Bowlers On Leash
The rage of the bowler is very real, built on years of being an essential, but in popular estimation a lesser practitioner of the sport. Bowlers start as merely the instigators of the main event—the completion of a stroke of genius by the batsman. Don’t little boys commandeer house domestics to bowl to them? Isn’t every move professional bowlers make subject to heavy scrutiny, often with measuring tape and compass? In contrast, the batsman is free, bound by no laws or white lines on the ground. And why can a bowler bowl only 10 overs in ODIs? How about similarly allowing Sachin Tendulkar to bat only 10 overs?
No wonder, bowlers often seem to tap into an ingrained hostility, even building their craft around it. They like to hit batsmen when they can. When they can’t, as in with spinners, they love to humiliate batsmen by, say, bowling them around their legs—and then rubbing salt in their wounds by actually having the last laugh.
Increasingly, though, a bowler must shed more tears before a consolation laugh. Consider this: of those who played in the 1970s and 1980s, only five batsmen averaged over 50 in Test cricket—Greg Chappell, Sunil Gavaskar, Javed Miandad, Viv Richards and Allan Border, undisputed all-time greats. Currently, there are 13 who average over 50, and another five who’ve retired in the 2000s. The batsmen are getting richer, the bowlers poorer. Clearly, the batsmen are taking from the bowlers. Through the 1980s to the 2000s, among those who took over 100 wickets in Test cricket, 16 averaged below 25; now there’s only one, Dale Steyn, apart from the brilliant (but, sadly, flawed) Mohammed Asif, whose career seems to be over.
Bowlers are the poor cousins in cricket, crushed by law and technology. All new rules favour batsmen (see box). The new follower of the game, the T20 or matinee fan, considers bowlers a facilitator of a six at best and a disruptor of brutal strokeplay at worst. Populism cuts at the roots of bowling. A bowler-friendly pitch is considered a bad wicket. By popular decree, bowlers are being converted into servitors who must exist for the sake of a dlf Maximum.
Bowlers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose except your chains! But can they really? Their resurrection and dominance aren’t likely to be very popular events. “The game is about scoring runs, and people want to see runs scored,” Eric Simons, bowling coach for India and IPL’s Delhi Daredevils, told Outlook. “The rules do favour the batsmen very heavily, because that’s what the game is about now.”
Simons says the modern bat can produce stunning results, which means hitting a six isn’t as special a feat as it was in the times of Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards. “It’s added 50-60 per cent in terms of the distance you can hit since I started playing. I pick up a bat at the nets and I’m amazed. I can clear the boundary with ease,” says the 49-year-old who played for South Africa in the mid-’90s.
Modern bats use lighter handles, are made of highly compressed willow, and are easier to swing. “Bat manufacturers have come up with ways to make bats without adding to the weight,” flamboyant West Indian batsman Chris Gayle says. “The boundaries are not that big, and with better bats, everyone has a chance to clear the boundary.” Heavier bats impart much greater power to the ball, and Gayle says he prefers them. “I still need to work out in the gym to use my bats,” Gayle, a giant of a man with rippling forearms, grins.
Under attack for long, bowlers have innovated in answer: slowers, doosras, carrom, one-finger and knuckle-balls, slow bouncers..
It’s a very special man who wants to become a fast bowler, Simons says. Zaheer Khan is one such man, and he assures Outlook that despite the humiliation one may suffer when even a tailender mishits his best deliveries for six over third man, he’d not be anything else. “I’m blessed to be a bowler, because I have the skills that I have,” he says.
Zaheer says he can’t be bothered about things beyond his control. “I look at the conditions, at the pitch, the opposition, when I plan,” he says. In shorter formats, he wouldn’t like what he looks at. The grounds are smaller and the bats deadlier and the batsmen that much more free of fear. “Especially in T20 cricket, it’s relentless—the batsmen attack you desperately in all four overs you bowl, they know they can afford to lose their wicket,” he admits.
In his mind, Zaheer has resolved the problem of bloodthirsty batsmen in the shorter versions. He seems to have made his peace with the hard rules, predatory wielders of willow and short boundaries. Does it anger him when someone hits him over his head for a four or six? “In Test cricket, yes,” he answers. But not in shorter formats, and especially not in T20 cricket. When he started, he says, it was acceptable to bowl 10 ODI overs for 45 runs. Now that has gone up to perhaps 50. “The difference is due to the increase in number of overs with field restrictions to 20, apart from better bats,” he says.
