March 26, 2012

What's with the full tosses?

C'mon fellas, you're meant to be the best in the world and you're paid accordingly. No other profession would accept such a high ratio of execution error to this extent

Despite full-time careers as cricketers, doing precious little else other than train, play, recuperate and shop for designer clothing, I'm not convinced that modern bowlers are any better today than they ever were. In fact, under pressure, I'd argue that they are a lot worse, despite the increasing presence of sports psychologists and other professional ancillary staff. Unlike their predecessors of even a generation ago, the inability of international standard cricketers to repeatedly make 'execution errors' is a blight on their so-called professionalism and brings into question whether bowling coaches are raising standards at all.

I've just finished watching the final ODI between Australia and the West Indies. The fact that it finished up being mildly exciting was down to some brave hitting from Darren Sammy and Andre Russell but just about any half-decent batsman could probably have despatched a brace of knee-high full tosses into the stands. Notwithstanding pressure, nerves, home crowd support, sweaty hands, small boundaries and better cricket bats, it's hard to believe that the very best bowlers in Australia continued to bowl full tosses. I mean, these guys are supposedly the best bowlers in the country. Think about it - of all the thousands of cricketers playing the game in Australia, these guys are the very best. They have a full-time bowling coach at State or international level, they practice 4-5 times a week, they have the best that sports medicine/science can throw at them, they're hydrated and honed to perfection…and they can't land the ball on the pitch during a Powerplay.

It's not just Australia that are woeful in this regard. Just about every team in world cricket cannot execute these skills under pressure, despite never being more 'professional' than in this era. Sri Lanka were terrible under pressure recently in the ODI series in Australia, bowling full tosses that cost them dearly at crucial times. India were no better - their death bowling was horrendous at times, most of it coming down to a simple inability to bowl yorkers. They weren't missing by a small amount either. The difference between a yorker and a waist-high full toss is some margin of error. It's like an opera singer continually missing the high note - if they miss it more than once in a performance, they'd be torn to shreds by the critics.

Bowling a yorker, even under pressure, is not that hard. Sure, batsmen have now developed strategies to cope with it, including standing deep in the crease or the new ramp shot. So it may not necessarily be tactically astute to attempt to bowl a yorker every ball. But surely no one can argue that bowling a waist-high full toss was part of the plan. Whatever it was they were trying to bowl, it was poorly executed, not just once or twice but time and time again. Surely they're not executing it this poorly at practice because if they were, they wouldn't be selected. So why are international bowlers unable to cope with pressure? Is it a mental thing?

If you go back a few years, the international standard bowlers doing the rounds could bowl yorkers almost at will. Joel Garner, Malcolm Marshall, Graham Dilley, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Glenn McGrath, Chaminda Vaas, the list goes on…none of these guys bowled waist high full tosses at the rate that modern bowlers are doing right now. So what's changed? The weight of the ball or the length of the pitch? Clearly not.

Yes, I understand the notion of pressure and nerves etc but that hasn't changed in the last 40 years. I played 12 seasons of league cricket in England and had to bowl at the death every single weekend with the pressure of being the overseas pro and all that it entailed in a small goldfish bowl. I can never recall bowling that many full tosses. Better cricketers than me who were the pro's for opposing teams certainly gave me no freebies to plonk over midwicket. I'm at a loss to understand why the most coached, cossetted and full-time cricketers in the history of the game cannot execute a simple skill more effectively.

It's not as if this game against the West Indies is the only time it has happened. It's happening all the time, by most teams in world cricket. I remember an ODI in Sydney a few years ago when Umar Gul got it horribly wrong in the last few overs against Australia. It was hard to believe that such a talented bowler could get it that wrong. Who can ever forget Saeed Ajmal's horror over against Michael Hussey in the World T20 semi-final a few years ago (although, I must confess, I can't remember if any of them were rank full tosses)? Virat Kohli feasted on some late overs rubbish recently from various opposition. Yes, he is a brilliant batsman but it's a lot easier when the ball doesn't even bounce! I'm sure you've all got a favourite (or painful) memory to share.

I keep coming back to my own experiences, even at a very modest standard of cricket. It's not that hard! Sure, if batsmen come up with innovative ways to deal with yorkers, that requires a different strategy but I wouldn't have thought a steady diet of full tosses was part of that strategy. C'mon fellas, you're meant to be the best in the world and you're paid accordingly. No other profession would accept such a high ratio of execution error to this extent. At this level, it's simply not good enough.

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane