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Aspiring to get 300 wickets is all very well, but White Lightning set himself short-term targets. His secret? Wanting to pummel the opposition into the ground
Interview by Nagraj Gollapudi
August 31, 2009
It is a difficult art, isn't it, fast bowling - because you have to bowl on tame pitches, against armoured batsmen, and reined in by the strict laws. What makes the fast bowler charge in ball after ball?
I call fast bowlers the props. They are the guys who do the donkey work, who take the hits, who put their body on the line. At the end the body probably hurts more than it has ever hurt before, but it is amazingly satisfactory because you win games. As simple as that.
If you are in that category of 90mph, there is no doubt you earn the respect of people around the world. You can sense it: every time you are on the field you get the ball thrown at you. You are a leader, and your captain doesn't have to nudge you on the shoulder to say, "Listen, come and have a do here quickly because I need you."
What are the things you need to be a fast bowler?
You need to be an athlete. Look at Flintoff - he is not an athlete. He is a big man who bowls extremely quick, but his body has suffered, and that's why he is not cut for the longer game, which is a great shame. As an athlete you need to have elasticity, which means you need muscles that stretch well. You need to be a guy who loves wanting to stretch all the time.
If you have the potential to bowl at 85-plus mph the skills required are: you need to be able to move the ball in the air and you need to have a stock ball - which for me was always the ball coming in to the right-hander. Then you need to be brave and have a streak in you that nobody else has.
Who were the fast bowlers you watched and wanted to be as a youngster?
The guy I watched a lot was Sir Richard Hadlee: just his absolute nous and tactical ability to out-think batsmen, to set them up, was to me fascinating. He was a class bowler who would make deliberate changes in the field, understood he needed to move the ball in the air on flat pitches to buy wickets, and understood how to make use of the angles on the crease.
When I started playing, the best fast bowler was Wasim Akram. He was the complete, most skillful fast bowler I ever saw and played against. On the flattest wicket in the world he swung it massively upfront. He was very clever, he was quick, and when the ball was old he was able to reverse it from both sides of the pitch. You just didn't know which way it was swinging. To execute that you needed unbelievable skills. You can talk about it, you can show it on the big screen, but "how the hell does he do it?" was a question on the lips always.
|"Look at Flintoff - he is not an athlete. He is a big man who bowls extremely quick, but his body has suffered, and that's why he is not cut for the longer game, which is a great shame. As an athlete you need to have elasticity"|
Did you ever ask Akram how he did it?
He simply said he had to work unbelievably hard. He would bowl a lot in the nets, deliberately rough up the ball - a skill learned from the great Imran Khan. He told me about how he experimented at the crease to understand the importance of angles. He would use both sides of the wicket simply so he didn't become predictable. Obviously he was hiding the ball a lot in his bowling stride, so you couldn't say which way it was going to swing. That is how it is: if you don't practise a skill you are not going to become very good at it.
Is there a particular grip for a swing bowler?
The rule is, for conventional swing with the new ball, if you are a right-arm fast bowler the seam will be slightly tilted towards first slip. Personally, I tend to think it is not necessarily that way - if you've got a magnificent wrist you can still have fingers upright over the seam and swing the ball by slightly adjusting your wrist. The same goes for the inswinger. Recently, speaking to some of the Warwickshire youngsters, Flintoff said an interesting thing. He told them the reason he bowls well to the left-handers is because he moves his thumb from the outside of the seam to just underneath, which gets the ball to swing conventionally with the new ball quite late
Malcolm Marshall once spoke of being surprised that few people could send down fast inswingers and that fewer could promptly change direction without losing accuracy.
Here I would like to talk about Twenty20 cricket. Twenty20 batting skills have taken the game to a completely new level. Bowling skills have gone to pieces because batsmen are not scared. The basic reason, to answer Marshall's query, is, a lot of guys are set in their ways. They just believe that one stock delivery will get them anywhere. And it is not true.
