October 21, 2013

Irfan finds the right length

Not too many tall fast bowlers can pitch it up to good effect. Pakistan now have one, and he has the makings of a skilful customer

The second day of the first Test in Abu Dhabi was a long day for South Africa's bowlers, and so, in the modern fashion, they sent the coach, Russell Domingo, to explain to the press why his side was in the position it was in. He did honestly enough, but it was in discussing the problems of his batsmen from the previous day that he made a genuinely intriguing observation. Mohammad Irfan, he said, was a "very skilful" bowler.

You could look at that and think it was probably just throwaway coach-speak. Maybe he just meant to say that Irfan generally bowled well that first morning, which would be correct too. But I can't help but think there was something to the use of the word "skilful". Because that word, specifically in Pakistan, is one we'd reserve for Wasim Akram or Mohammad Asif. They were skilful in the sense that they were clever, with wrists as pliable as the bodies of gymnasts. That helped them do things that some of their victims are still, to this day, trying to figure out. In time, Junaid Khan might come to be skilful.

Initially Domingo's description didn't seem to sit right on Irfan. If he had said that Irfan's height, and the bounce and pace he generates from it, had bothered South Africa, that would have made more sense: natural attributes, not developed skills. But on closer reappraisal, there was something about Irfan in the Test, something that Domingo was right about, and something seriously exciting.

The real defining feature of Pakistan's fast bowling, you see, has always been length. Pace is a big deal. Swing, orthodox and reverse, is also important. But if any country has fetishised length and dragged it forward from the shorter, nastier vogues of the '70s and '80s, it has been Pakistan. It isn't just that they have been so good at bowling yorkers, which is a specific weapon. It is that they have strived to hit that length which maximises the chances of wickets: full, and found somewhere between a good length and a half-volley, so that the four predominant fast-bowling dismissals - bowled, leg-before, caught behind, caught in the slips - are always on. It is a length the batsman cannot predict, which leaves him unsure whether to go forward or stay back, and instead catches him, as Waqar Younis says, half-cocked.

Finding that length and then being able to hit it on command is every bit a skill as anything else. Asif's career was transformed once he started hitting that spot. Mohammad Amir began to get it in the last six months of his career. Junaid is finding it. Over a decade into his career Umar Gul has still not managed to consistently move forward from his natural back of a length (without becoming a half-volley) and the results are pretty clear. In hindsight, it was length more than anything that did for Mohammad Sami; the abiding image is of him always being too full.

The real defining feature of Pakistan's fast bowling has always been length. If any country has fetishised length and dragged it forward from the shorter, nastier vogues of the '70s and '80s, it has been Pakistan

In Abu Dhabi, Irfan was hitting just that right length. He got Alviro Petersen twice from short balls, but the real killers were the ones that did for Graeme Smith and Hashim Amla in the first innings (and beat everyone throughout). Both deliveries moved away, but more importantly, both left the batsmen neither here nor there. He still hasn't nailed a single international leg-before, but it can't be long before he does. It is no surprise that the fuller length is something Wasim Akram worked specifically on with Irfan earlier this year at one of those short camps where Akram sprinkles a little magic dust on bowlers and leaves them transformed. The first signs that Irfan was finding that length were immediately evident on the limited-overs tour to the West Indies.

The real skill is that Irfan has been able to do it from his considerable height, as Waqar points out. "Not many fast bowlers who are so tall can bowl a fuller length so easily," he says, before citing the other tall bowler in the series. "[Morne] Morkel has been around for many seasons, but he hasn't yet managed to find that right length that Irfan can. When Irfan bowls fuller, he still manages 145-147kph, and that is a very hard skill to master. A guy with Irfan's height, when you see so much carry to the keeper off back-of-a-length balls, you can get carried away easily."

From that length there was also a kind of wispiness to his pace, a skid that very tall bowlers don't always possess (Steve Harmison's really good days were when he had this to mix up with his bounce; Curtly Ambrose and Joel Garner could summon it on demand). That, says Aaqib Javed - who worked with Irfan during his earliest days - is a new development, a new skill. "There are two broad ways of delivering a ball," he explains. "One is like when as a kid you skip a stone across water. The other is throwing a stone down into the water so that it sinks. So with a ball, one way is that you throw it down into the pitch short of a length and the ball's pace goes down and its flight becomes slow and predictable. The other is getting the ball to skip across the surface - or skid. That is in the wrist and angle of release, where from 90 degrees you are hitting it down, but at less, like 60 degrees, you get that skid. That is an art and Irfan has developed that."

