November 22, 2012

Bowling in India? Don't get bored

The former Australia quick on what a fast bowler needs to do to succeed in hostile Indian conditions

Patience is a just reward that comes after an Indian tour.

As a fast bowler, you know you have to work incredibly hard for your wickets in tough conditions there. The pitches do not offer a lot of assistance; the ball is not doing a lot through the air and off the pitch. Batsmen can hit through the line, safe in the knowledge that the ball is not going to do too much. And you are bowling against some of the best batsmen in the world. So your margin for error is minimal.

In 2001, during that great Test series involving India and Australia, our plans were to go about things like we did in Australia: bowl in the channel outside the off stump, bowl with extra men on the off side, build pressure and stay patient. That method is popularly known as bowling dry. Now that plan works really well in rest of the world, where there is a little bit of movement on and off the pitch and there is also a little bit of bounce and carry. In India that will not work, and during the memorable Kolkata Test we learned a valuable lesson.

We had done very well in Mumbai in the first Test, winning it inside three days. At Eden Gardens, though we made India follow-on, our plan to bowl in the channel did not work because the ball was not carrying to the wicketkeeper or slips and there was no sideways movement or swing through the air. So it was more difficult to create an opportunity. As for the batsman, he could just hit it at the top of the bounce, pierce a gap, and with the pace of the outfields in India, it would get to the boundary easily, even if you had a deep-point fielder. Also, by sticking to the off-side line, you take out the opportunities to get lbws and bowleds.

So, on our next visit in 2004-05, our plans changed. We decided to essentially bowl to the Indian batsmen's strengths. They like to whip the ball through the leg side. We felt that if we bowled straighter, the old you-miss-we-hit theory could be more effective. Having to hit every single ball that they faced meant we were in the game and we had success.

Another important part of our plan was making use of the knowledge that the Indian batsmen are more worried about their own personal contribution to our advantage. They are traditionally very good at running when they hit the ball, but not when running for their partner. The non-striker, having to work harder for his team-mate, was a little bit more tired and therefore more likely to make a mistake. So we made sure we were physically more agile in the field.

Shane Warne recently wrote about our primary plan on that tour (which he had devised): attacking bowling with defensive fields, and defensive bowling with attacking fields. As fast bowlers we thought that if we attacked by bowling straight at the stumps, maybe we could defend with our fields. So we had two midwickets in catching positions to snare anything in the air if the batsman went for the flick. And as defensive fielders, we pushed the mid-on a little bit deeper, equivalent to standing on the edge of the 30-metre circle as in a one-dayer, and then we had square leg and fine leg out. We were trying to dry up the boundaries with those fields.

But before deploying any strategy, what fast bowlers need to understand quickly is, the SG ball, which is used in India, does not swing for long. If you took an SG ball to England, it would swing for a lot longer, but in the subcontinent even a Kookaburra or Dukes ball will not swing for long. This certainly has to do with the conditions, but the key is still to move the ball.

We did not use conventional swing and relied more on using the cross-seam a lot. We were looking to scuff it up a lot quicker, in order to get reverse swing. Zaheer Khan does that. And it worked quite well.

Once it starts to reverse, you can then start attacking the stumps by bowling from both over and around the wicket; you can vary your length (as Aakash Chopra mentions in a recent piece) and make use of the angles at the crease when you deliver the ball.

If it is not really doing anything, then you just need to settle in, bash the pitch hard, be patient and continue to strive to bowl as many dot balls as you can

Sometimes when the pitch is not doing anything and the ball takes two bounces to reach the wicketkeeper, it can be quite de-motivating. So holding back your pace can potentially be a better option rather than trying to bang the ball into the pitch only for it to just sit up and be hit. If you are going to bowl fast on such pitches, you need to bowl a lot fuller, giving the ball a chance to move through the air, especially if it is reversing. But if it is not really doing anything, then on any pitch around the world, you just need to settle in, bash the pitch hard, be patient and continue to strive to bowl as many dot balls as you can.

In those conditions, your best ball is the length ball, and what you need to do as a bowler is be prepared to bowl that as many times as you can throughout the course of the day and not get bored doing it. That is the key because the batsman is waiting for you to get bored, waiting for you to do something different so he can score some runs. The batsmen will be willing to just block, block, block, if you are bowling that good-length ball. So you need to be really disciplined, really patient and build that pressure and get the batsman to do something he really does not want to do.

As for bashing the pitch, the speed really varies. Zaheer bowls at 130kph, while Umesh Yadav runs in hits the deck hard, nudging 140kph, as does Ishant Sharma. But the speed is not the whole factor. It is actually having the discipline to bowl the ball in the right spot on the pitch over and over again that is more important.

A lot of pundits have suggested bowling the cutter is a very good ploy on the flat tracks of India. I did try it myself but I realised my pace varied a lot when I ran my fingers across the seam. It was my slower ball, the cutter, and I didn't bowl it a lot. If anything, I changed the seam position - holding the seam pointing towards fine leg or gully, just to try something different. That is what I mean by variation. Not by bowling at a different spot on a pitch.

From what I saw, the England fast bowlers were never consistent with their lines and lengths in the first Test. That is all it was. Obviously the Indian batsmen played the England seamers really well. The England fast bowlers got bored quickly and tried a lot of different things rather than just settling in and bowling disciplined lines and lengths.

You always have to have a mindset of how you are going to take a wicket. The first and only question a captain needs to ask his fast bowler when he hands him the ball: how are you trying to get the batsman out? That is how you win matches: always keep thinking "wickets".

Jason Gillespie, currently the first-team coach at Yorkshire, played seven Tests in India, taking 33 wickets at 21.72. Among fast bowlers who've played at least 5 Tests in India since 2000, only Glenn McGrath (19.90) and Dale Steyn (20.23) have a better average