March 18, 2017

How a spinner can break the rhythm of the batsman

By learning how to subtly change the pace of his deliveries

One of the reasons Steve O'Keefe enjoyed success against the Indian batsmen in Pune was the changes in pace he applied to his bowling © Associated Press

The key to spin-bowling success is to plan how the ball arrives at the batsman.

If it leaves the bowler's hand hard-spun and dipping, the area of danger the batsman faces is enormous. However, if every ball arrives on much the same trajectory and at the same speed, the area of danger becomes tiny. A good batsman will soon get into his rhythm and think, "Oh, here comes another one, landing in the same spot. Where will I smash it to this time?"

What the bowler needs is to change his pace.

Australia's newest spin hero, Steve O'Keefe, reminds me of a slower Derek Underwood. "Deadly" could shore up an end on the flattest wickets with variations usually so subtle he had talented Test batsmen floundering to survive, let alone thinking of scoring freely.

On the treacherous Pune turner last month, O'Keefe operated with unerring accuracy against the Indian right-handers, who were forced to play every ball. Some of his deliveries turned a little, some turned big, and some scuttled straight on.

A spinner can only hope to break the rhythm of the batsman by this sort of sequence: stock ball, stock ball, slower, stock ball, stock ball, slightly quicker. But how does he change his pace in a subtle manner without giving himself away?

When I first attempted to change my pace, I found I couldn't do so without slowing my bowling arm demonstrably more than with my stock ball. As a teenager I watched Lance Gibbs often bowl his slower one by delivering the ball from a metre or so behind where he normally released the ball. A slower bowling arm is a dead giveaway to any batsman worth his salt, and the Gibbs method was a challenge to land in a good area because the ball had to travel another metre to reach the landing spot. My slightly faster ball was also easily read because I merely quickened the speed of my bowling arm.

Most top-class batsmen will read the direction of spin; however, you don't want them to detect changes of pace. So the changes have to be very subtle, almost to the extent that watching from the fence, every ball looks exactly the same in terms of trajectory and speed.

When I moved to South Australia in 1967, it was a dream to play on Adelaide Oval after bowling on the granite-hard tracks of Perth grade cricket. The ball spun appreciably and there was ample bounce, and as the game wore on, there was greater spin and the bounce became increasingly more variable. But I knew that I needed to find changes in my pace, and fast.

Jack Hobbs turns back to see he has been bowled by Clarrie Grimmett for 19 at Lord's in 1930 © PA Photos

To sharpen my fielding reflexes in order to become a good gully fieldsman, I had a habit of throwing a golf ball at a wall and catching the rebound. One day I couldn't find a golf ball, so I picked up a cricket ball and began bowling at the wall from a standing start. I stood about ten metres from the wall, but the standing start was no good; I needed movement. So I banged in a stump, marked out my normal approach and bowled a stock ball. I found that after a few balls, I could "feel" how my stock ball should feel out of the hand. After an over, I also noticed that the stock ball was generally hitting the same brick on the wall, so I grabbed a lump of chalk and marked the brick with an X.

"What then would a subtle slower ball 'feel' like," I pondered. It was my light-bulb moment. If I marked the brick above the stock-ball brick with an X and the brick below the stock-ball brick with an X and then bowled at each target brick, I might be able to change my pace in a subtle way without having to slow down or quicken my bowling arm.

I bowled four stock balls and they all hit the middle brick X as planned. Then I tried the brick above - my slower one. It hit the brick smack in the middle. In reality I had released the ball slightly earlier than I would have done for my stock ball. This happened naturally, without my having to think about releasing it a little earlier. My slightly quicker ball also worked a treat. I had found a way.

Bill O'Reilly, the great Australian legspinner, talks to young cricketers at the SCG in 1954 © Getty Images

I spent many hours in the nets working on these deliveries, and after lots of training, my subtle changes of pace created greater belief in me. Now I needed to be able to bowl those changes of pace with the same accuracy and confidence I had in my stock ball.

