What is the joy of fast bowling?
Is it extreme pace? Watching flying stumps? Batsmen being bruised and bloodied? Great fast bowling has always been that and more. For the fast bowler, it is about building an intensity. About pitching on lengths that make the batsman play. It is also about pushing the batsman back when he is trying to dominate. And, on occasions, using the bouncer, the short-pitch delivery, in a manner that does not just make the batsman duck and weave out of the way, that doesn't just threaten him, but also puts doubt in the mind. It keeps the batsman guessing.
It thus becomes a like a boxing bout, where the fast bowler jabs at the batsman and pushes him into a corner. The batsman is wary where the next blow could come from. Should he counterattack and stand the danger of being hit and floored? Should he stay patient and let the bowler's ego take a boost?
Such an enticing spectacle unfolded during the morning at Trent Bridge, courtesy Andre Russell. The "Kingston Mohawk" bounded in to deliver just 18 balls. Eighteen deliveries of pure aggression. Enough to intimidate and scare Pakistan batsmen. Enough to, as Pakistan captain Sarfaraz Ahmed said, to send his team on to the back foot.
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In that brief spell, Russell even managed a maiden over while removing Fakhar Zaman and Haris Sohail, both of whom fell against the short ball. The maiden itself comprised six short balls.
Despite the intensity Russell was counting them. As per ESPNcricinfo numbers, Russell had seven short balls and eight short-of-length deliveries. "Well, I think it was 16," Russell chuckled afterwards. "You are one short."
Jokes apart Russell knew what he was doing. West Indies had worked out the Pakistan top order's weakness against the short ball. They knew the pitch would be fresh in the first hour or so, especially under overcast conditions. Now it was all about being disciplined and carrying out the plan.
The plan was simple: bowl short. Keep bowling short. Challenge the batsman's ego (Imam-ul Haq). Challenge it consistently (Fakhar). Challenge their bottle (Sarfaraz Ahmed). Force him to commit a mistake (Mohammad Hafeez). Pakistan were left in utter disarray and misery.
As Jason Holder said, getting wickets is the priority if teams are to win in the World Cup. West Indies' strategy is to be aggressive, and it is not one hatched overnight. In the home series against England in February and March, out of the 705 deliveries in the four ODIs, West Indies' bowling group (minus Russell) bowled 276 balls that were short and short-of-length. Against Pakistan, out of the 110 deliveries, 68 were short and short-of-length.
Pakistan's batsmen could not figure how to counter it. Oshane Thomas, playing in his first World Cup, was encouraged by Russell to bounce the batsmen. Thomas observed that some Pakistan batsmen did "not like" the short stuff. When Russell bowled his maiden over, Thomas knew he would be bowling short. "They were backing way ... I sensed that they didn't like it."
Russell was just playing his third ODI since the 2015 World Cup. There was one thing that had irritated him a lot: being called a medium-pacer. In the IPL he had bowled short and super-fast. Here he cranked up the speeds to 90mph. "At the end of the day I've showed them I can bowl 90mph. I think they should put some respect by my name."
But it was more than speed. "The plan was to bowl in short bursts, short spells. Two overs, three overs. Main thing about it [was] leaving everything [out there], every ball. It is not like I have to bowl five or six overs on the trot. So I know it is only 18 balls and I focus on bowling those 18 balls as fast as I can and try to intimidate the batsmen."
And why short specifically? "The plan was the fuller you bowl on these sort of wickets, you are going to get driven through covers, you are going to get hit over your head. Hard lengths, and these guys weren't taking on the short balls [well]. So if you can bowl a short ball and it is not above the head and it is a dot ball, why not bowl another one. I bowled a maiden and all balls were short."
But Russell is a thinking bowler, too. After sending back Fakhar with a steep bouncer, which the left-hander played on after being hit on the helmet, Russell had a plan for Sarfaraz. But his captain Jason Holder was not sure. "I was just trying to playing a mind game on him, but he [Sarfaraz] did well to keep it out. Bowling four short balls and fifth one I tell the skipper, 'Skip, I am going to bowl him the yorker.' He said why you are going to change your plan. I said I believe that I can knock him over. Naturally if you bowl every ball short, they would expect… I thought I would catch him off guard."
Bowling short, but "smart" is a ploy Russell wants to use against batsmen this World Cup. "The pace of the ball and the line of the ball as well. If the ball is slightly wide, you have to get your arms around to pull. So that can create a simple mistake - getting caught at fine leg or on the boundary and then, game over that batsman." He snaps his fingers at the last comment. "I am going to keep bowling aggressive but be smart about it."
Fast bowlers like talking big. The best have done it in the past. Trueman. Lillee. Thommo. Lee. Akhtar. Russell is not in that league. But he is thinking like those fast men, who all made watching fast bowling a joy.