Sleight of hand
There are different forms of deception that bowlers have employed over the years. BJT Bosanquet thought up the googly, Ellis Achong delivered the chinaman, Saqlain Mushtaq, in the modern age at least, pioneered the doosra, while Shane Warne allegedly developed a different variation with every series.
While all these relate to spin, one mustn't forget that fast bowlers, with an uncanny ability to vary their pace, have deceived as well. Chris Cairns, Shoaib Akhtar, and, most recently, Dwayne Bravo have championed the cause of the slower ball of late but one has to go back more than 25 years to meet the greatest exponent of them all. Franklyn Stephenson is widely regarded as the greatest cricketer never to have played for West Indies. He's also widely acknowledged as the one who possessed the most devastating slower ball.
Like most inventions, Stephenson's slower ball came about by accident. While playing as a professional in the English leagues, he was required to bowl long spells and needed to find a method that wouldn't tire him out. After finishing his fast-bowling spells, he'd turn to offbreaks but, to keep the batsmen on their guard, would suddenly, with no change in action, slip in the faster ball. In a classic case of the tail wagging the dog, he soon inverted the method and began bowling offbreaks with a fast-bowler's action.
There are different ways of bowling the slower ball. Glenn McGrath usually splits the seam with his index and middle fingers, releasing the ball without the normal thrust; while Bravo mostly spins it out between his thumb and index fingers. These involve mainly one dimension of deceit - variation of pace. Courtney Walsh was someone who let the ball roll along his palms without clicking his wrist. It was a bit more lethal because the ball was released with flight, with a more curved loop than the previous two, and often left batsmen ducking thinking it was the beamer.
Stephenson's slower ball, though, had three dimensions. Stephenson found a way to change his seam-up grip into a off-cutter grip halfway through his delivery stride. When he let the slower ball go, it looped high, having several duck, arrived slow, foxing the batsmen even more, and finally, in what was a coup de grace, spun. It was a three-card trick that few batsmen mastered - Stephenson remembers the Benson & Hedges final in 1989 when John Hardie, the Essex opener, ducked one that pitched outside off, turned about one-and-a-half feet and hit off stump.
It comes as no surprise when he says, "I must have taken a quarter of my wickets with that delivery." For most, the slower ball is effective only when a batsman plays too early; for Stephenson, it was a proper attacking option, surprising a batsmen even when all he wanted to do was defend. The current bowler who comes closest is Cairns, no surprise considering that he shared a flat with Stephenson during his first year at Notts.
It was confusing for the men behind the stumps as well. "Bruce French at Notts used to get a bit upset at times," he says, "because when I bowled a slower ball, it got to him on the second pitch. The ball used to spin on the second bounce again and keepers don't like the ball bouncing away from them. So I would give him some sort of a signal - tugging my left flannel bottom, pretend to fix my sock or something - and he would then signal to the slips and they would all take a few steps forward before the batsmen could see it. It got a bit comical with you running into bowl and the slips and the keeper running towards you."
But why did such a device prove so much of a problem? "You must realise that even good batsmen don't watch the ball very long," continues Stephenson. "Most batsmen move and get into line before going ahead with their shots. Viv Richards and other great batsmen keep saying batsmen don't watch the ball. It's not something that they just say, it's actually true. As a batsman, when you're expecting a ball to be 90 mph you rarely want to anticipate for a ball that's bowled at 70 because you could be a long way late. It really comes down to watching the ball."
Yet, for all its merits, Stephenson's moon-ball had its bad days. "The revelation of a good slower ball came when I bowled to two players in particular - Javed Miandad and Barry Richards. I saw Barry adjust two to three times and then play the slower ball without any hassle at all. It can be a disadvantage - if the batsmen know you have a good slower ball, they would watch the ball a lot longer. It actually sharpened his wits."
And, ever so often, a near-perfect slower ball backfired. "The funny thing about the slower ball is that the batsman reacts with surprise but that doesn't mean he's going to miss it. I bowled to Neil Radford [playing for Worcestershire] and he lost it totally, closed his eyes, let the left hand come through and actually smashed the ball for six."
And what did Stephenson do in the first five balls of the final over when Lancashire needed 2 to win in a Sunday League game? Bowled five consecutive slower balls, conceded one run, and got a wicket. What did he do when he saw Neil Fairbrother, batting on 110, on strike for the final ball? Bowled another. Fairbrother might have won the game by smashing it for six, but Stephenson's courage under fire probably won the day.
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is staff writer of Cricinfo