So, yes, Marshall was absolutely right: you need to be able to move the ball in the air subtly, even if you have a natural variation. Even at the end of his career he still was absolutely brilliant. I first played against him in 1988. He swung it this way, swung it that way; he just mesmerised us. I watched his every single ball: he bowled me two outswingers and then an inswinger, and then he broke my toe, and another inswinger which knocked the middle pole out. If he was here to witness the bowling at county level he would be astonished because there is not enough good skill out there now. I'm a bowling coach now and I see it.
"Always bat with something in mind, don't just bat," Dennis Lillee tells young batsmen. What is your advice to upcoming bowlers?
I would tell them to always come to the nets with a plan. Always know what you want to achieve in the nets. Coming to the nets sometimes becomes very monotonous - you just go and bowl for the sake of bowling. And when you are in good form sometimes you go there and waste your time - you practise bad habits. If you are going to be bowling for 40 minutes and if your role is to bowl to the top four batsmen then you must have a plan in mind. Work on a certain skill; don't abuse the time you have. The net area is the most important area of your upbringing as a cricketer and helps in taking you forward as a cricketer. So use that time wisely.
Back in 1990, Lillee was still playing for Northants and I had the opportunity to watch him one day at the nets. He actually asked me stick my pads on. He didn't bowl at a great pace, but just worked on little subtle variations - swinging it out wide off the crease and such things. He was practising on hitting a good length, bowling with a new ball. He would always simulate his opening spell against his top batsmen. His opening spell was the key for him: how aggressive he could be in the length and how aggressive he could be with his short-pitch bowling.
It just makes sense. You don't plan to bowl to Sachin Tendulkar two days before, you plan a week before.
What about setting targets?
Absolutely. I had very much short-term targets. If I was bowling on that day I just wanted to be the bloke walking in who walked out with a five-for. I didn't look at, say, 300 wickets as my aim. I always said today is the important day; tomorrow, I'll deal with it when it comes.
I was driven by good leadership, got good advice from great people along the way. Guys like Alan Jones, the former Wallabies coach, who pushed a note under my door the night before our first game in the 1992 World Cup. It read, "It is not how good you are, it is how good you want to be. Just figure this out."
How does one motivate oneself on unresponsive pitches?
You just want to be driven to beat your opponent so badly that you never ever walk away thinking he is on top of you. That was the thing that got me driven.
No batsman genuinely likes fast bowling, as he is scared of it. Is that true?
That is why batsmen respect you. Against Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram we knew we had to play well. Waqar at his pomp was probably quicker through the air and was scary. Shoaib Akhtar could instill such fear in the batsman, too. In Durban [1997-98] he bowled an amazing spell of 5 for 43 in 12 overs on the trot. He bowled at the speed of light. I saw guys come back to the change room and throw the bat and say, "That was quick." He put the fear in you. Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh were the same - gave nothing away, were relentless in their lengths, and we just couldn't know where the next scoring shot was coming from. So you definitely know when you are all over the batsman.
My biggest battle now with some of the young fast bowlers is, they sometimes don't realise when they have someone so, so locked up and it's just a matter of balls before you knock this bloke over. And the guys [bowlers] back off. Maybe they don't know it or they have run out of gas. That is when you need to put the foot down and go for the kill.
|"Always know what you want to achieve in the nets. Coming to the nets sometimes becomes very monotonous - you just go and bowl for the sake of bowling. And when you are in good form sometimes you go there and waste your time"|
Rhythm is important - especially in a bowler's run-up. Is there any particular way one can build it?
Rhythm is the most important thing because if you are in too fast or in too slow, you don't get in a solid position in your take-off. It affects your balance, affects your timing, it affects your snap [jump]. So you need to find a rhythm that suits you, that gets you off the ground in a very good hand-time position. If all those things click together that is effortless pace. But the day you start grinding you know that you have to go back and find that rhythm.
Andy Roberts learned bowling fast by bowling with shaved tennis balls on the beaches in Antigua. Do you teach youngsters anything similar now?
