October 10, 2014

A soft spot for the dibbly-dobbler

These apologetic, innocuous trundlers come in various shapes and sizes. But in the modern era, they are slowly turning into an extinct species

Madan Lal: a mismatch between the speed of his run-up and his actual bowling speed © Getty Images

Dibbly-Dobbler. The very word evokes the image of a somewhat rotund bowler ambling up to the wicket and delivering a slow-medium ball that wobbles in the cold air, shapes in a tad, straightens just enough to graze the outside edge of the bat and nestle snugly in the gloves of the wicketkeeper.

The batsman trudges off, brow flushed in anger at having been dismissed by a mere trundler - someone who was neither fast nor spun the ball but bowled something so innocuous as to defy all description. "I should've crunched the damn thing through covers," he mutters under his breath.

Meanwhile the bowler, the dobbler himself, rather self-deprecatingly joins his celebrating team-mates. A timeless scene from cricket grounds everywhere, but especially in England and New Zealand, whose often cold and overcast summers create ideal conditions for dobbling.

Over the decades, the dobbler has been an important part of cricketing lore, and this brief essay both celebrates his presence and contemplates his probable demise.

Despite the onomatopoetic image of a somewhat stout fellow, dobblers come in a variety of shapes and sizes. While someone like Lance Cairns or Mark Ealham in the past, or more recently Praveen Kumar or Jesse Ryder, given their ample girth and medium height, would be central casting's idea of the classic dobbler, there have been those who have looked like serious fast bowlers. Derek Pringle and Roger Binny come to mind, tall and strapping lads in their prime, but the physique was misleading. Their pace never went beyond medium and, more importantly, they were both possessed of the somewhat apologetic and self-effacing mien of the typical dobbler.

Syed Abid Ali - the man who put the military in military-medium - was another who broke the mould. With his toothbrush moustache and brisk action, the fit and compact Abid was by no means rotund - and yet as a bowler he was definitely a dobbler. There have even been relatively thin and lithe dobblers - Rusi Surti and Eknath Solkar in past decades, and more recently, Ronnie Irani come to mind. Given the sheer range of physiques, one might aver that dobbling is a state of mind more than of body.

Quite often, dobblers have been specialist batsmen who know a thing or two about breaking stubborn partnerships. Doug Walters in his pomp was one such and Sachin Tendulkar, who could dobble six different balls in an over, was among the best of them in recent times. I have often wondered how many more wickets Tendulkar would have dobbled had it not been for issues relating to injuries and the team's over-reliance on his batting. Steve Waugh was another canny dobbler.

In this era of spring-loaded bats that look like clubs once wielded by Roman gladiators, shrinking fields, and bionic batsmen, one might think the days of the dobbler are numbered

One of the less remembered aspects of India's startling triumph in the 1983 World Cup is the sheer surfeit of dobblers in that team. As I scanned the various games leading up to the final I was struck by the consistency with which Indian bowlers either restricted the opposition to small totals, or bowled them out altogether, in the allotted 60 overs. The epic final - which really ought to be christened "The Revenge of the Dobblers" - was a classic worthy of some recapitulation.

West Indies' chase of India's paltry 183 began in a fashion that would set the tone for the rest of the innings. As Balwinder Singh Sandhu (if there is a more apt name for a subcontinental dobbler I have not yet heard it) lumbered in to bowl, Gordon Greenidge settled into his stance. Few opening batsmen have scored as heavily as Greenidge has in England. With his compact technique, unerring instinct around the off stump and enormous patience, one feared India's total might be overhauled with him still at the crease. Yet as Sandhu delivered the perfect dobbler, even the great Greenidge's mind was scrambled: he shouldered arms to one that swerved in and clipped the top of off.

Sandhu's opening act was followed by Madan Lal, a dobbler whose energetic sprint to the wicket seemed faster than most of his deliveries, ripping out the heart of the West Indies batting with three wickets. His dismissal of the mighty Vivian Richards captured the art of dobbling at its best. Richards had contemptuously dispatched three successive deliveries to the boundary and seemed to have made up his mind to send the next one into the ecstatic crowd over midwicket. His premeditated hoick was a tad too early, the ball caught the top of the blade and swirled in the air for a loping Kapil Dev to make a difficult over-the-shoulder catch look ridiculously simple. Richards had, as so many before him, underestimated the wily dobbler and paid the ultimate price. With captain Clive Lloyd driving Binny straight to the waiting hands of cover, three of India's dobbler quartet had already struck.

The final act starred the fourth. Mohinder Amarnath. Amarnath's run-up to the crease could be charitably described as leisurely. His attitude towards bowling seemed one of reluctant acquiescence, as if he was doing it to please his captain rather than because he thought he had any chance of getting a wicket. As he swayed from side to side running in, he seemed to slow down rather than pick up speed, and was almost stationary by the time he delivered the ball. The effect on the West Indies tail was mesmeric as Jeff Dujon, Malcolm Marshall and Michael Holding fell - bowled, edged to slip, and lbw respectively - to the wily Amarnath. Nine of the ten West Indies wickets had been prised out by dobblers - Roberts the only one to fall to Kapil's fast-medium wares. India, 25-1 underdogs at the start of the tournament, had quite improbably dobbled all the way to the trophy.

In this era of spring-loaded bats that look like clubs once wielded by Roman gladiators, shrinking fields, and bionic batsmen, one might think the days of the dobbler are numbered. If global warming has its way, we may also see the end of atmospheric conditions that favour his craft.

Yet I remain optimistic about his prospects. Ultimately, dobbling is about successfully bluffing the batsman - by sowing the seeds of doubt in his mind, making him look for things that aren't there, or overlook things that are right in front of his eyes. Dobbling is about the canny use of one's mind and body to outwit your opponent - and to do so with a minimum of effort or fuss. It relies less on brute force or innate ability, and more on intellection and planning. At least for that reason, both the connoisseur and the average sports fan will always have a soft spot for the dobbler: long may he dobble.

Sankaran Krishna is a professor of political science at the University of Hawaii, in Honolulu

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