprit Bumrah seems to have mastered. From the slower ball that got Shaun Marsh out at the MCG to set up India’s first-ever Test series win in Australia in 2018 to the off-cutter that foxed Mohammad Rizwan in Ahmedabad on Saturday, the India pacer just has the knack of landing the sucker punch.
“When I was young, I used to ask a lot of questions, so that has helped me develop a lot of knowledge,” said Bumrah after India’s seven-wicket win over Pakistan. “I like to read the wickets and try a lot of options.”
When asked about Rizwan’s wicket, he said: “I saw Jaddu’s ball was turning, so I count my slower ball as a spinner’s slower ball. I thought that can make the run-scoring tough and it worked. Sometimes it goes that way.”
The great trick, though, is to keep the batter guessing. For that to happen, you need to assess the conditions, understand the game situation and get your field right. Everything can be used to plant a fresh doubt in the mind of the batter or simply make them complacent. Send them one way and strike from the other. It is a game of bluff and everything counts.
Dwayne Bravo earned his chops thanks to the slower ball, Chris Carins’ delivery would almost drop on to the batters (search for Chris Read), Zaheer Khan’s knuckleball was just as special while Venkatesh Prasad’s leg-cutter took some getting used to.
Much of what Lasith Malinga taught Bumrah during their days at Mumbai Indians is the base but so much more has been added on top of it by the India pacer.
In Malinga’s case, the set-up was more basic. High pace followed by the off-cutter. It worked because the pace demanded that batters get into their shots early. Bumrah doesn’t have the same pace, but his movement and subtle changes of angle help him manoeuvre the batter into a corner.
It doesn’t always work but when it does, it leaves the batter looking like someone who had picked up the bat for the first time. Rizwan did not look like someone who was batting on 49, rather he looked like an embarrassed amateur.
The same ball may not have worked as well in Australia or England but here it gripped and completely tilted the match towards the home team. It was, in the minds of many Indians, more than just a little change of pace.