Monday, 4 April 2011

Slow slow quick quick slow

Mohammed Hafeez
opening the attack
 Pakistan v W Indies
 Being the masterful strategic captain he is, Fantasy Bob has been taking careful note of the great tactical advances demonstrated in the CWC.  To his empty mind, the most compelling was the tactic of opening the bowling with a slow bowler.  This was deployed in a majority of matches, usually to telling effect.  This is a new departure - previous world cups did not feature this even when played in similar conditions and the ODIs over the last couple of years did not lead anyone to expect the mass outbreak of this tactic.  T20, and the featherbed wickets on which the IPL is manufactured,  has seen more of this tactic; not for the first time, shorter forms of the game are having an impact on the longer form. 

Quite apart from the wickets that the World Cup was played on, the reasons for using a slow bowler at the top of the innings are fairly obvious even to FB: opening batsmen expect the fast men and their game plan and set up is conditioned accordingly - using the pace to score square and behind the wicket.  Slow bowling changes this - the batter has to come to the ball and greater risk is involved.  The speed of the over, as opposed to the balls, can hustle the batter, disturbing their rhythm.  You might have thought that highly trained professionals would be able to spot all these things and counter them, but you'd be wrong. The tactic also saves seam bowlers' overs for the time when reverse swing is more likely.

In the lower leagues, in which Fantasy Bob plies his trade, slow bowling is another thing altogether and serious thinking by captains is required about how best to deploy the infinite range of slowness they have at their disposal.  If on the world cup stage slow bowling is high art, in the lower leagues it can be satire, farce or tragedy.

Slowness has many disguises.  Many an opening bowler has been watched by an opening bat with nonchalance, turning to mild concern, then outright alarm as they pace out their run.  20, 30........35.......40 paces - for some reason having marched 40 paces they then take 2 exaggeratedly long steps to polish it off before scraping and scraping and scraping the grass.  Just as they hit the depth of the water table, the umpire jogs up with a plastic marker which the bowler puts in his pocket thinking it is either a sweet or something that he has dropped on his lengthy journey to be sorted out later.  This bowler then makes a couple of practice bowls to adjacent fielders and, spotting the batsman ready in the middle distance, begins his run up.  This is indeed a thing of grace and beauty, a flowing approach with all the signs of deep study of Ahktar or Lee, until he is within 1 yard of the crease when the juggernaut grinds dramatically to a halt and goes into slow motion.  There is a shuffle, a flailing of arms, legs and other unidentifiable bits of anatomy out of which the ball floats its way down the wicket.  This is called the pace attack.

But there are slower bowlers yet, bowlers who can make time go backwards.  They strike terror into the hearts of lower league batsmen.  Fear in the elite grades is occasioned by a hard projectile approaching the head or softer bits at 80mph; fear in the lower leagues comes from the ball approaching at 15mph.  It is fear of embarrassment, of having played a shot in a different time zone to the ball's arrival and having to account for such a failure of basic coordination afterwards.  Physicians advise that the hernia risk from the centrifugal force of the bat swinging its full arc is high, and batsmen of a certain age should take extreme care in these situations.

In FB's younger days the donkey or dolly drop was a recognised delivery - nowadays the juniors call it the moon ball, no doubt for some reason related to rap music.  It was traditionally bowled by the most rotund person in the team.  Many a batsman has been undone as this high trajectory missile comes Messerschmitt-like out of the sun; in panic he ducks and the ball slowly glides over him and gently removes a bail.  Nowadays a gentlemanly argument ensues as to whether this is a no ball or not and the light fades as the discussion continues.  It was not always so and teh dolly drop bowler was good for a couple of wickets a match.

Then there are slow bolwers who are all all finger-lickin, knuckle-flicking, wrist-snapping, ball-twirling, thumb-cocking, seam-pressing, every-which-way action until the point of delivery, when absolutely no spin is imparted and only the slightest forward propulsion.  But the batsman is bamboozoed by this pre-delivery juggling show.  His senses are further tricked by the suggestion from the wicket keeper that this bowler turns it square.  The slip hints that the doosra might be coming.  From the far long on boundary comes the suggestion to slip in the flipper.  Third man counters with advocacy of the googly.  Midwicket exhorts the bowler to give the special one a big rip.  The batsman shuts his eyes and hopes.   A funereally slow straight ball crawls under his bat.  Job done.

Then there is the slow bowler who does actually give it a rip which induces agitation in the wicket keeper.  He joins the batsmen in a brotherhood of perplexed desperation - neither has any idea which way the next one is going.  If they survive to the end of the over, they may well fall in love and live together happily ever after.

But slowness can be its own downfall.  There is a tale told often enough that it must be true - it is certainly believable. A very slow bowler bowled a perfectly straight ball - no a millimetre of deviation could be seen and hit the batsman on the back leg dead in line nearer the ankle than the knee.  'Not out,' was the response to the excited appeal.  The bowler politely asked the umpire to elucidate. 'Surely it was hitting middle,' he said.  'Undoubtedly,' said the umpire, 'but at that pace, it would never have knocked the bail off.  Not out.'  

FB's favourite slow bowler of all time?  You can keep your Swanns and your Warnes, your Mendises and your Harbhajans, your Vettoris and Panesars too.  There is only one Bishan Bedi.

B S Bedi
67 Tests
266 wickets at 28.71


  1. 'This is a new departure - previous world cups did not feature this'??

    What about the offspinner Deepak Patel (New Zealand).

    'In the 1992 World Cup, he was used sensationally as an opening bowler, initially against Australia, in an attempt to counteract the tactic of hitting over the in-field during the first 15 overs. This strategy paid off handsomely, and he was often used in the same role in other matches henceforth'

  2. CJE - fair point and FB is ashamed that the hyperbole got to him - the sentence is obviously missing the words 'so extensively'

  3. It would have been interesting to see Bedi opening the bowling. My own favourite spinner, though hardly a slow one, was Derek Underwood. He could definitely knock the bails off.