Which would you say is your most cherished knuckleball?
I reckon there have been a few, like the one I got my first T20 wicket with, when I was playing for Sydney Thunder. I think I got Owais Shah out, caught at long-off, running backwards. He hit it straight up in the air. That was memorable as that was my first T20 wicket in my first T20 match.
The two hat-tricks I have completed, both with the knuckleball, have been pretty special. I've worked really hard to perfect the ball, so to be able to get a few wickets and have beautiful memories is amazing.
What makes the knuckleball different from a normal ball?
What makes it different is that there is very minimal hand movement. I don't change my action at all. I've asked batsmen or team-mates when I'm bowling at them if they can pick it. Some can and some can't. It's a reliable weapon, and a method that I've got to disguise it tends to work pretty well. I think that is what sets it apart - the fact that I can bowl it without having to change the seam at all, and the seam can still come out as if it's a normal ball.
Can you explain the method behind it?
It's just pretty much like any other slower ball. Lots of bowlers change the position of the ball in their hand during load-up, or they move their hand into a position from which they're going to bowl a legcutter or they're going to bowl out of the back of the hand. It is the same sort of principle for me - I try and disguise it during load-up, and sometimes I will bluff if I feel that a batsman is picking how I am disguising it. So, yeah - move your hand into position as late as possible to not let the batsman get any sniff of it.
How do you disguise it?
Without going too far in detail, it's something I work on trying to disguise, and if the batsmen still can't pick it, I'm doing something right. With the amount of video that goes around these days, it's pretty good if you've got something that you have been able to hide for this long.
"I even remember a couple of instances and games where I nearly hit our captain when he was fielding at cover, because it just slipped out of the hand"
When did you start working on the delivery?
I still remember the first game I bowled it in. It was a one-day game up in north-east England, I think. I think we had them about five or six down for 40-50, so it was the perfect time to try it in a match. And I tried it and I think the first couple of times I bowled it, it moved a bit in the air. Because of the wobbliness of the ball, the batsman got completely fooled, and that was the day I think I got the first wicket with it as well. And from there, I decided: I'm going to start using this a bit more often.
How did you happen to develop the delivery?
Graeme Cessford, one of my mates who I played with in UK grade cricket and who played for Worcestershire, was the one who introduced it to me. He came back from playing second-team cricket in one of the counties and he goes, "AJ, I've got a new ball for you." When he showed me, straightaway I was very skeptical. I was like, "What is it?" I tried it and I had no control, went everywhere. But I started to learn it and started to practise it. And then, when I got back to Perth that year, I started bowling it at some decent batsmen like Marcus Stoinis and Marcus Harris.
At that stage I had not still developed how to disguise it. I spent hours together just watching TV - cricket or whatever was on - at home, sitting on the couch and just playing around with it, trying to figure out ways to disguise it.
It took me a good three, four, or maybe even five years to get it right, but I was still bowling it at times, even though I didn't have the courage to try it in the nets. I remember one of the first few times I bowled to Perth Scorchers in the nets, going back to maybe five years now. I ran in and just loaded up and bowled it and it came out all wrong and hit the top net (laughs). Straightaway Herschelle Gibbs, who was standing as the umpire, turned around and said, "Oh, put your hand in your pocket." And I was like, "Yup."
I even remember a couple of instances and games where I nearly hit our captain when he was fielding at cover, because it just slipped out of the hand. And there was another one that nearly ended up at point as well, so yeah, hasn't all been smooth sailing, but it's been a fun and entertaining journey, I guess, for the knuckleball.
Zaheer Khan tried it during the 2011 World Cup. Is there any difference in how you execute it and how others do it?
I've never actually taken much notice of who else bowls it. I'm sure if I did some research and looked at how Zaheer bowled it, I'd probably be able to see some differences and some similarities as well. Even last year, when I went and played in the NatWest T20 Blast for the first time, there were probably three or four guys in the team who all bowled knuckleballs, but they hadn't quite developed it, or they didn't quite have the skills to be able to disguise it as well as I did. One of them was Benny Howell, and he has probably more slower balls than I do. There was also Kieran Noema-Barnett and Craig Miles who bowled it.
When did you first watch the knuckleball being bowled?
I didn't really look out for it too much because it was pretty rare, so probably the first time I watched it was when I watched myself on some game tape or something like that, but I haven't really watched any video of anybody else bowling it.
I know there was Nathan Rimmington - he was trying to learn how to bowl that and he does bowl it on occasion when he plays in the Big Bash and the one-day Cup, but other than that - I'm a bowler, I tend more to watch a lot of batsmen to learn what they're doing and why they're doing things so I can be a step ahead of them.
Did you ever have any concerns about being hit when you were trying it out?
Yeah, always do. I think every bowler in the world, when running in at the nets trying to bowl these balls, has concerns of getting hit. I've been hit a couple of times. Most recent was here in the IPL, during the second or third net session that we had. [Manpreet] Gony hit one back at me and it got me on the forearm. I didn't quite pick up where it came off the bat, so I just turned away and it smacked me on the arm.
