On a manic evening two days ago in Christchurch, the heart went out to the bowlers. Thirty-one sixes were hit in Lilliput and 726 runs scored in 95.1 overs. All through, as the captains struggled to defend the boundaries, the mind kept thinking of a species that is going extinct. It's very likely they wouldn't have worked, but the slow-medium fellows, bowling at 120-130kph, just short of a length, mixing up their little cutters, swingers and slower ones, were missed.
They were the fad of the nineties; every team had at least one. At their best they choked the life out of the middle overs in ODIs. They were named dibbly-dobblies; the less charitable variations were wibblies, wobblies, winklers, weaslers, and some unprintable ones. Gavin Larsen sees the name as a mark of respect and acknowledgment that the breed were successful at what they did, while Chris Harris would rather he wasn't called dibbly-dobbly.
Such bowlers are rarely seen nowadays. In the Christchurch game Jesse Ryder did try his slow-mediums, but he bowls too many yorkers for a self-respecting dibbly-dobbly.
New Zealand was where the dibbly-dobblies enjoyed their most glorious prime. Though the term has been in existence for long to refer to slow-medium bowlers, it became a cult in New Zealand around the 1992 World Cup. Larsen, Harris, and to an extent Rod Latham and Willie Watson, were weapons of mass containment. They were the antithesis of the fearsome foursomes of West Indies. They looked half as quick, and were not scary at all, but you just couldn't hit them. All the power for the shots had to come from the bat, and given their accuracy and clever variations, taking them on was just too risky to do.
The dibbly-dobblies were as much a product of circumstances as they were a masterstroke in that World Cup. Richard Hadlee and Ewen Chatfield had left without successors in place, New Zealand were going to co-host the tournament, and the pitches were slow and low. It's not sure whether the pitches were a coincidence or not, but they played a key role.
Watson - far short of express - and Dipak Patel would open the bowling before Larsen and Harris would do their business. Latham would bowl a few overs, and then Watson would come back. It was a ploy that had worked, especially in home conditions. Before the batting side knew it, 40 overs would pass without much activity. Between them the four bowled 250.1 overs for 1041 runs in the World Cup. What that resulted in was for all to see.
The phrase "dibbly-dobbly-wibbly-wobbly" is said to have been coined by a commentator during New Zealand's win against Australia. Which is which, and who is who is not entirely clear. The popular theory is that Harris and Larsen could each take either of dibbly or dobbly, Latham - because of his girth - was wobbly, and Watson wibbly because he was known thus by his fans.
Watson and Latham were getting on towards the end of their careers then, but Larsen and Harris kept the flag flying for slow-medium bowling for a few years. Their bowling averages took a hit outside New Zealand, but they were just as miserly abroad as they were at home: Larsen gave away runs at 3.90 an over outside New Zealand (3.78 overall), and Harris 4.41 an over (4.28 overall).
"Lots of people told me that I wouldn't be effective, but that was not the case," Larsen says. "My style suited the seaming conditions, but I did well in places like India." The simple principle of accuracy worked for him: he was the postman who always delivered. Harris was an expert at the slower legcutters and the ones that came out of the back of the hand. They were medium-pacers with the brains of spinners.
Harris and Larsen stayed part of the success formula till about the end of the century. Part-timers like Nathan Astle and Craig McMillan on occasions filled in after Larsen's retirement.
By then success had started breeding imitation. New Zealand had started looking for bouncier pitches, and in the process began creating tracks that helped seam bowlers. A new kind of dibbly-dobbly bowler was emerging - one who would just put the ball there and wait for the conditions to do the rest. The originals had bowled on slow tracks and learned to seam and swing the ball. The pitches did the work for the new breed, who would come up short on unhelpful surfaces. Injuries to the proper pace bowlers - Geoff Allott, Dion Nash and Chris Cairns - didn't help either.
It didn't stay that way for long, though. Ross Taylor, a member of the current New Zealand team, makes an interesting observation. "The wickets have improved a lot since then [India's last tour]. It shows in our domestic form. It's probably been a fault that bowlers who bowl 125-130ks and come in would just put the ball there and the wickets did the rest for them. In domestic cricket at the moment, the little dibbly-dobbly bowlers aren't having as much success as 10 years ago. That's good for New Zealand cricket that the bowlers are having to work harder for their wickets."
Allott agrees with Taylor. "The major focus of New Zealand cricket has been to improve the wickets. Earlier medium-pacers could come here and bowl a real tight length on a green wicket and the ball would do everything. And more often than not they would be successful. But now the bowlers have to learn to seam the ball, try the slower ball and the bowlers are far more equipped to play international cricket than when I was playing."
Also, bowlers like Harris and Larsen concede that when they played, the game was played to a type. Batsmen would look to hit in the first 15 overs, then consolidate till about 40, and then go all out in the death overs. That gave the bowlers a rhythm to aim for. Three hundred would be a safe target then, but now teams go for 350 more often, targetting the weaker links in the middle overs. Batsmen didn't switch-hit, paddle-sweep and slog in the middle overs then.
"I think the game has just moved on," Larsen says. "I think that the days where a guy is bowling at 130 kph and bowling just back of a length, using slower balls, are gone now."
"In present-day cricket it has become tougher," Harris says. "The batsmen are becoming more effective and hitting bowlers to all parts of the park. We used to come to the field, get the rhythm right, bowl tight, and unless one bowled a bad ball they wouldn't be hit for runs. These days batsmen are hitting the good balls too."
Harris was the last specialist dibbly-dobbly bowler. Now it's either the pace bowlers or spinners. Most part-timers are spinners. The likes of Paul Collingwood, Ryder, Grant Elliot and Dwayne Smith are used sparingly, and can't quite be accused of possessing the art of the dibbly dobblies. It was, perhaps, an art form limited to ODIs, which became too common for its own good. We may never again see a slow-medium bowler as successful as a Larsen or a Harris. But when the batsmen were going berserk on Sunday, the mind did ask the question: What if they were there?