In Swansea in 1968, Australia were playing Glamorgan, and the little left-hander Alan Jones had worked his way to 99. Neil Hawke was at mid-on. I said to him: "Mate, move back 30 yards. He's going to try to hit me over the top." Unconvinced, Hawkeye sauntered back towards the long-on rope. In my mind's eye I could see the "top-brick X" as I released the ball. The "feel" was perfect. Jones had a slog, wasn't to the pitch, and Hawke gobbled the skied catch about 15 yards inside the boundary.

Then in my first Test, at The Oval in the August that year, I bowled a great deal to Basil D'Oliveira, who scored a fabulous 158, yet I had him missed three times - all with my slower ball - before finally getting him with a misjudged sweep off my stock offbreak.

Earlier on the first day I held one back to Ted Dexter, who duly obliged by hitting me a return catch, which I floored. It wasn't a wicket but definitely a moral victory, for he didn't read the slower one. I was convinced by then that my brick-wall strategy was working for me.

In my next Test, against West Indies at the Gabba, I bowled a ball to Rohan Kanhai, who hit it with the spin one bounce over mid-on to take his score to 94. I sensed that he was going to go again, so I said to our captain, Bill Lawry: "Phantom, put CHO [Johnny Gleeson] back. I reckon Rohan's going to try that again."

"You're mad…he's on 94. He won't do anything silly."

"Phantom, his name is Rohan Kanhai, not Bill Lawry."

I quietly urged Gleeson to move back, since Bill refused to do so, and he went back about 30 paces. The very next ball - the top-brick X slower ball - lured Kanhai into having a go and it landed safely in the hands of Gleeson.

One of the reasons why Matthew Hayden did so well on the 2000-01 tour of India was because the home spinners didn't test with him variations in pace © Getty Images

Years later, I was coaching some 60 spinners in Otago. On the edge of the field was a building with a long and impressive-looking brick wall. Perfect. I called the youngsters together and explained to them the virtues of change of pace, a vital part of their learning about becoming a good spinner. I told them my story, how I had found a way to change my pace in a subtle manner.

I banged in 20 stumps, all about five paces apart. There were three bowlers at each stump. We had a trial run, where each bowler got the "feel" of his stock ball and the brick was marked; same with the other balls, slower and faster.

As the first bowler released the ball, he would fetch the rebound and move to the back of the line. Every couple of seconds 20 balls would hit the brick wall and those hits were resounding over a fair distance along the back of this building. All went well until a small bearded chap rushed across the turf, yelling, "Stop. Stop this carnage. I am the curator of the Dunedin art gallery…"

Picture the scene: the incessant noise of 20 balls banging on the outside wall of the gallery. I could visualise works of art crashing to the floor!

Before he came to India in 2001, Matthew Hayden used to struggle against quality spin bowling. He liked to hit boundaries, but a good spinner could tie him down since he wasn't the type of player to work singles and twos to break a bowler's rhythm. Hayden devised a method for the Indian tour, to slog-sweep the spinners. He did so successfully and belted all and sundry, even Harbhajan Singh, who was so successful in that series.

Why did Hayden succeed playing this way? Well, he had a long reach, he wielded a big bat, and even a top edge was likely to cruise over the boundary. But I believe he mostly succeeded because the spin bowlers didn't change their pace in a subtle enough manner - too much difference between the stock ball and the pace of the slower and faster ones.

On Australia's 1969-70 tour of India, the brilliant offspinner Erapalli Prasanna was able to pin our batsmen to the crease, even the likes of that great player of spin bowling, Ian Chappell. Prasanna got the ball above the eyeline, hard-spun and dipping wickedly, but his change of pace was the greatest of his assets for he seemed to first have the ball on a string and haul it back his way when the batsman advanced. The next ball would be a little flatter and quicker, and the batsman would stumble forward, slamming down his bat quickly lest the ball crash into the stumps. Prasanna continually changed his pace, and watching him weave his magic was compelling viewing.