"With the amount of video that goes around these days, it's pretty good if you've got something that you have been able to hide for this long"
What I meant was, in a match, were you ever afraid of getting hit for four or six when you were trying this ball?
If a batsman is going to hit it for four, he can hit it for four. And the way that T20 is these days, batsmen are very capable of hitting even your best balls for four. You bowl a perfect ball and somehow they can manage to find the boundary with it. You worry at first, and if it is not working, you just try something else, don't you?
Was there any point when you second-guessed yourself or doubted whether you'd be able to use this as your main strike weapon?
No, probably not. But if I ever do have doubts about it or the pitch doesn't quite suit it for whatever reason, I've got other slower balls that I can go to. And even if I want to make a slower ball a bit more obvious, I could probably do that, and then try and bowl the knuckleball.
How do you know when a batsman is ripe for the knuckleball?
Everyone is trying to hit everything out of the park, or score as many runs as possible, so it's more thinking about trying not to let a batsman settle, trying not to let him get one pace. If you just bowl pace on, pace on, pace on, you could bowl the best balls in the world but the batsman will start to line you up and get the pace of the wicket and get the pace of your bowling. So if you can change your pace, your lines, your lengths, you are just never letting the batsman have a chance to be completely comfortable. The more doubt that you can put in the batsman's mind about what ball is going to come down, the better.
A batsman like AB de Villiers, he can tell looking at the field setting where the bowler is going to try to bowl the ball. So that is when you have got to be at your most unpredictable, and sometimes you've got to be gutsy and bluff - just try and bowl a ball that your field is not set for, with the hope that you get a mishit or you get lucky and it goes to the fielder, when it probably could have cleared and gone for four or six. There is no right or wrong batsman for it.
Since you mentioned de Villiers - against batsmen of that skill, how do you make sure you don't overdo your variations and avoid getting predictable?
That's why you do your research. You watch your videos, you watch your game tapes, you look at wagon wheels, you look at everything you possibly can, try and get as much information as you possibly can. You might just pick up little things in their trigger movements, what they do just before you bowl the ball. They might pretend that they're going to step back, and the minute they pretend to step back, it means they are going to go outside off. That is when you've got to be watching the batsman, and being very close on how circumstantial every movement is, and being that involved and concentrating as to what needs to be done, and being able to adapt to those last-minute changes.
If he does step across, he's probably warning you that he might just go the other way, or he's looking for pace to hit you somewhere. You might have your third man and your fine leg and square leg up, so he's looking to try and hit you there, so you take the pace off and go wide, so he can't go there. He doesn't have the pace to do it and has to go where your field's set.
Batsmen are getting craftier and craftier these days. It makes it hard at times, but that's the challenge of the game and that's part of being a bowler and that's why I love being a bowler.
How tough is the knuckleball in terms of execution?
At times, it can be pretty tough. I've got a nice little callus on the back of my finger now. It can be tough. You're always worried. It's the nature of the game - if you miss your execution by a foot these days, it can mean the difference between a dot ball or a wicket, as opposed to a six. But if you get hit for one six, it's just the nature of the game. You go back to your skills. I mean, I have shown I can do it, and every time I get hit for a six bowling it, I will still back it. It's beaten enough batsmen and I've got the confidence that it can beat some of the best batsmen.
"Batsmen are getting craftier and craftier these days. It makes it hard at times, but that's the challenge of the game and that's why I love being a bowler"
How difficult is it to achieve control with the delivery?
It's not difficult at all, really. I mean, it's the same as any delivery. If you practise it enough, you'll get control, won't you? I guess some people find themselves unable to bowl it because their fingers aren't long enough to bowl the way I disguise it.
What do you think has made this ball so effective?
I think it's the fact that it's hard to pick up, it's well disguised, and the fact that sometimes it can do uncharacteristic things off the wicket and in the air. Sometimes it swings in the air a little bit, or sometimes it just wobbles and goes a little bit both ways, and other times it comes on with a bit of overspin on it, and it can actually kick up off the wicket a bit like the back-of-the-hand slower ball. So it's actually a bit unpredictable at times.
You ask how I've got control, and sometimes it's uncontrollable, but if you put it close enough to the right areas, see what happens.
So the bounce is variable?
And the movement?
There have been times in the Big Bash when I've bowled them early. Like within the first five on a decent wicket when the ball is still pretty new and it has actually shaped away from the batsmen, so there is some variable nature to it. But any sort of ball can have that.
We've seen the likes of Dale Steyn and Stuart Broad bowling the cross-seam outswingers. You try explaining that to someone who knows cricket and you say you bowl your seam-up with the shiny side on the outside and swing it away. And you've got these guys bowling cross-seam balls which are just meant to be normal, straight, and they're swinging away. That's just the nature of cricket around the world.