July 23, 2014

A strange, brutal magic

As Ishant Sharma showed at Lord's, short-pitched bowling can open old wounds and create sudden uncertainty

When faced with fast short-pitched bowling, younger players can be spooked, older players can be gun-shy © Getty Images

In the middle of Bankstown Oval lies a red pool. David Colley, the incoming batsman, sees it on his slow walk out. Greg Bush's blood. Sort of "squeezey" looking, like squirted sauce. Sick feeling in the stomach. Red blood on white creaseline. Try not to step in it. Colley gave Bush a lift to the ground that morning. Try not to get your friend's blood on you. Blood on the creaseline, behind it, in front of it. Red splash in the line of all three stumps. Got to know where middle stump is. Colley asks the umpire for middle and marks the spot with his boot. Red on white boot.

That is Christian Ryan writing about the fastest spell Jeff Thomson ever bowled, during a grade match between Bankstown and Mosman in Sydney in 1973, four years before the invention of the helmet.

Trott's battle with Johnson, and with himself, was briefly resumed, with England's number three the loser again. No sooner had Clarke posted his legside sentries than Trott, off balance and on edge, shovelled a nondescript delivery down long leg's throat. It was baffling - not least to Trott himself, who departed holding the bat by the blade, as though this was the way it now felt in his hands.

That is Gideon Haigh's match report from the first Ashes Test at Brisbane last year, where Mitchell Johnson asserted a grip on the imagination of England's batsmen that is evidently still there.

There are decades between the sequences of cricket being so vividly described, but they are united by the totemic force of fast, short-pitched bowling and the twin aspects of physical and psychological power that it holds. It is a part of the game like no other, unpredictable in its short- and long-term effects.

Lord's 2014, England v India, day five. Matt Prior is injured - bad hand, twanged Achilles, damaged quad - and has been all summer. He has also been discomforted and dismissed by short-pitched bowling several times since his return to the side. Ishant Sharma is in the middle of an inspirational spell. Dhoni's tactics are transparent: there are three men out for the pull but Matt Prior is playing it anyway. Perhaps it's the only response he's got left. He drags one from outside off stump to the man at cow corner. Out.

Ben Stokes is on a pair and in the middle of a horrible run of form with the bat. He knows what is coming from Ishant, but this ball isn't quite as short or as high as the others he has been watching from the pavilion. He moves back in his crease and plays a pull shot anyway, the arc of the blade moving down to up. The ball goes straight up and straight down in a mirror image of the bat. He knows the second he makes contact what he has done. Out.

Joe Root watches this unfold from the other end. The morning session seems a long time ago. He and Moeen had taken England to the brink of lunch but then Dhoni and Ishant had come up with their plan, and Ishant had unsettled him with some fast, accurate short balls that he was glad to survive with a single to the non-striker's end. Ishant bowled a couple of wide bouncers to Moeen and then gloved him with one right on the money…

Joe Root has seen all of this and he knows the game is slipping away, and yet when Ishant rushes in and bowls short again, he scoops his pull shot to deep square leg. Out.

Liam Plunkett comes in. Ishant bowls a couple more short. He pulls and middles them. He doesn't get out. England lose anyway…

There is a physical difference between facing short-pitched bowling bare-headed or in a helmet. There is another between the pace of a young Jeff Thomson and a revamped Mitchell Johnson on a fast wicket and Ishant Sharma with an old ball on a fifth-day pitch. But the psychological effects can be the same. Younger players can be spooked, unsettled. Older players can be gun-shy, suddenly wondering if their eye has lost an infinitesimal degree of its sharpness. The actions of others can impact upon their own. Players, spectators and viewers can all become caught up in it: gripped, excited, appalled. There is a strange and brutal magic to it.

Throughout the summer, England have used the same tactic. It has rarely worked. During India's first innings at Lord's, counterproductively, it brought the batting side back into the game. Why did it fail then and succeed four days later? Why does it work on some teams and not on others? Why are batsmen troubled by it one day and not bothered the next? How fast does it have to be in order to work?

In an age when analysis and statistics have unravelled many truths about the game, the allure and effect of spells like Ishant's remains in part mysterious, because so often it is opening old wounds, creating sudden uncertainty. England are in something of a pattern against it now, and it will take some shaking. There may no longer be blood on the wicket, but there was plenty of pain on display at Lord's.

