July 21, 2009

Nasty, brutish and short

Not too many batsmen may like squaring up to a bouncer, but most will take it over a well-pitched outswinger

The name for this series might suggest that you're going to be treated to some juicy dressing-room gossip, but let me state straight off that this is nothing of the sort. Instead, I'll be attempting to take you inside a player's mind - how we think, what we think about, and how and why we do what we do.

This is an effort to take the reader beyond what is visible: how cricketers prepare for different kinds of pitches, different teams, different kinds of bowlers. It is not always obvious why certain batsmen feel comfortable against pace, why the feet of some go across while playing a left-arm spinner, why some players are able to concentrate for longer than others. I will try to give you our side of the story, drawing on personal experiences, and wherever possible, what I have assimilated from playing alongside others.

This series will not be merely a study of the technical aspects; it will look at mental build-up, emotional and psychological aspects too. I hope to look at different features of the game: concentration, visualisation, preparation, leadership, playing spin, playing swing, opening in different formats, among others.

I thought long and hard about what topic to begin with and finally settled on something batsmen find tough to handle - the bouncer. It's also something bowlers enjoy, because it offers them the rare chance of getting back at batsmen in what is almost always a batsman-dominated sport.

So does a batsman think about a bouncer while standing in his stance?
It's case-specific. While playing a swing bowler, like Matthew Hoggard, you're not too bothered about him bowling it short. Not that he can't or won't bowl a bouncer, but his strength is pitching the ball up and moving it away from the batsman. Also, with the pace and the bounce he generates (or the lack of them) he'd have to bowl it really short to get it up at the batsman's head. And that would give a batsman enough time to adjust. So while facing someone like him, you'd always be looking to get onto the front foot.

But if you're facing Shoaib Akhtar, bowling at 90 miles an hour, someone who relies heavily on bouncers to intimidate a batsman, you're always on guard. You start looking for little hints, like any acceleration in speed in the run-up, body language, or what happened on the previous ball. But you wouldn't expect him to take the ball away from the batsman off a good line and length, and that allows you to stay on the back foot.

Does the bowling action affect how easily the batsman picks the bouncer?
It does. People with neat actions are a lot easier to pick as compared to ones with unconventional ones. For example, a Brett Lee or a Glenn McGrath is easier to pick compared to a Lasith Malinga or a Shaun Tait. While facing Lee or McGrath you can trust your eye to pick up the release, and you can also trust the bounce. Bowlers with high arm actions, who have to delay releasing the ball in order to bowl a bouncer, are relatively easy to pick. But while facing Malinga, you simply do not know. You watch the release, but whether it's delayed or not, it's very difficult to figure out from that angle. And to add to a batsman's woes, a bowler like Malinga doesn't get even bounce, thanks to his action.

The pitch
The quality of the pitch dictates the way bowlers bowl bouncers and how batsmen play them. On tracks with even bounce and pace, batsmen find it easier to handle short-pitched stuff. One can either duck under the ball or sway away from the line while standing tall. But if the bounce is not even, the dynamics of facing short-pitched deliveries change. You cannot afford to get into a squat because that makes you a target waiting to be hit if the ball doesn't bounce as expected. Since a lot of batsmen prefer ducking underneath the ball, they become vulnerable on these tracks.

Similarly, bowlers use bouncers according to the surface - fewer bouncers on tracks with reliable bounce and more of them with two fielders on the fence behind square-leg on pitches with dodgy bounce.

To play the pull and the hook well, it is essential to have the right back-lift (bat going higher than the bounce) and to get the body in the right position (inside the line of the ball)

The psyche
All batsmen know that if they show any sign of weakness, a bowler will pounce on it. Batsmen also know that showing an interest in taking on the bouncer will invariably attract more bouncers. And similarly, a batsman who ducks underneath or sways away usually discourages the bowler from using it too often.

Depending on their strengths, batsmen choose their options. Matthew Hayden walks down the track to persuade the bowler to pitch it short, which is his strength. Rahul Dravid lets it go to the wicketkeeper, which in turn forces the bowler to pitch it up, to Dravid's advantage.

Why do bowlers bowl bouncers?
a. To intimidate. In order to get under the skin of a batsman, a fast bowler must be intimidating. A bouncer happens to be a very important tool for this, along with the big follow-through and the stare. This is an especially successful tactic against lower-order batsmen.

b. As a set-up for the follow-up ball. Jason Gillespie did this very successfully. He would bowl a few bouncers to push the batsman onto the back foot and then present an outswinger outside the off stump on a tempting driving line, to induce an edge.

c. To get a dot-ball. The bouncer is a difficult ball to score off and bowlers use it to restrict scoring, especially in the shorter formats of the game.

d. As a wicket-taking option. How often do we see two men stationed at the boundary line behind square leg and the batsman getting peppered with bouncers? The idea is to lure the batsman into playing a pull/hook and getting a top edge.

Why are some people more comfortable against short-pitched deliveries than others?
The same reason why some people drive the ball better than others. People who are brought up on slow and low tracks are primarily front-foot players and hence find it difficult to get their body in the right position to play a bouncer. The right position would be to get inside the line while staying side on. Staying outside the line would mean fetching it from off side, and squaring on would force you to fend at the ball.

The pull and the hook are instinctive shots against the bouncer, and picking the length is the key to executing them perfectly. It is essential to have the right back-lift (bat going higher than the bounce) and to get the body in the right position (inside the line of the ball) for one to be able to play these shots well.

A lot of people start off suspect against the short ball, but work their way through; those who can't, fail to make it to next level. Michael Bevan was one such. On the contrary Yuvraj Singh is someone who worked countless hours with the bowling machine to get it right and has succeeded.

Does the helmet make a difference?
Of course it does. One feels a lot safer under the protection of the helmet, especially while playing an aggressive stroke. The batsman doesn't need to worry about the top edge smashing into the skull, or missing the ball completely, which makes him a lot bolder. The helmet, to an extent, has allowed certain players to ignore the importance of getting the technique watertight, which was mandatory a couple of decades ago. Whenever the ball hits the helmet (anyone's), my respect for batsmen from yesteryear grows manifold.

I'm assuming most batsmen in those days would have preferred swaying away over ducking. But playing a defensive shot or letting the ball pass is one thing and playing a pull or hook without a helmet on is quite another. One needs to be 100% technically correct every single time, because one mistake could be fatal. The batsman needs to not only trust his eye but also the ball to bounce as much as he expected. Hats off to batsmen like Viv Richards and Sunil Gavaskar.

How effective is the bouncer?
Theoretically, and perhaps also in reality, the bouncer is the only ball that can hurt the batsman physically (apart from the beamer, which is illegal). But one way of looking at it is: what doesn't get you out doesn't hurt you. So even if most batsmen don't like facing the bouncer, they still prefer it over a good outswinger, which could take the outside edge. I'm not saying you can't get out on a bouncer, but if you have a decent technique and are not afraid of getting hit, the chances of getting out are minimal.

We batsmen like to believe that the bouncer doesn't scare us, but from time to time it does. When you've made the wrong decision, like ducking underneath when the ball wasn't all that short, or when the bouncer keeps following you while you're trying to sway away, you are worried. I wouldn't call it being scared of the short ball or of getting hit, but the feeling of being vulnerable and helpless is unsettling. The moments just before the ball crashes into the helmet or your body feel a lot longer than they actually are. Everything moves in slow motion and you remember the gory details of the accident for a long time to come. And accidents, however rare, are scary.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Beyond the Blues, an account of the 2007-08 Ranji Trophy season. His website is here

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