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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Owais on February 16, 2013, 5:27 GMT

    India and SL have produced great batsmen and spinners but please don't talk Pakistani and Indian fast bowlers in the same breath, there is no similarity between them. Pakistanis always had greater speed, more althleticism and stronger and an "unihibited" action. The only fast bowler from India who looked close to be a Pakistani fast man is Umesh Yadav, yes, not even kapil and Srlinath. There is no such thing as "subcontitent" style of fast bowling. Please don't mix Pakistani fastmen with Indians, no comparison.

  • Eastman on February 15, 2013, 19:05 GMT

    Did the writer ever saw the smooth action of Jeff Jones, John Snow,and Graham McKenzie, if so, why their action was not mentioned? Their action would come after Holding, Hadlee and before Kapil,Imran and the rest.

    Wes Hall was a great workhorse and Max Walker had the ugliest action.

  • Ravishankar on February 14, 2013, 22:57 GMT

    The sample space that Samir has taken seems to be that of only the top class bowlers who form a measly 5% of the bowlers. I think the geographic distinction is also forced.

    How about these categories of actions

    Smooth and Elegant - Holding, Hadlee, Kapil, Imran (regal!), Walsh, Waqar, Steyn,Lillie, Prasad,Donald, Hoggard,Marshall, Simon Jones,Mohd Akram, Binny - head and body in harmony, in sync, coordinated strides,

    More from Less - Akram,Garner,Mcgrath,Vaas,Botham, Ambrose,Davis,Sami,Zaheer,Prabhakar - effortless action

    Workhorses - Fannie D'villiers,Roberts,Merv Hughes,Flintoff, Srinath,Ishant,Cork,Streak,Devon Malcolm,Bruce Reid,Mitchell Johnson - effort visible in action

    Downright ugly - Shoaib,Malinga, Chetan Sharma,Shaun Tait,Madan Lal - bent arms, throwing, legs & hands, out of sync body

    This is just examples of the action categories and this is just to refute any geographic standardization.

  • Sarfaraz on February 14, 2013, 18:46 GMT

    Interesting analysis and I am not sure quite right. I tend to agree with the general direction stated by Ravi of smooth action, chest and shoulder pace and one where great effort is input and can cause fade. I always thought that Shoaib Akhtar might have been that variety, but he managed to last for a dozen years. Also to remark, someone forgotten now, but used to generate great pace and bounce from a smooth run up Zahid -96-97. I would have sworn he would last a decade plus. But he broke down after a great season and never came back. Another who most would not have seen like that -Alan Ward England late 60s. Smooth and quick, but broke down and disappeared.

  • Ravi on February 14, 2013, 6:49 GMT

    I don't agree at all with the geographical distinction. I think there are broadly three categories of fast bowlers: Those who generate pace from smooth action and total body fitness. Many West Indians, Imran, Kapil, Steyn are all from this category. Then there are those who generate pace from the sheer strength of their chest muscles, the slingers like Thompson, Malinga and others. Then there are those who obviously put in an unnatural effort to their pace bowling. Many from the sub-continent who are not supremely fit like many of the western and West Indian bowlers are in this category. They burn up faster and end up as gentle medium pacers in a short span of time.

  • chicko on February 14, 2013, 6:13 GMT

    Aussie and Sth African bowlers are a different class compared to English and NZ bolwers mainly because of the type of pitches they bowl on. Bouncier and harder wickets in Aus and SA lend themselves to bowling it in hard and letting pace and bounce to the batsman whereas the English and NZ bowlers do not hit the pitches as hard as they get seam movement at a lower pace.

  • Yousuf on February 14, 2013, 1:06 GMT

    Imran Khan started off with an open chested action but changed his style significantly during the WSC years to a more side-on action. In fact you can see the contrast in his action in some you-tube footage which have pre and post WSC clips

  • Walter on February 14, 2013, 0:10 GMT

    Anglo Saxon bowlers' body language express war, subcontinentals express struggle and WI express execution. To some extent, these are cultural expressions, borne out is the history of inter action with the Others, in the colonial sense of the word. CLR James saw it as body art, art in motion, and like all art, there is a mixture of history and its psychological legacies and a dash of the flikker of the moment :-)

  • Ali on February 13, 2013, 18:28 GMT

    A nice article.....most agree with the part about people being able to decipher where the bowler is from looking at photographic negatives of the bowlers.