Jon Hotten blogs here and tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • pramathesh on July 25, 2014, 9:20 GMT

    Sreesanth of India had delivered an excellent short ball to get rid of Kallis in SA 2nd innings at Durban test of 2010 which India won. 1.8m tall Malcolm Marshall knew the merits of short ball very well. After playing 56 tests, including tours to SA,Aus and now touring Eng for 2nd time, 1.92m tall Ishant should have thought of using short ball on his own and asked Dhoni to give him appropriate field placement. Dhoni in press conference revealed that he had to tell Ishant to use short ball and inspite of having no self plan to get wicket, Ishant was reluctant to accept captain's advice which made Dhoni force Ishant to use short ball-Dhoni is the actual wearer who knows where the shoe pinches-These comments from Dhoni dont show Ishant in good light-clearly Dhoni is upset with Ishant. Compared to Ishant a less experienced Kumar got 6 wickets+scored 88 runs without the captain's advice or force.

  • Karthik on July 24, 2014, 10:59 GMT

    Moen Ali and Broad were out to the bouncer too (though the ball didnt get up as high for Broad, who was clearly rattled by the earlier bouncers from Ishant)

  • vaibhav on July 24, 2014, 9:24 GMT

    @ Vilander, Have you read the article properly? Where did the author belittle Ishanth's work? have you seen Johnson bowling bouncers at 150 kmph? Stop being foolish. Johnson bowled barrage of lethal bouncers at 150 kmph and way faster than Ishanth. Its a commendable work that Ishanth bowled those short pitched deliveries with an old ball on the 5'th day pitch.

  • Sreenivas on July 24, 2014, 7:16 GMT

    This probably is an introspection on how blood thirsty short pitched bowling could get. However Ishant's performance was more towards game winning, not comparable to targeting the batsmen. I am glad not many Indian bowlers have gone down that path.

  • Jonathan on July 24, 2014, 0:13 GMT

    @Vilander: Yes, Ishant's performance was very good. It might not be the best fast bowling ever seen in a Test, but it was a game winning performance that any bowler would be proud to have on their record.

    But it must be said that the ghost of the 2013/14 Ashes series was still hanging over the English side, with memories of Mitch's bouncers coming in at throat level still strong. That kind of psychological edge can change a good seam bowling attack into a great one.

  • Muthuvel on July 23, 2014, 19:36 GMT

    Mitch did nothing in this test match, it was all Ishant sharma. Stop belittling Ishants work, it was hostile,fast bowling from him on a 5th day pitch with an old ball.

  • Navin on July 23, 2014, 18:03 GMT

    Helmet makes a lot of difference as far as being protected. Short pitched balling is still very uncomfortable for batsman if it is directed properly. Even the best batsman will fall. The real question is when to use it effectively. If batsman ducks every time and refuses to play a hook shot, the bowler will stop eventually because it achieves nothing. It batsman attacks, he will miss sooner or later but bowler will end up giving lot of runs if batsman is good. Looking at the match situation, Dhoni would have asked Ishant to stop if 20 runs were scored in an over by Prior. Once Ian Bothan bowled several bouncers to Mahendra Amarnath ( at lords i believe 1986) and all were dispatched to boundary.

  • Dummy4 on July 23, 2014, 15:32 GMT

    THis is such a good article! Put me in deep thought, I do think that your instincts come in too and you refuse to duck under the ball, when the circumstances clearly advocate doing so.

  • Cliffontong on July 23, 2014, 8:49 GMT

    @sray23 - Not sure how you can say batsmen shouldn't be scared of the short ball these days, it's human nature to avoid a ball at high pace that you know will hurt you. It's about over coming that fear, technique can help to a certain degree but some players still play t better than others. I think the reason is fear. I've played a fair amount of club cricket - sometimes you come across a bowler that scares you, he's quick and trying to hit you in the head or neck - the best I could do is try to overcome that fear and put on a brave show but lets not kid ourselves it can be very unpleasant.

  • mudit on July 23, 2014, 7:46 GMT

    You forgot to mention the short balls by Ishant to Broad- now that was like a cat on a hot tin roof if ever there was one :)

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