Sunday, March 24, 2019

Dwayne Bravo, Mohit Sharma, Bravo again, Bhuvneshwar Kumar

This was not supposed to happen. T20 cricket was supposed to be the end for the bowlers, the very edge of the plank they had been walking since pitches started being covered. Milestones along that path were those pesky helmets (especially the ones with the plastic visors) which took the fear out of the bouncer. Then partisan umpires were replaced by neutral ones, the red ball became white. Finally, one ball became two, a knife through the heart of reverse swing.

Dwayne Bravo, Mohit Sharma, Bravo again, Bhuvneshwar Kumar

In between all this, 50 overs became 20. 10 wickets, a resource that was guarded dearly in Tests and spent frugally in ODIs, was now splurged across 120 balls with the eagerness of the uncle who sprays banknotes in the baaraat. Featherbeds were rolled out in search of par scores that seemed obscenely un-par. Bowlers, thanks for turning up. Spinners, you may go extinct now. Off spin? What’s that?

Except that didn’t happen. The bowlers turned around and faced the sword pointed at them without falling on it. Like a ferro liquid, they arranged themselves into the shapes they needed for survival, hard and beautiful. Challenge accepted.

Was Shane Warne a harbinger, with the second-highest wickets against his name in the first IPL? Leg spinners have been looked at reverentially since, despite doing nothing different. What changed was that batters had to attack even the good balls, and couldn’t sit back and wait for the odd loose one. And so, in an environment of predictable intent, the value of variety was enhanced.

The top wicket-takers in the first five seasons of the IPL tell the story: Sohail Tanvir, R P Singh, Pragyan Ojha, Lasith Malinga and Morne Morkel. All are freaks: A left handed hop scotcher, a left arm seamer (playing in South Africa), a left arm spinner with a kink in his action, a slinger, and a 140-kmph giant. High on the relevant lists are -surprisingly-finger spinners: the ones who bring the ball back and take it away. Clever fellows. They even - as R. Ashwin one said - bowl bad balls on purpose.
Dwayne Bravo, Mohit Sharma, Bravo again, Bhuvneshwar Kumar

But look at the next, most recent names on the highest-wickets list, 2013 to 2018. Dwayne Bravo, Mohit Sharma, Bravo again, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Bhuvneshwar again, and Andrew Tye. All fast bowlers, all of whom are known for their slower balls: Mohit’s back-of-the-hand variation, Bravo’s unique dipping-off cutter, and Bhuvneshwar and Tye’s knuckle balls. You could expect those deliveries from the first ball any of them bowled.

Some attribute the slower ball’s genesis to the Bajan Franklyn Stephenson in the late 80’s. All Out Cricket reported that he bowled off spin as a variation to his medium pace, when he tired of sending down the many overs that his role as an overseas player in county cricket demanded. From England it spread to the international game, providing batters with a new threat, and YouTube with some gold. Steve Waugh is cited as one of the first to use it consistently in international cricket. But for the most part, the change of pace has lived in the shadow of the more glamorous yorker and bouncer, as if it’s use is less skill and more skullduggery.

Time has changed that, as has the formats. The slower ball and its cousins have ousted the yorker as the preferred delivery in limited overs cricket, another sign of the ebbs in the battle between bat and ball. A decade ago, a low full toss was an acceptable result of an attempted yorker. Now it meets forearms that could pass off as thighs, and bats wearing steel-toed boots, all in the possession of batters who train specifically for that delivery. As the margin of error for the yorker diminished, the stock of the slower ball rose.

This is partly because you don’t need to be an express quick to bowl it. The effectiveness of the slower ball is not determined by pace, as it often is for a bouncer or a yorker, but variation in pace. As long as the variation in pace between the stock ball and the slower one is large enough, Rajat Bhatia will be just as effective as Lungi Ngidi. The length is easier to hone too; Stephenson’s variation started out as a beamer but ended as a yorker.
Dwayne Bravo, Mohit Sharma, Bravo again, Bhuvneshwar Kumar

Now the preferred length for the slower one is dug-into the pitch, forcing the batters to target square boundaries, which are usually longer than straight ones in India. From that length, a good slower ball is still reasonably effective even if it is pitched a foot here and there. And since that length requires the same finish to the action as a stock delivery, it is easier to master; only the fingers and wrist need to do anything different. In fact, it is critical that the rest of the body move in the same way, so that the arm speed remains the same.

The slower ball has even invaded ODIs, and we may see a lot more of it in the World Cup; according to this CricViz report, England used slower balls for more than half of their deliveries on their recent ODI series in the Windies. Which begs the question, what will we see in this edition of the IPL?

Here’s a prediction: the knuckleball, so effective in the last couple of seasons, will wane. The modern cricketer spends as much time in front of laptops as he does in the nets, and that particular delivery will have been subjected to a season of CSI and an off-season of range hitting. The dominance might see bowlers clueless for a season, but then again another variation could emerge, annoying as the one mosquito that can ruin a batter’s sleep.

The palm ball, the one finger ball, the split finger, all these variations - like the knuckle ball - are delivered with no discernible change in the wrist, unlike off cutters. It’s a matter of time before a bowler picks one up, masters it, and cricket changes again. 

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