  • Suhaib J Ahmed on February 13, 2013, 17:45 GMT

    Funny we don't see mention of the most awe-inspiring action of them all.... Waqar Younis... where do you classify him? That energetic yet smooth run-up, final stride and release... breathtaking!!! As if the ball is a mere extension of the body!

    [[Samir: Definitely an awe-inspiring action - an interesting hybrid of the types I've listed above!]]

  • Owais on February 16, 2013, 5:27 GMT

    India and SL have produced great batsmen and spinners but please don't talk Pakistani and Indian fast bowlers in the same breath, there is no similarity between them. Pakistanis always had greater speed, more althleticism and stronger and an "unihibited" action. The only fast bowler from India who looked close to be a Pakistani fast man is Umesh Yadav, yes, not even kapil and Srlinath. There is no such thing as "subcontitent" style of fast bowling. Please don't mix Pakistani fastmen with Indians, no comparison.

  • Eastman on February 15, 2013, 19:05 GMT

    Did the writer ever saw the smooth action of Jeff Jones, John Snow,and Graham McKenzie, if so, why their action was not mentioned? Their action would come after Holding, Hadlee and before Kapil,Imran and the rest.

    Wes Hall was a great workhorse and Max Walker had the ugliest action.

  • Ravishankar on February 14, 2013, 22:57 GMT

    The sample space that Samir has taken seems to be that of only the top class bowlers who form a measly 5% of the bowlers. I think the geographic distinction is also forced.

    How about these categories of actions

    Smooth and Elegant - Holding, Hadlee, Kapil, Imran (regal!), Walsh, Waqar, Steyn,Lillie, Prasad,Donald, Hoggard,Marshall, Simon Jones,Mohd Akram, Binny - head and body in harmony, in sync, coordinated strides,

    More from Less - Akram,Garner,Mcgrath,Vaas,Botham, Ambrose,Davis,Sami,Zaheer,Prabhakar - effortless action

    Workhorses - Fannie D'villiers,Roberts,Merv Hughes,Flintoff, Srinath,Ishant,Cork,Streak,Devon Malcolm,Bruce Reid,Mitchell Johnson - effort visible in action

    Downright ugly - Shoaib,Malinga, Chetan Sharma,Shaun Tait,Madan Lal - bent arms, throwing, legs & hands, out of sync body

    This is just examples of the action categories and this is just to refute any geographic standardization.

  • Sarfaraz on February 14, 2013, 18:46 GMT

    Interesting analysis and I am not sure quite right. I tend to agree with the general direction stated by Ravi of smooth action, chest and shoulder pace and one where great effort is input and can cause fade. I always thought that Shoaib Akhtar might have been that variety, but he managed to last for a dozen years. Also to remark, someone forgotten now, but used to generate great pace and bounce from a smooth run up Zahid -96-97. I would have sworn he would last a decade plus. But he broke down after a great season and never came back. Another who most would not have seen like that -Alan Ward England late 60s. Smooth and quick, but broke down and disappeared.

  • Ravi on February 14, 2013, 6:49 GMT

    I don't agree at all with the geographical distinction. I think there are broadly three categories of fast bowlers: Those who generate pace from smooth action and total body fitness. Many West Indians, Imran, Kapil, Steyn are all from this category. Then there are those who generate pace from the sheer strength of their chest muscles, the slingers like Thompson, Malinga and others. Then there are those who obviously put in an unnatural effort to their pace bowling. Many from the sub-continent who are not supremely fit like many of the western and West Indian bowlers are in this category. They burn up faster and end up as gentle medium pacers in a short span of time.