Technology can’t be halted or reversed, and sports generally evolve to remain competitive. Golfers, for instance, are hitting the ball farther than ever before because of better equipment, and the administrators have reacted. Golf courses in professional tournaments are longer than before and have more challenging obstacle positioning. In cricket, perversely, the boundaries have got smaller.
Daniel Vettori, former New Zealand captain, says the solution is obvious. “The only thing you can do is regulate the size of the boundaries,” Vettori told Outlook. “Then it becomes a fair contest, and it won’t be a case of a mishit going for a six, because that’s the hardest thing (for a bowler).” He says that it would be a favour to the art of batting, too. “Because the batsman then knows that he can’t just hit a six the next ball to get himself out of trouble,” he says. “He actually has to build an innings.”
If bowling suffers, batting will too, he believes. “That’s the challenge for batsmen for years to come, to go from T20 to Test cricket,” he says. “Can you play an innings without that relief of just hitting the next ball for six because the boundary is so small?”
We asked Morne Morkel, one half of the fiercest fast bowling pair in the world, about his state of mind when every Tom, Dick and Harry is coming to the front foot to hit him. “You were a fast bowler, were you?” he sighs. He admits it’s tough when batsmen swing at everything, not caring if they are out first ball. He says one has to accept that. “You have to think quickly, keep it simple and not forget the basics. You’ve got to try to outthink the batsmen,” he says.
And do all that without getting confused yourself. “You’ve to forget what’s happened, even if it’s a six off the best ball you bowl,” says Ajit Agarkar. “It’s difficult to remain cool, but that comes with experience. You’ve got to be clear about what you’re trying. After that, what happens at the other end is not in your control.”
Bowlers have been the greater innovators in recent years: the doosra, carrom ball (a revival of sorts), slower ball, Lasith Malinga with the horizontal-arm bowling, and wider proliferation of reverse-swing and slow bouncer. But Dale Steyn has shown one can be unplayable with just basic skills—when developed to the highest degree. Simons believes that’s the way to go. “I do think that sometimes there’s a tendency to overdo innovation,” he says. “I’m really concerned there aren’t too many bowlers who deliver balls to their field nine out of 10 times.”
Simons feels bowlers are trying too much too often, and mastering nothing. “They’d be trying seven-eight different deliveries—slow balls, yorkers, back-of-the-hand balls, bouncers, slower bouncer, knuckle ball, one-finger ball, et al,” he says. “That’s all wrong, because while you must have variations, you’ve got to bowl from a proper foundation.”
So how is a young bowler to react when someone cavalier like Virender Sehwag gets stuck into him? “Being hit for nine runs an over, their confidence is shattered,” Simons admits. “It’s a lonely game out there if you go for six and four off two balls, and have to bowl another four.”
He says some of the coaches are letting bowlers down by not getting them ready. And here’s the unkindest cut—in practice at nets, bowlers generally are just cannon fodder. “In nets, unfortunately, practice leans towards batsmen. You don’t allow a bowler to bowl 18 balls and then go up and have a massage or something,” he says. That’s because the batsmen must practise and the bowlers must bowl at them. “So we don’t allow them to practise in the way that suits them best,” he adds with regret.
So what’s the hapless bowler to do? Vettori says first he has to be talented and hardworking. Then, he says, Steyn provides the template that must be adopted. “He has a simple formula—he obviously bowls fast and trusts his swinger,” Vettori says. “That’s a great example for young bowlers: if you can bowl fast and swing the ball, you give yourself a chance at this level.” He pauses and adds, “Instead of saying things are too hard, that’s what people have to do.”
In other words, bowlers must unchain themselves. Else, they must unite to make a stand against the hegemony of bats, perhaps with the help of more sympathetic administrators—and we write this in all seriousness. For if the art of bowling is lost, all is lost.
It is only in Indian and subcontinental pitches that bowlers, particularly pacers, are disadvantaged. One only needs to look at the Ashes, and other tournaments played in Australia, England and South Africa to see how seamers and pacers are contributing to the game, and how much depends on them for a win. India may be the financial powerhosue of world cricket, but that in no way means that cricket played elsewhere is irrelevant.
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