Aaqib, while working at the National Cricket Academy in Lahore, was the first to begin drilling the importance of length into Irfan after he first emerged on the scene. He made him bowl endlessly at a set of stumps, asking him to find the length to keep hitting them. Irfan has filled out since, so that he fits into his body now; he no longer looks like an unwieldy beanpole. He has, Aaqib says, balance in his body, so that his muscles are supporting the structure he was born with. The fears that surround his fitness and his body's capacity to bowl, are, according to both Waqar and Aaqib, overcooked; he bowled nearly 19 overs in the first innings.

Aaqib remains an important sounding board. During Pakistan's practice game against the UAE before the Test, Irfan spent time chatting with Aaqib, now UAE's coach, shooting the breeze but also discussing bowling. This, in microcosm, is how Pakistani fast bowling exists, succeeds and procreates: raw material moulded informally by a wealth of fast-bowling brain; a session with Akram here, a chat with Waqar there, a bowling coach like Waqar, Aaqib or, currently, Mohammad Akram, and a godfather, like Nadeem Iqbal, a contemporary of Waqar's, who didn't make it but brought Irfan to national attention. The only shame is that he has arrived so late.

Osman Samiuddin is a sportswriter at the National

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Yasin on October 23, 2013, 12:54 GMT

    Does it make any sense Pakistan is getting out on 99 in Dubai and we are praising Pakistan's bowling??

  • Reji on October 23, 2013, 2:26 GMT

    Kudos to the Pakistan thinktank for managing this talent. thank god, he is not in India. we in india have an uncanny ability of converting a fast bowler to a medium pacer in a couple of seasons. its nice to see how his body has developed and i especially loved the fact that Pakistan did not rush him into Test cricket but built him up through one day cricket stints. i hope his career lasts and if not as great a career as wasim akram or waqar countries like India and SL can learn how to groom a fast bowler.

  • Azad on October 23, 2013, 0:20 GMT

    Three tests and seven wickets , and we are already saying he is better than Morkel. I would understand the hyperbole if it is an Indian fast bowler , this kind of praise should be harder to earn in Pakistan with such a great fast bowling tradition.

  • Dummy4 on October 22, 2013, 23:02 GMT

    writters have written many columns, Cricketers have given many interviews about 'how pakistan produces again and again great fast bowler'. the only truth is Tape Ball cricket in Pakistan. which is about pace and sixes. because tape ball skids and travel like a bullet, which looks attractive so every lad try to ball faster and faster. once they got pace and come to hard ball, they got line and length as well, while swing is natural. all these ingredients make pakistani bowler perfect.

  • Jawwad on October 22, 2013, 17:38 GMT

    @legsidewide- I don't think John Price has an idea or for most what a skidded ball is on a surface. It's all about maximizing the use of wrist. I have seen fast bowlers from Pakistan working tirelessly with a lone wicket finding their lengths and it goes to show why many possess the skills that they do and are usually rewarded on any surface. Period.

  • Dummy4 on October 22, 2013, 17:29 GMT

    I was reading a book about "Talent code". The book talks of why Brazil is able to produce such world-class talent. Maybe it is time that the book included Pakisthani fast bowlers as well. Sheer world class.

  • Yasin on October 22, 2013, 15:28 GMT

    If you don't have runs on the board then "Skids", "Wrist Tricks", "Length" are all secondary. Please go in this much technical detail on Pakistan's batting, that needs help.

  • Jawwad on October 22, 2013, 13:35 GMT

    Insightful information and very articulated on the workings of fast bowling in Pakistan. Former greats are always looking to share their exploits with upcoming talent and this is another reason the art is thriving and well preserved. I have always maintained Akram was a good fast bowlers because he was also very clever which is required in the overall repertoire of a great bowler.

  • I on October 22, 2013, 13:30 GMT

    @John-Price Ever seen a ball quietly skid on after being jammed in at great pace?

  • Android on October 22, 2013, 13:25 GMT

    what when mohd. amir will return