We do some drills with beach cricket balls, where one side is all hairy while the other is completely shaved, and we practise reverse swing. It gives you an idea about how much you actually can swing the ball. It over-exaggerates the swing, yes, but it is important to show our guys that, as they do not understand the actual execution of the skill.
Reverse swing is all about angles on the crease. You watch the very best - and again I use Akram's example. He would come from wide, come from close, come from wide round the crease and create horrible angles. The batsman facing him was aghast to see the ball come at him from his wide left arm and then suddenly swing away. So where he started and where he finished were completely different. And the release is more difficult to execute than anything else. You almost have to turn your body sideways to become a bit slingy. You have to almost drag the ball to make it go wide outside off stump and then bring it back in to hit middle and leg.
Aaqib Javed described reverse swing as an art, and you make it sound that way too.
It is an amazing art. Look, to get the ball to reverse you firstly need pace through the air. You can't have a 75-80mph guy doing it, because if you get it half a foot wrong then you are going to go and fetch it. Pakistan started the art years and years ago and they are the masters at it. For me it has always been fascinating. I was in control of it, but I was not very good at it. Reverse swing is about making the batsman stand still and for you not to become predictable, especially in one-day cricket. I feel across the world all bowlers are one-dimensional - they swing the ball in to the right-handers. That's all they do. It's got to go the other way.
What about keeping yourself fresh? Would you rather bowl short spells?
I always thought a five, maybe touching six, overs opening spell is ideal. Later, depending on the state of the pitch, you could bowl four-over spells where the captain allows you to set your own fields and gives you licence to experiment in certain areas.
Was there a game when fast bowling seemed absolutely natural for you?
Against India 1996, the Durban Test, where I picked up nine wickets, was the quickest I ever bowled without even trying. That period, 1996-97, was my best phase. It was swinging, and it was the best body posture and release position I ever got.
Bowling is all about feel and you must understand why it is happening. One of the greatest things Bob Woolmer ever taught me was that when you are bowling well you must understand why it is happening. And when it happened in that game I knew why.
What was your ideal field setting?
Mainly three slips. Occasionally a fourth. I hated a conventional gully. I'd rather have a fifth slip, because a nick off a dead bat always goes through that vacant fifth slip. Then a short leg, mid-on, mid-off and point. Sometimes if you are on song, take the mid-on out and stick him either around the corner at 45 or at square leg.
Did you always allow the captain to set the field?
No. I was lucky that Hansie [Cronje] always gave me free rein. Sometimes you might have to make deliberate changes, the times when things are dragging on a bit, to force the batsman to take a step back. You have to be pro-active. I believe the captain can't do that for you. He can't think what you are thinking. A lot of it is actually fake play, but it keeps the batsman guessing.
Who is a more difficult batsman to bowl against: a mentally strong, resourceful batsman like Mike Atherton or an unpredictable one like Virender Sehwag?
There were four people: [Brian] Lara and [Sachin] Tendulkar, and then you have Atherton and Steve Waugh. You got out-and-out talent and flair on one side and then the mentally hardened boys on the other. The latter for me were so much harder. I would rank Waugh above Atherton, but both of them could wear you down. Lara would fight fire with fire and you felt you had a chance always. Tendulkar on song was unbelievable with his hand-eye coordination.
Against Atherton and Waugh, the first 20 balls you had to make them play all the time. They were very similar: deep in the crease, didn't get any stride in, played from the crease, and they didn't particularly want you to bowl at them. You had to bowl straighter and fuller to them and always make them play.
I never forget bowling to Steve Waugh at the MCG, where I bowled a slower ball first up. He went back, almost ducked, and went through the shot, which just fell short of mid-off. He said "Jeez, that was different". He's not going to expect the first ball first up, because we had set the field for a short-pitched ball, and he almost fell into the trap. The next few he might clip you for four, but you know they do not like you bowling at them.
How does one bounce back when low on confidence?
