Osman Samiuddin
Sportswriter at the National

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

Osman Samiuddin

October 21, 2013

Comments: 53 | Text size: A | A

Mohammad Irfan took three wickets in the first innings, Pakistan v South Africa, 1st Test, Abu Dhabi, 1st day, October 14, 2013
Despite his considerable height, Irfan is able to skid the ball by changing the angle of his wrist and release © AFP

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

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Posted by PlayfromDallas 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??

Posted by Former_SJCC 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.

Posted by riverbaby11 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.

Posted by   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.

Posted by Desihungama 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.

Posted by   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.

Posted by PlayfromDallas 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.

Posted by Desihungama 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.

Posted by applethief on (October 22, 2013, 13:30 GMT)

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

Posted by   on (October 22, 2013, 13:25 GMT)

what when mohd. amir will return

Posted by applethief on (October 22, 2013, 12:17 GMT)

@Wess Uddiin if yo look at the best of Pakistan's fast bowlers, you'll see that not much brawn is needed either, just application and skill. Irfan aside, we've never had any beastly fast bowlers. Waqar was probably the most stocky guy we had, mybe Imran too. Wasim and Amir were slight and whippy. Shoaib never too his fitness seriously, but kept his pace generally very high.

Posted by   on (October 22, 2013, 11:21 GMT)

Osman is not being fair to Junaid Khan. I fathom that Khan is another kind of an intelligent bowler. Junaid's bowling round the wicket is impressive, he had great batsman Kalis look so uncertain. Pakistan's three left arm bowlers, Irafan, Junaid and Rahat Ali are all very intelligent bowlers. They do not have a right hand bowler to compliment them. I never thought Umar Gul was intelligent, he on the other hand is a work horse. Pakistan's great fast bowlers are engaged with the upcoming bowlers, whereas legendary batsmen like Minadad, Inzamam, Zaheer, Yusuf are always involved in controversies. Maybe that is one of the factors in Pakistan's fragile batting.

Posted by Chaudry_Cricket on (October 22, 2013, 6:50 GMT)

Fast bowling is the greatest skill in cricket if perfected properly ... I mean in todays game where a batsman dominates with small boundaries, bigger and heavier bats to see a fast bowler run in and break the stumps is a great sight. Irfan is a very dangerous and skillbowler against South Africa he was pitching the ball up and would the bowl a short one which would bounce and take the batsman by surprise... Which tells you he is a thinking bowler and they are the most dangerous fast bowlers. Good to see the legacy of Pak fast bowling continue with Junaid and Irfan.

To our indian brothers I believe your fast bowlers do not sucssed as much because most indian fans prefer batsman which has a negative effect on your bowlers. Besides you now have some promising pace bowlers in Bhuvneswar, Mohit, Umesh and Varun. Manage them properly and you could have a good pace line up.

Posted by sherishahmir on (October 22, 2013, 5:25 GMT)

Good article about fast bowling and Irfan the way he adept and carried the role of leading fast bowler with Junaid Khan in Pakistan in the absence of Umer Gul, Asif and Amir.

Posted by   on (October 22, 2013, 1:58 GMT)

The Pakistan bowlers have the fitness required for a fast bowler, whereas Indian bowlers break down soon and pick up injuries! That may be one of the factor for their success!!

Posted by sAm2sAm on (October 22, 2013, 1:43 GMT)

I think beautifully explained PK's romance with talent of bowling (fast and spin). Never short of talent in this arena. And this article explains it with same vigor and emotion that goes into PK bowling. Cricket has become more and more a batsman's game, where even a mundane 50 with 3 half cooked fours is celebrated, but the true test of skill is bowling, one has to play chess with batsman, line, length, spin, seam, wicket conditions, fielders, economy rate, strike average, ticking run rates, ball conditions and what not. Salutes to all great bowlers (especially those of PK) who deserve equal respect as batsmen but get less.

Posted by PlayfromDallas on (October 22, 2013, 1:32 GMT)

Osman Samiuddin: Please write about Pakistan batting's technicality that needs serious help not bowling. As far as bowling is concern you can grab a bowler from the streets of Pakistan; who can hit the deck at the right length.

Posted by   on (October 22, 2013, 0:30 GMT)

Irfan is a great find for Pakistan. Tall, quick and an intelligent bowler.

