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February 13, 2013

Bowling

The body language of fast bowlers: Diversity in unity

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

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Posted by 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.

Posted by 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.

Posted by 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.

Posted by 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.

Posted by 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.

Posted by 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.

Posted by 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

Posted by 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 :-)

Posted by 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.

Posted by 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!]]

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Samir Chopra
Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He runs the blogs at samirchopra.com and Eye on Cricket. His book on the changing face of modern cricket, Brave New Pitch: The Evolution of Modern Cricket has been published by HarperCollins. Before The Cordon, he blogged on The Pitch and Different Strokes on ESPNcricinfo. @EyeonthePitch

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