In the 1999-2000 home series against England I went into the Tests seriously low on form. I was sure it was going to be a very long battle. Bob Woolmer gave me a good tip. He said, "Whatever you do, go very wide off the crease, because if you are going too straight you are going to lose it down leg side." Hansie, as a captain would, said, "I've got a feeling this is going to be your day". Obviously, I didn't believe him. But when I bowled Atherton [in Johannesburg] I saw it swing a mile. It was probably one of the best balls I ever bowled.
That game taught me a hell of a lesson: when it is not going well you have to find something that works. There is no turning back, there is no hiding. You must find something that contributes to the team even if you take one wicket. That day Bob's tip worked as a weapon for me. In the second innings my confidence was so high I started to swing the ball the other way. I ended up taking 11 wickets. I bowled as fast I'd bowled against England, and it was just confidence. I ended up the leading wicket-taker in the series - amazing considering how low I was on confidence coming into the series.
Every time I see that picture of me bowling Atherton in the first innings it signifies the amount of effort I had put in mentally. It just shows this thing between your ears is so strong. If you believe in it and you trust what you have, you can do wonders.
|"When it is not going well you have to find something that works. There is no turning back, there is no hiding. You must find something that contributes to the team even if you take one wicket"|
Were you were also involved emotionally?
There is no doubt emotions played a massive role against England. Sometimes when the ball is thrown at you, you think, "Oh, no. I'm not really trusting myself." [But] you must put on something fake when it is not going well, because otherwise it's a giveaway to the guy [batsman] at the other end, who suspects already that you are not going to be really competing.
Do you think there were times when you overstepped the mark in that regard?
I sometimes realised I had to overstep the mark to create an environment that put the batsman on his guard.
One of the worst instances came against India in Durban in an ODI final [1996-97]. Dravid and Tendulkar were pushing us all over the park. They were winning the game and they were winning it very fast. I said to Hansie, "Whatever happens now, this ball, you've got to back me up on this. I'm going to do something I've never done before". The ball before that, Dravid had hit me over my head for a six. I bowled him a bouncer, a very good one, and I actually thought he had nicked it as he swung his bat. I went off with it [sledging]. Even Sachin walked down the pitch and said what I was saying was rubbish. I asked him to go back, and it wasn't pleasant. It got even worse when Mohammad Azharuddin got to the crease, and he was upset at the verbal abuse going on, and the umpire stepped in and said it was enough. But the end result was that we won the game from a losing position. Maybe it was my outburst that was needed and I tried to explain to Dravid, who didn't speak to me for a long time. Local people accused me of racist abuse, which was ridiculous. When your captain throws you the ball and you know that this moment is the one where you have to turn the game, you have to do it.
Another example is Nottingham in 1998, against Atherton. I asked for the ball. I had to bowl because the Test match was slipping away. I had just finished a spell and was offered another four overs, I guess. I came back and all of a sudden it all kicked off. I said a few words, but this bloke [Atherton] just never said a word. He looked me straight in the eye. He knew I had to turn around and walk away. You want a reaction from the batsman and when you get that you know this guy is nervous and on the edge and they know the guy bowling is a threat right now. Mentally it creates a buzz. That is when you need your team-mates to back you up. It is 11 versus two. Those are two instances that fired me up even if it didn't work in our favour at Trent Bridge.
What is your advice to a youngster in a situation like that?
The best advice to someone if you are in a battle is to slow things down, because the worst thing you can do in an angry state is, you become loose. The ball is going to go all over the place. But you can be aggressive in your areas, in your lengths, and give him nothing. That makes it worse for the batsman. If you can do that for five overs, you are not that far away from opening up one end. So take your time, gather your thoughts and think where you want to go. Also, the crowd is going to be hostile and on your back, but you can ignore them and you will in such a moment. But let me tell you that the most drained I was was after the eight-over spell I bowled in Nottingham. Atherton came to me with beers afterwards and we actually laughed about what had happened.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at CricinfoFeeds: Nagraj Gollapudi
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