Posted by Whatsgoinoffoutthere on (October 21, 2013, 21:03 GMT)

A lot of people are a bit wary of Mohammad Irfan's age. Let's see where it goes. He hasn't had as much of the "bowling himself to bits as a younger man" that seems to have impacted on a lot of fast bowlers (the current Aussie crop being a significant illustration of that). Also, I got the feeling that some players (for example another Aussie in Stuart Clark) were disposed of when they still had a few miles left in them, simply because they were old. Just take Mohammad Irfan at face value, pick him while he (a) looks the part, and (b) takes wickets.

[Plus looking at his batting stats we may well have found a new tail end icon to rank with Chris Martin/Devon Malcolm/Courtney Walsh - but I imagine that when a seven foot bloke winds up and really hits a ball it stays hit for a very long time!]

Posted by   on (October 21, 2013, 20:45 GMT)

He's 31 years old. He should, hopefully, have around 6 or 7 years of good Test cricket left in him. It's been a long time coming.

Posted by   on (October 21, 2013, 20:38 GMT)

The fact that an international fast bowler bowled 19 overs in an innings is not especially noteworthy, most, if not all, fast bowlers can knock out 25 overs an innings fairly easily and without fear of breaking down. He still seems very fragile. Good bowler when he's fit though.

Posted by Daveptee on (October 21, 2013, 20:24 GMT)

What a rich tradition of fast bowling Pakistan has.... always a pleasure to watch them bowl and hear them speak about the art.....even lesser known guys like Razzak and Azhar mahmood were good enough fast bowlers to walk into any side

Posted by smalishah84 on (October 21, 2013, 17:21 GMT)

Great piece on Irfan. I hope he is able to put in a few solid years in the Pakistan test side.

Posted by Beertjie on (October 21, 2013, 16:26 GMT)

Would have loved to see Irfan, Junaid and Amir together. Would that have been a first, I wonder. Anyway, best wishes to Irfan and just hope Amir can slot back in when he returns in a couple of years. Pakistan for the World Test Championship in 2017!

Posted by CricketChat on (October 21, 2013, 15:28 GMT)

I am fan of Irfan's bowling, more in the great WI pace bowler Garner's mold. Not express fast, but fast enough with a disconcertingly high bounce to make the batsmen play on their toes. My only concern is that he close to 32 now, which mean he has a maximum of 2-3 yrs left at the top level before he may be forced to cut down on pace to prolong his career. It is a real shame he was found so late.

Posted by Billz1130 on (October 21, 2013, 14:39 GMT)

Excellent article! Pakistan has always been blessed with top class fast bowlers and Irfan is one of the unique ones. His transformation from his debut till now is nothing short of magnificent. When he first came on, he was erratic, not fully fit, and had no idea where to bowl. People have got to his head and i must say that he has learned a lot and put it to good effect. India on the other hand just don't have those kind of bowlers and/or coaches/mentors to blossom somebody as a top gun. It's a pity because they have some breathtaking batters. Pakistan is on the same boat with their batting mentality or lack of it. Great work Osman!

Posted by Mel-waas on (October 21, 2013, 14:29 GMT)

From a Medical point of view Mohammad Irfan does not suffer from 'Gigantism' a disorder most extra ordinarily tall people suffer from. which makes them delicate and injury prone. Irfan is a 'genetical giant' as his whole family including his father and brothers are very tall as well. Thats why there should not be any extra injury worries because of height for Irfan. Fitness wise he is just like any fast bowler.

Posted by cricket_craze234 on (October 21, 2013, 13:36 GMT)

Irfan vs Hussey in the mcg would have been interesting.

Posted by John-Price on (October 21, 2013, 13:21 GMT)

"kind of wispiness to his pace, a skid that very tall bowlers don't always possess". What on earth does this mean? Bounce s a function of pace, angle of delivery and the condition of the service. How do bowl a 'wispy' delivery?

Posted by   on (October 21, 2013, 12:55 GMT)

Would agree with the writers basic point, that Pakistani bowlers, in general, have been less guilty of bowling too short than other nations. But, in my opinion the story implies that only tall bowlers from Pakistan try and hit (as we'd say in Australia) the bails of the "fourth stump". That length has been a pretty standard ideal for everybody always. What Aaqid Javed was saying about cocking the wrist (at least my understanding of what he's talking about concerns cocking the wrist) to get the ball to skid through was very interesting. Bowling a "light ball" on pitches that don't seam i.e. every Asian pitch, would be an interesting and dangerous variation.