The author appeals for a leg-before decision against Keith Fletcher, Headingley, 1972 © PA Photos

Breaking the rhythm of the batsman is paramount. Today we hear from the TV commentators all about the need to change pace in the limited-overs form of the game, yet rarely do they mention change of pace to defeat the best batsmen in Test cricket.

Most top batsmen seek to break the rhythm of the spinner by rotating the strike, working through gaps and keeping the scoreboard ticking over, for they know a frustrated spinner, no matter how good, will, under such circumstances, dish up more easy pickings.

As Bill O' Reilly, the great legspinner of the Bradman era, wrote, in part, in the foreword to my biography of Clarrie Grimmett, Scarlet:

"He [Clarrie] sized up a batsman in a few deliveries and concentrated on bowling straight at the stumps and landing the ball in the chosen awkward spot which demanded expert use of batting feet. He never resorted to 'loop', as onlookers call it, but he was an expert in the covert change of pace, which was the very backbone of his undisputed claim to be the greatest of his tribe."

Emerging spinners need to know that hard-spun dipping deliveries must be backed by subtle change of pace. If you can do these things consistently you are well on the way.

Ashley Mallett took 132 wickets in 38 Tests for Australia. He has written biographies of Clarrie Grimmett, Doug Walters, Jeff Thomson, Ian Chappell, and most recently of Dr Donald Beard, The Diggers' Doctor

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • engrahmad on March 20, 2017, 6:37 GMT

    Why everyone overlooks 80% dismissals of "Bold / lbw from AROUND THE WICKET" in 3 series on Indian soil. Ind vs SA, NZ, & Aus.

    It is simple stupid. Just bowl from around the wicket at the stumps causing bowl to straighten right in front of umpire. Batsman misses you get lbw . PERIOD.

  • Nivalink on March 20, 2017, 4:45 GMT

    Shane Thompson (Off spinner) bowing a bouncer to Sachin to get him caught at Long Leg / Square leg is a classic case of thinking out of the box.

  • cricfan3888856253 on March 19, 2017, 12:00 GMT

    I remember the 2001 series when Hayden was so successful. The point about Indian spinners not varying pace is true. Harbhajan had a fantastic series but his dismissals mostly followed two patterns, 1) The quicker delivery trapping a batsman lbw 2) The predominant one being batsmen caught bat pad or leg slip trying to defend.

    Harbhajan didn't try to vary his pace on the slower side and it has been his style since.Hayden with his massive reach and powerful sweep shot managed to dominate the series with the bat.

  • Scuderi on March 18, 2017, 21:28 GMT

    I always wonder why fast bowlers dont bowl more variations on pitches like we saw yesterday in india, to keep the batsman guessing. Cummins got a wicket with a slower bouncer.

  •   ravi.narla on March 18, 2017, 20:02 GMT

    Though Murali Karthik didn't get to play more international games he could have easily gone on to become the best. Classical action just like Bedi and in fact he was his pupil. Unfortunately for him his career collided with Kumble and Harbhajan. Nice Article about the subtle variations of pace. Vettori used to be an exponent of that.

  • diri on March 18, 2017, 16:09 GMT

    The slow left arm spinner from SA (Keshav) is probably the best spin bowler in the world today. Amazing flight, change of pace and consistency. He has picked up a bag of wickets and he has not yet played in the sub-continent dust bowls. He will pick up wickets even faster than Ashwin if he did.

  •   cricfan3419846649 on March 18, 2017, 15:20 GMT

    Very nice article by the legend. Its a must read for the young spinners. Todays spin bowler tries to bowl quick and flat. You see these days, most spin bowler bowl around and above 90kmph and rarely you see a dilivery around 70-80 kmph. Unlike spinners, pace bolwer have understood the importance of slower ball and you often see them bowling in one dayers or t20's. In todays faster format, a spinner need to be more cunning and sharp in reading the batsman's mind and accordingly plan his dismissal. I think this article would help spinners in learning a trick or two from the legend.

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