Bowling February 13, 2013

The body language of fast bowlers: Diversity in unity

I am truly grateful that there exists such marvelous diversity in the same act, providing the cricket fan with many hours of viewing pleasure

For the most part Anglo-Saxon bowlers have a bustling, compact efficiency in their actions © Getty Images

Some 15 or so years ago, as I watched Pakistan's then latest fast-bowling find, Mohammad Akram, bowl against India in the 1997 Toronto one-day internationals, I remarked to a friend - then chatting online with me - that Akram's smooth action was quite distinctive. Indeed, I suggested, it was even 'non-subcontinental'.

"A non-subcontinental action? What's that?" my friend, quite naturally perplexed, asked. In turn, I struggled to make clear what I meant, finally settling on something like the following: fast bowlers from the subcontinent have a certain 'body language' to their actions, a particular stride, jump, and style of bowling delivery that distinguishes the practitioners of this group from others.

Urged on by my interlocutor to make my taxonomy explicit ('well, what about the rest of the world's fast bowlers then?'), I elaborated a bit more. It seemed to me fast-bowling actions the world over settled roughly into three - perhaps predictable - categories: the Anglo-Saxon, the West Indian, and the subcontinental. I included Australians, Englishmen, South Africans and New Zealanders in the first group; the West Indies in the second; and Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka in the third. (Yes, I didn't think of Zimbabwe then.) This classification is a rough one, and exceptions will abound, I'm sure, but still, it seems to me that there is a family resemblance of sorts between the members of each group.

The Anglo-Saxon group is marked by a bustling, compact efficiency in their actions, a visible generation of effort; its members are often able to generate pace from short run-ups. The Caribbean contingent is perhaps the smoothest of the lot, its members' actions marked by little visible effort; interestingly, for my money, the greatest variations are found in this group even as the family resemblance is preserved. Subcontinental actions often appear the most ungainly, the most untutored; there are plenty of arms and legs on display as these actions often appear the least compact. To reiterate, there are exceptions - pleasurable and distinctive - to each generalisation within the group, but the reason we can speak of these bowling actions in groups should be clear. (It should also be clear my point does not address outliers like Mike Proctor, Jeff Thomson, Wasim Akram and the like.)

I do not think what I am suggesting here is that mysterious or indeed, unknown to most cricket fans. If a cricket fan were to be shown video footage of an unknown fast bowler with team identity and face obscured (perhaps in the video equivalent of a photographic negative), and were queried: is the bowler a) West Indian b) Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Bangladeshi or c) English, Australian, New Zealander, or South African, I suspect most cricket fans would get their answers right. Some closer attention to the members of each subgroup would show, I think, that there are variations within each: English fast bowlers' actions are dissimilar from Australian ones; Pakistani fast bowlers' actions are quite distinct from Indian ones. But again, if asked to place them in a group, the cricket viewer would, I think, come up with the same broad classification as I have suggested.

Why is this body language distinctive? I suspect the answer to this is a complex mix of - among other things - physiological differences, coaching styles and cricketing role models. Of this group, I think the last two are most easily understood, while speculating about the first lies outside my pay-grade. (I welcome further idle speculation from my readers in this regard.) Of the last two, the influences of coaching and role models are related: young bowlers like to copy their idols - compare Danny Morrison and Richard Hadlee, for instance - and coaches propagate their own styles when coaching actions. But where did those idols and coaches get their actions from? Chicken, egg, and all that.

I suspect too, that my non-systematic and entirely casual observations here could be made more rigorous if fast-bowling actions were analysed more carefully and broken down into their components: the final leap, the position of the non-bowling arm, the bowling stride in the crease, and so on. Then perhaps, each group of bowling actions could be characterised as an assemblage of components, the borrowing of which by members of other groups lends their actions an interesting difference as compared to other members of their group. I wonder too, if in line with a point I made in an earlier post, the exportation of coaches worldwide might, in time, result in a homogenising of bowlers' actions worldwide.

Whatever the causes for such variances in the body language of bowlers, I am truly grateful that there exists such marvelous diversity in the same act, providing the cricket fan with many hours of viewing pleasure and ample fodder for discussion and dissection of our favorite bowlers' actions.

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here