Posted by OverDcovers on (October 21, 2013, 12:07 GMT)

If only Irfan can be made to realize the fact that his yorker will be more lethal than his bouncer, I am sure he'll be next to unplayable! And history tells us that fast bowlers like openers normally blossom when they operate in tandem with a specialist at the other end, therefore, I believe Junaid is pretty ordinary and does not possess any specific skills other than being a natural left armer and in the good books of Misbah so someone with more variety, venom and fury like Wahab Riaz should partner Irfan.

Posted by soaf on (October 21, 2013, 10:42 GMT)

irfan is the best among the current pool of pakistan quicks.with the use of his gigantic height he always keeps the batters on backfoot.but his fitness is of huge concern.it is really sad to see him struggling on the field after bowling four or so over spell. pakistan should take care of this gem and expose him for only selected coz he wil be an asset and x factor for us in wc 2015 if he remains fit.on the other hand unfortunately i am seeing junaid is following indian bowlers mentality.he just tries to bowl on line and length stuff without generating pace.he never seems to be strike bowler.if junaid want to become strike he ll have to increase his pace around that 140 mark and learn the art of reverse swing which made bowlers like waqar and shoaib sensation.

Posted by   on (October 21, 2013, 10:40 GMT)

Being a tall bowler I know how much you can confuse batsmen with lengths. Normally, they have to face 5-8'' to 6 bowlers. Even they when pitch at good lengths, the bounce is so unpredictable to have two thoughts. Add another foot to it, and imagine how much would it rise after pitching and leaving so less time for a batsman to react. Not only that, changing pace slightly at that height would have a huge impact on the bounce after hitting the good length. Pakistani management was smart enough to see that and despite of Irfan's very little experience in cricket they trained him. Like the team management, I also have huge hopes in him.

Posted by hotcric01 on (October 21, 2013, 9:26 GMT)

Congratulations Irfan.His left arm angle,pace,bounce,skid make batsmen so struggle.

Posted by   on (October 21, 2013, 9:17 GMT)

nice article, great insight, as an aussie & a lover of fast bowling, always been interested in Pakistan & their fast bowlers :)

Posted by   on (October 21, 2013, 9:06 GMT)

Considering the current maladies with Indian bowling, I think Indian pace bowlers would do well to seek advice from former Pakistani greats like Akram and Waqar to understand how to bowl on flat wickets, how to read opposition batsmen and above all how to bowl at the death in ODIs and T20s. These masters nearly never got hit at the backend of an innings...

Posted by Romanticstud on (October 21, 2013, 9:04 GMT)

I can imagine a Pakistan side with Waqar, Wasim and Irfan as the pace battery with Ajmal as a spinner ... You will go further if the batting form can be consistent ... South Africa have Steyn, Philander and Morkel ... Morkel unfortunately needs to tweak his length a bit fuller to be more effective ... maybe Morkel is reading this atricle and comes out in the second test as a demon ...

Posted by NinnyMouseHaiHai on (October 21, 2013, 8:51 GMT)

Great Osman ji. Welldone. While I was reading it I thought Wasim or Waqar is writing it. You must be a good bowler. Very good observation. Why do we have only left handers in our team (four in recent ODI squad)? Don't you think a right-hander with similar skills like Irfan would bring more balance and threat to the side?

Posted by   on (October 21, 2013, 8:11 GMT)

Absolutely bang on analysis on what makes a great Pakistani fast bowler. I do think Junaid is also finding that length more and more. A real shame we found Irfan so late and also that Umar Gul hasn't found the length after all these years.

Posted by   on (October 21, 2013, 7:34 GMT)

The problem with Indian pace bowlers is that they don't know how to set batsman (read it as Intelligence ).these qualties were evident in zaheer khan. The other problem with India n seamers is that they are at their peak for the first few matches and from there its downhill. They loose their pace, swing confidence everything. Munaf patel, RP singh, Irfan, praveen, Varun Aaron to name a few. Even Bhuveneshar Kumar, he could swing the ball miles in his first couple of matches.