  • chicko on February 14, 2013, 6:13 GMT

    Aussie and Sth African bowlers are a different class compared to English and NZ bolwers mainly because of the type of pitches they bowl on. Bouncier and harder wickets in Aus and SA lend themselves to bowling it in hard and letting pace and bounce to the batsman whereas the English and NZ bowlers do not hit the pitches as hard as they get seam movement at a lower pace.

  • Yousuf on February 14, 2013, 1:06 GMT

    Imran Khan started off with an open chested action but changed his style significantly during the WSC years to a more side-on action. In fact you can see the contrast in his action in some you-tube footage which have pre and post WSC clips

  • Walter on February 14, 2013, 0:10 GMT

    Anglo Saxon bowlers' body language express war, subcontinentals express struggle and WI express execution. To some extent, these are cultural expressions, borne out is the history of inter action with the Others, in the colonial sense of the word. CLR James saw it as body art, art in motion, and like all art, there is a mixture of history and its psychological legacies and a dash of the flikker of the moment :-)

  • Ali on February 13, 2013, 18:28 GMT

    A nice article.....most agree with the part about people being able to decipher where the bowler is from looking at photographic negatives of the bowlers.

  • Suhaib J Ahmed on February 13, 2013, 17:45 GMT

    Funny we don't see mention of the most awe-inspiring action of them all.... Waqar Younis... where do you classify him? That energetic yet smooth run-up, final stride and release... breathtaking!!! As if the ball is a mere extension of the body!

    [[Samir: Definitely an awe-inspiring action - an interesting hybrid of the types I've listed above!]]

  • Biggest Expert on February 13, 2013, 15:33 GMT

    There are two main types of bowling actions, the side arm and open chested. Open chested always look more smooth as you can see in Glenn McGrath, Imran Khan etc. whereas side arm have more arms and legs flying over as you can see in the case of Shoaib Akhtar, Wickeramasinghe (in SL 1996 WC winning squad), Lasith Malinga etc.

    With this information I think what makes sub-continent bowlers different is their obsession with pace, guys like Shoaib Akhtar, Zaheer Khan, Lasith Malinga and Mashrafe Murtaza twist and turn each of their joins to get that extra bit of pace which makes them look more wild (or as you put it sub-continent like).

  • Arun Prakash on February 13, 2013, 15:20 GMT

    We are talking about fast bowlers here; but one striking example is the number of off spinners from Pakistan who seem to have the same action as Saqlain Mushtaq - Shoaib Malik, Mohammed Hafeez, Saeed Ajmal, Arshad Khan etc.

  • Agni on February 13, 2013, 14:16 GMT

    I remember that match and also the Mohammed Akram action. He got steepling bounce and accounted for SRT in one of the matches. Sunil Gavaskar mentioned that his run-up was similar to the great Michael Holding. So that ties up nicely to your hypothesis..

    In the next tournament or a year later, there was this fast bowler Shabbir Ahmed who SMG thought reminded him of the great Joel Garner(at the point of release). But Shabbir's action became a bit iffy and he got mentioned(by ICC) and remedied and then faded away.

  • Shavi on February 13, 2013, 11:51 GMT

    I don't agree with the above analysis as there are many examples from one country who clearly belong in anther country group. Some cases in point:

    Imran Khan: With his smooth fun up and great leap, he could be said to be of the Australian school of bowling.

    Mohd. Sami: One of the smoothest actions in world cricket. Very similar (up till the point of release atleast!) to Michael Holding and the West Indian school of bowling.

    Dale Steyn: Possessed with a smooth action that is also reminiscent of the West Indians.

    In today's age of increased television coverage and greater player participation in international tournaments (IPL, County Cricket) bowling actions will become even more homogenized.

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  • Shavi on February 13, 2013, 11:51 GMT

    I don't agree with the above analysis as there are many examples from one country who clearly belong in anther country group. Some cases in point:

    Imran Khan: With his smooth fun up and great leap, he could be said to be of the Australian school of bowling.

