November 26, 2014

Living and working with the bouncer

Hitting someone with a short one is sickening for a bowler, and worse for the batsman, but the game must go on, and the bouncer is a part of the game

The bouncer is in every modern bowler's kitbag, part of the set-up © Getty Images

"Just give us a bit of space there."


"You might just want to back up a little, I'll be coming your way very soon."

I was about to face my first ball back in Test cricket after a 30-month layoff. I wasn't good enough in my first two Tests, against Australia, and had subsequently been dropped.

The man I was speaking to was Hashim Amla. He had the helmet on at short leg, or "short, silly, dumb, dumb, stupid leg" as I like to call it (I mean, who seriously wants to field there?).

The bowler was Makhaya Ntini. Those horrible, wide-of-the-crease, angled-in guided missiles, on a Wanderers pitch that had already started getting a little uneven and was "plating" up.

The players' viewing area is side-on at the Wanderers. Bowling looks at least 20% more fleet when you're watching from side-on, as opposed to straight down the wicket. Ntini and Dale Steyn were both in the late 140s kph. I was winging it. Genuinely winging it. There was no way I was going to get in line. I didn't know how to.

"Give us some room, Hashim!"

I feared for my safety. Properly scared. Easily the most afraid I ever was in my career and life. I wasn't just scared of getting hit, hurt, and not being able to bowl, I was terrified for my well-being. Absolutely petrified.

I doubt Phillip Hughes was petrified. He went through with his shot. He was taking on the short ball. Got his timing wrong and got unlucky. There isn't really any other way of describing what happened. Phillip Hughes was horribly, in the most emphatic way, unlucky.

Another time I had the "fears" was in England, playing against Gloustershire for Leicestershire. Steve Kirby was off on one. He wanted to kill me. He told me so. And when "Kirbs" tells you that in the middle of a spell, with all that sweat, steam and snot streaming from his face, you believe him.

He didn't kill me. I scored some runs.

He broke two of my ribs. You can have the runs back if I can have my ribs back, Kirbs.

Steyn once put it this way: "Where else in the world do you get the opportunity to kill someone with two bouncers in an over legally?"

I ran to him straightaway, and asked him if he was okay. He didn't look okay. He wasn't okay. He said he wasn't. I felt sick. I was scared. He was okay. He batted on. I bounced him next ball. What else was I supposed to do?

In 1975, Ewen Chatfield, with no pulse, and tongue swallowed, was dead. His heart had stopped. A short ball from England's Peter Lever glanced off his glove and struck Chatfield's left temple and killed him.

Then he was revived, and went on to play many more times for New Zealand. Lever said, "I felt sick and ashamed at what I had done, and all I could think when I got back to the pavilion was that I wanted to retire."

Right now, the Steyn quip - it's just over two years since he said that - looks horrible. In the current scenario, it lacks tact and taste. But in its most basic form, he's right. Batting is survival. Protect your wicket and yourself. And those who protect themselves first are almost always called soft. To give away your wicket to keep yourself - soft.

Bowling a bouncer and hitting a batsman with a bouncer are two distinctly different things. No bowler I know really wants to hurt a batsman. Yes, we try to, we intimidate when the timing's right, but to actually hit someone and seriously damage them, nope, that doesn't feel great.

There is some satisfaction but it's very fleeting and awkwardly contradictory to most peoples' make-up, certainly mine.

Every now and again, though, you want to leave a bruise, rattle the star top-order batsman up a little, remind him that you've got something. And also let the lower- order batsmen see the bouncer, so it's "in their head".

The bouncer is part of the bowler's arsenal, it's in every modern bowler's kitbag, part of the set-up, part of the game. The psychology game; fear, intimidation, the ruffling of feathers - the opportunity to alter the mindset and rational thinking of your opponent. The bluff. Make them make a mistake.

I've been hit numerous times. The worst was the broken ribs Kirby gave me. The severest impact my head took was a bouncer in the nets from my team-mate Martin Guptill. Flush on the helmet. The ball landed dead at my feet. I was fine, the helmet wasn't. It was a strange feeling. I expected it to hurt. I expected it to ring in my ears. It didn't. My helmet had done its job.

I had asked Guppy to test me, I wanted to get better at facing short stuff. Once, Fidel Edwards had clipped my helmet twice and my back in one innings (for 12 leg-byes, thanks). I asked him if he wanted to have a go at my stumps soon. He said, "I'm having too much fun for that." Mitchell Johnson almost ripped my right nipple off with a short one at the Gabba. My mother almost walked onto the Basin Reserve when Chris Martin, in a domestic game, bounced me relentlessly (she, thankfully, didn't).

I've hit more than my fair share of batsmen too. I used to hit former New Zealand opener Gary Stead on the helmet in almost every clash we had. I smashed in Neil Broom's and Rob Nicol's helmets inside a week; two horrible impacts, two intense crunches, two new helmets needed. I once hit Michael Mason on the helmet hard enough to catch the rebound.

Why are we seeing more and more batsmen getting hit? Actually, are more batsmen getting hit, or are we just hearing about it more because of the world's fixation with health and safety, and instant media? Are pitches faster? I don't think so. Techniques not able to cope? I don't think this is the major reason either.

Techniques transformed? Yes. Batting intent changed? Indeed. Now it's score first, defend second. Hook or pull first, duck or evade second. Certainly something to think about.

Have the law changes to how many bouncers can be bowled had an effect? Possibly.

Batsmen now face fewer bouncers than before. It's not necessarily a new law change, but as the game has become more attacking, the reluctance to bowl short has grown and the opportunity to bowl in that manner has reduced. Therefore the batsmen face fewer bouncers in the nets and games, and there may be a correlation.

The nastiest impact I've delivered was to Chesney Hughes (Derbyshire), on his debut. I hit the imposing left-hander flush. His helmet and head took all the impact. It was a horrible sound. It always is a horrible sound. It is a horrible feeling.

I ran to him straightaway and asked him if he was okay. I always have done that when I've struck a helmet, either flush or glancing. He didn't look okay. He wasn't okay. He said he wasn't. I felt sick. I waved to the changing rooms. I was scared. He was worse. I was concerned for his health.

He was okay. He batted on. I bounced him next ball. What else was I supposed to do?

Hopefully Sean Abbott, after hitting Hughes, understands that it's not his fault. I'm sure he'll be desperately concerned for Hughes. We all are. It's an industry hazard.

Someone might get hurt, but not in the way Hughes has been. It's another fight for survival for Hughes, this time, the most important of them all.

Former New Zealand fast bowler Iain O'Brien played 22 Tests in the second half of the 2000s