Posted by Naresh28 on (October 21, 2013, 6:21 GMT)

INDIA would die to have fast bowlers like you guys have in Pakistan. The main reason why Indian cricket lags behind most is the team is not complete with good pacers. There are no choices and we land up with bowlers like Ishant who just dont use their head when bowling.

Posted by May4sBeWithThem on (October 21, 2013, 6:20 GMT)

In recent times - Zaheer, Bhuv Kumar, Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, Sreesanth, Unadkat, Vinay Kumar, Munaf Patel, Irfan Pathan, Praveen Kumar, Varun Aaron, Mohammed Shami, Rahul Shukla, Mohit Sharma... I don't think Indian pacers have dried up... a number of the names above started out with some good pace or skill or both - but lost their way, or are still developing without proper support. We just don't have a good program for mentoring, developing and improving pace bowlers. In sheer numbers and quality, the current crop is far more promising compared to what we had in late 90s for example (Mhambrey, Kuruvilla, Dodda Ganesh etc!!)

Posted by Paul_Somerset on (October 21, 2013, 6:15 GMT)

Excellent article. All the technicalities clearly explained and good use of examples to illustrate them. Will make watching any fast bowling more interesting for me in the future.

Posted by May4sBeWithThem on (October 21, 2013, 6:11 GMT)

The thing I love about cricket the most - and where it gets to be so delightfully nuanced and intricate, as opposed to say baseball - is that the most bleeding obvious statements are the most difficult to teach and implement effectively. "Pitch it up". "Keep a straight bat". "Rotate the strike"! :)

Posted by Solid_Snake on (October 21, 2013, 5:41 GMT)

@sray23 :Don't know if Kapil dev helps out the young Pacers there in India.But here in Pakistan..Wasim Akram,Waqar Younis & all other fast bowlers come forward themselves & offer their help.Now a days i can see that the Art of Fast bowling is dying in Pakistan.There is a long list of Spinners here all of them so damn good that they are already here to take place of Ajmal..It would have been great if we also had a lot of options in Fast bowling as well..Ajmal's success has turned everything upside down in Pakistan.Now all want to be like him.There was a time when we used to see a lot of Aggression like Waqar,Shoaib Akhtar.But now all i see is cool & calm Spinners ready to take any international side on

Posted by   on (October 21, 2013, 5:37 GMT)

Yes, if only Morne Morkel could learn that length, (which Dale Steyn also gets at his best), he would be a great bowler. Some yorkers wouldn't hurt either.

Posted by Vilander on (October 21, 2013, 5:19 GMT)

Akram worked on these fellows prior to champ trophy they all gained some pace and also started skidding. its Akrams art...too bad there is no indian/aus/sa etc bowler who has this skill that can be passed on to Indian bowlers...look at irfan around 6'8 - 6'9 delivers at around 147ks thats just awesome glenn mgrath never topped 138.and this guy skids and swings too. Too good, if he can remain fit, he will be the most exiting bowler ever i am sure. I just love watching pak bowl all the little fellows around giant irfan great bowling unit, if they had half decent batters they will be unbeatable.

Posted by santoshjohnsamuel on (October 21, 2013, 5:16 GMT)

Deepanjan's words seconded verbatim. From India too, above 40 and as always very much in love with quality fast bowling.

Posted by   on (October 21, 2013, 5:00 GMT)

Excellent write up, very informative & interesting !!

Posted by   on (October 21, 2013, 4:50 GMT)

India has the skill to get fast bowling down, I just think their fast bowlers don't take their fitness seriously enough, Indian society in general just has this 'brains over brawn' mentality that needs a little tweak.

Yes being clever is important but if you don't have the physique and fitness to back it up you will fall off very quickly.

Posted by sray23 on (October 21, 2013, 3:30 GMT)

Question for Indian cricket - why can't Kapil Dev be used like Wasim, Waqar & Aaqib in Pakistan? Maybe then Ishant wont concede 30 runs an over in every game,,,

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Osman SamiuddinClose
Osman Samiuddin Osman spent the first half of his life pretending he discovered reverse swing with a tennis ball half-covered with electrical tape. The second half of his life was spent trying, and failing, to find spiritual fulfillment in the world of Pakistani advertising and marketing. The third half of his life will be devoted to convincing people that he did discover reverse swing. And occasionally writing about cricket. And learning mathematics.

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