July 15, 2008

Freak streak

Sri Lanka has produced some of the most effective unorthodox cricketers over the last 20 years

Conventionally unconventional: Ajantha Mendis © AFP

Over the last few years Sri Lanka have had quite a few self-styled unorthodox cricketers coming through - Sanath Jayasuriya, Muttiah Muralitharan, Romesh Kaluwitharana, and now Lasith Malinga and Ajantha Mendis. It's wonderful to have this newness, this difference, because it opens up everyone's eyes, including fellow cricketers who might get something new from these guys to improve their game overall.

One of the reasons for so many unorthodox cricketers coming through in Sri Lanka could be, as in other parts of the subcontinent, the way kids learn to play cricket: they learn by watching, and then start playing in backyards or streets or wherever they can find space. It's possibly there that they develop these individual styles. Unless they have access to formal coaching, they tend to develop along their own lines, especially if they come late to proper leather-ball cricket.

Malinga, for example, naturally developed his action playing softball cricket. In that form of the game, the one way to bowl really fast is with a slingy action, which also gives a low trajectory to the ball, making it hard for the batsman to hit it. Malinga has applied that technique beautifully and effectively in international cricket.

When these unusual talents do arrive at club level or first-class level, it can be seen that they have developed in unique ways. And then it's just a case of tightening the few loose ends up, and seeing how they do.

In some instances, if they are discovered at a very young age, there arises a problem when coaches start trying to make them conform to orthodoxy. All the above mentioned cricketers, with the exception of Murali, were discovered quite late. Murali had the luxury of having an open-minded, liberal, forward-thinking coach in Sunil Fernando, who let him develop along his own lines and just tidied up what needed to be tidied up without changing what made him unique.

The fortunate ones among these players, once they are discovered, are brought into academies, where you have some of the most progressive coaches in the Sri Lankan coaching structure. They know that to get the best out of a bowler you have to try and maximise what the player already has. Still, it would be interesting to look at how many other bowlers might have been made to change to conform to conventional methods. Sometimes it can just be the luck of the draw.

A lot also depends on the national coaches, whose job it is to try and have the coaches at the lower levels thinking along the lines of getting people ready for the international stage. The national coach has an eye on who is coming through and what needs to be done to get him ready. The combined approach of these coaches is an important part of the mix that sometimes result in these freakish, unorthodox bowlers or batsmen. If you have grown in an environment that promotes unorthodoxy, as long as it is good for the individual or the team, the supply line can continue. There are a couple of other such unorthodox cricketers in the pipeline in Sri Lanka, but we need to just wait and see how it pans out for them.

'Some bowlers have actions that look complicated, but biomechnically they're all right' © Getty Images

Among the bigger challenges for these cricketers is not getting discovered but staying ahead of the game and staying among the best bowlers or batsmen in cricket, be it domestic cricket or international.

In terms of technique, what might look unorthodox to others might just be the way to go for certain players. Some bowlers, like Jeff Thomson, who Malinga has been compared to, have actions that look complicated, but biomechnically they are all right. If his body can withstand it and if he is willing to do the physical strengthening work needed to sustain his action and bowling, it doesn't become a problem. Malinga has had an injury, so do conventional fast bowlers; it's a hazard of the job.

Similarly Mendis may look a completely unconventional bowler, but it's only at the delivery point that he is unique. He has a great base of confidence, control, and accuracy. His bowling mechanics are as conventional as they come. He doesn't run in in a different way, he doesn't place his feet in a different way, his bowling action until the point of delivery is conventional. He probably has one of the most conventional bowling techniques. And he knows how to use his unique delivery style; he knows that no matter how unorthodox he is, no matter how many variations he has, he still has to keep pitching the ball consistently on a good line and length. It's no use having the variations if you are not accurate and if you don't stick to the basics of bowling.

It is interesting to see how these bowlers have come through despite the increasing role of technology, which makes sure that more and more fine-tuned cricketers come out of the system. This is partly because, though we see a lot of technology applied at first-class level or national age-group levels, at school level and in the more remote parts of the country, the advancement in technology is limited.

Still, you can't really pinpoint any one reason for unorthodox talent coming through. It just happens. Mendis and Malinga are two such who slipped through.