June 20, 2014

Enough with the bowling variations

In T20 cricket, using slower balls and other variations has become an invitation to get hit into the stands

In the World T20 this year in Bangladesh, Andre Russell bowled the final over of the Sri Lankan innings in West Indies' semi-final against them. He began by bowling three fast, full-length deliveries, up to the batsmen, who scored a run each off them.

Then he decided it was time to bring in the variations. The next ball was a short delivery that ended up being called wide. He followed that up with another wide delivery. Russell was starting to get rattled. The next ball, a juicy length delivery, was walloped for six. The fifth ball was short and wide and got spanked for four.

Russell managed to get a wicket off the last ball but he conceded 15 off the over. After the first three balls had cost him only 3 runs. The over basically started to go bad when Russell tried to vary things. This is just one of many examples in recent T20 cricket where using variations has backfired on the bowler.

As limited-overs cricket has evolved and with it limited-overs batsmanship and bowling, variations have become an integral part of bowling. It has become the mandatory thing to do, to bowl an average of four different deliveries per over.

As limited-overs cricket took root, bowlers realised that bowling the same delivery over and over again was a bad idea. It made them predictable and easy to line up for batsmen. Thus the slower ball came into the game as a change-up delivery for fast bowlers.

There were many versions of it. The one that comes from the back of a seamer's hand (among its earliest exponents was Steve Waugh, and among the latest, Mohit Sharma) is for me the most fascinating. I find it quite amazing how bowlers manage to bowl this one, given that the wrist gets into almost impossible positions while delivering it. Why, Beuran Hendricks, the left-arm seamer from South Africa even bowls a bouncer like that. Unbelievable.

Then there are the slower deliveries that are easier to bowl, the offcutters and legcutters where the pace is taken off the ball, making it difficult for the modern batsman, who by now has mastered the art of hitting through the line. There is also the tennis-ball-bounce slow bouncer

That Andre Russell over I mentioned at the start has shown us that using variations in bowling today may not be as good an idea as it was 15 years ago.

Like how after Glenn McGrath's great success, the next generation of seam bowlers became obsessed with bowling in the "right areas" outside off stump, I find the seam bowlers of this T20 generation are too preoccupied with variations.

Because variations have become such an integral part of limited-overs cricket, the batsmen are sort of expecting them, so the most important purpose of variations, deception, is lost. I see the batsman thinking: Okay, he has bowled me two full-length balls, so here comes the variation. So he sets himself up for a short, quick ball or a slower length ball. And lo and behold it arrives and the poor bowler watches the ball get smacked into the stands.

I believe the time has come in limited-overs cricket where no variation can be regarded as a good variation in all circumstances. Variations came into the game to surprise the batsman with the unexpected, but modern batsmen have come to expect variations all the time, and have shaped their game accordingly. The surprise element that came from variations is now non-existent for the batsman.

It is for this reason that I find watching James Tredwell of England bowl a great deal of fun, for I see him often confuse T20 batsmen. After being hit for a six off a good-length ball just outside off stump, his next ball is exactly the same. The batsman looks visibly surprised by this, for he is expecting the typical spinner's reaction: the shorter, flatter, quicker ball as the follow-up delivery.

What I like about Tredwell is that he is quite different from most spinners. He has no mystery ball, and crucially, he does not do what most bowlers do in T20 - pre-empt the worst. Instead, he keeps challenging the batsman with what look like hittable deliveries; but he does not assume that because they are hittable, they will be hit.

Of course, bowling Tredwell, an offspinner, in the death overs is an idea fraught with too much risk, but the point is that for seamers to bowl six full-length balls in an over without variations can be a sound tactic today. Consider the advantages.

To begin with, you have the element of surprise back on your side. Secondly - and this is important - I believe that to have control over all four of your variations, in a pressure situation, you need to be, well, a bowling great. We in commentary often introduce a bowler by raving about the array of deliveries he can bowl, but what about control over all those deliveries? Can most bowlers land those variations in precisely the spot they want to under pressure? The answer is an overwhelming no.

T20 cricket is littered with instances of close matches when a variation has gone horribly wrong, giving batsmen dollies to hit fours and sixes off to win games.

Why not make the job easier for yourself as a bowler by just focusing on one delivery and getting that right? It is something worth contemplating for the limited-overs seam-bowling community - one that gets a raw deal in the limited-overs formats of the game. Just for a while, try "no variations" as the new variation. You might be surprised by the results.

Former India batsman Sanjay Manjrekar is a cricket commentator and presenter on TV. His Twitter feed is here