    Mohd. Sami: One of the smoothest actions in world cricket. Very similar (up till the point of release atleast!) to Michael Holding and the West Indian school of bowling.

    Dale Steyn: Possessed with a smooth action that is also reminiscent of the West Indians.

    In today's age of increased television coverage and greater player participation in international tournaments (IPL, County Cricket) bowling actions will become even more homogenized.

  • Agni on February 13, 2013, 14:16 GMT

    I remember that match and also the Mohammed Akram action. He got steepling bounce and accounted for SRT in one of the matches. Sunil Gavaskar mentioned that his run-up was similar to the great Michael Holding. So that ties up nicely to your hypothesis..

    In the next tournament or a year later, there was this fast bowler Shabbir Ahmed who SMG thought reminded him of the great Joel Garner(at the point of release). But Shabbir's action became a bit iffy and he got mentioned(by ICC) and remedied and then faded away.

  • Arun Prakash on February 13, 2013, 15:20 GMT

    We are talking about fast bowlers here; but one striking example is the number of off spinners from Pakistan who seem to have the same action as Saqlain Mushtaq - Shoaib Malik, Mohammed Hafeez, Saeed Ajmal, Arshad Khan etc.

  • Biggest Expert on February 13, 2013, 15:33 GMT

    There are two main types of bowling actions, the side arm and open chested. Open chested always look more smooth as you can see in Glenn McGrath, Imran Khan etc. whereas side arm have more arms and legs flying over as you can see in the case of Shoaib Akhtar, Wickeramasinghe (in SL 1996 WC winning squad), Lasith Malinga etc.

    With this information I think what makes sub-continent bowlers different is their obsession with pace, guys like Shoaib Akhtar, Zaheer Khan, Lasith Malinga and Mashrafe Murtaza twist and turn each of their joins to get that extra bit of pace which makes them look more wild (or as you put it sub-continent like).

  • Suhaib J Ahmed on February 13, 2013, 17:45 GMT

    Funny we don't see mention of the most awe-inspiring action of them all.... Waqar Younis... where do you classify him? That energetic yet smooth run-up, final stride and release... breathtaking!!! As if the ball is a mere extension of the body!

    [[Samir: Definitely an awe-inspiring action - an interesting hybrid of the types I've listed above!]]

  • Ali on February 13, 2013, 18:28 GMT

    A nice article.....most agree with the part about people being able to decipher where the bowler is from looking at photographic negatives of the bowlers.

  • Walter on February 14, 2013, 0:10 GMT

    Anglo Saxon bowlers' body language express war, subcontinentals express struggle and WI express execution. To some extent, these are cultural expressions, borne out is the history of inter action with the Others, in the colonial sense of the word. CLR James saw it as body art, art in motion, and like all art, there is a mixture of history and its psychological legacies and a dash of the flikker of the moment :-)

  • Yousuf on February 14, 2013, 1:06 GMT

    Imran Khan started off with an open chested action but changed his style significantly during the WSC years to a more side-on action. In fact you can see the contrast in his action in some you-tube footage which have pre and post WSC clips

  • chicko on February 14, 2013, 6:13 GMT

    Aussie and Sth African bowlers are a different class compared to English and NZ bolwers mainly because of the type of pitches they bowl on. Bouncier and harder wickets in Aus and SA lend themselves to bowling it in hard and letting pace and bounce to the batsman whereas the English and NZ bowlers do not hit the pitches as hard as they get seam movement at a lower pace.

  • Ravi on February 14, 2013, 6:49 GMT

    I don't agree at all with the geographical distinction. I think there are broadly three categories of fast bowlers: Those who generate pace from smooth action and total body fitness. Many West Indians, Imran, Kapil, Steyn are all from this category. Then there are those who generate pace from the sheer strength of their chest muscles, the slingers like Thompson, Malinga and others. Then there are those who obviously put in an unnatural effort to their pace bowling. Many from the sub-continent who are not supremely fit like many of the western and West Indian bowlers are in this category. They burn up faster and end up as gentle medium pacers in a short span of time.