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The Insider

What makes Pakistan's left-armers a handful

Apart from creating awkward angles to right-hand batsmen, Amir, Wahab and Irfan each manage to pose questions with their distinctive skills

Aakash Chopra
Aakash Chopra
By bowling from a foot behind the crease, Mohammad Amir has sacrificed a yard of pace for more swing  •  Getty Images

By bowling from a foot behind the crease, Mohammad Amir has sacrificed a yard of pace for more swing  •  Getty Images

Cricket is a game of angles. Bowlers try to use the crease to create different angles and batsmen try to create angles to place the ball in the gaps. Nothing accentuates this more than a left-arm fast bowler bowling over the wicket to a right-hand batsman. Left-arm seamers challenge the fundamentals of the game on two counts:
They force the batsman to discard the notion that cricket is a side-on game, for he must open up his stance from the toes to the shoulders to have a proper view of the trajectory of the ball.
They make a straight ball look like it has done something spectacular because of the angle they create. The same is true for a right-arm bowler bowling over the wicket to a left-hander but since the cricketing world is predominantly right-handed, that doesn't seem like an oddity. Left-hand batsmen grow up playing right-arm bowlers all the time, and though they face similar problems, they seem to handle them much better.
Facing a quality left-arm fast bowler is a challenge in itself but if you have to deal with three of them, your problems multiply manifold. Having three quality left-arm fast bowlers is Pakistan's biggest strength, and that all of them bring something different to the table makes it a rather unique bowling attack too. They all pose the same problem of angles while bowling over the wicket, but their styles are so different from each other that each poses a different problem to address for the batsman.
Mohammad Amir
While there are plenty of right-arm outswing bowlers, we don't see as many left-arm pacers who can swing the ball away from left-hand batsmen. And if they are able to do so, they aren't as competent at bringing the ball back into the right-handers. The reason for this is the positioning at the crease and the line that they have to start with while bowling to right-handers. To bring the ball back into right-handers and finish within the stumps, they must start from slightly outside off. If they start within the stumps, the ball will end up missing leg stump. In order to start from outside off, they must come really close to the stumps, because it's impossible to bowl the outside-off line and bring the ball back in while bowling from far out on the crease. Amir comes close to the stumps, starts from outside off, and since his wrist is firmly behind the ball, it tails back in sharply. In addition to that, he bowls in the high 140s and has the ability to pitch the ball fuller.
The trick to playing against Amir is to not commit too much. One must make sure that the front foot is not planted too early or too far across, for that makes you an lbw candidate. But is this straightforward to achieve? It isn't, for whenever he starts off from slightly further outside off, the ball goes straight instead of tailing back in. So if you haven't gone across and are playing inside the line, the one that holds its line could take the outside edge.
In his four-over spell against India, Amir didn't just showcase the quality of his bowling skills, he showed that he knows how to take wickets. Most bowlers will tell you that there's a subtle difference between bowling that looks good and the sort that takes wickets. The only thing that's noticeably missing in Amir is the fact that he's bowling from at least a foot behind the crease and so he's missing out on a yard of pace. The corollary is that it allows the ball to stay in the air that much longer, which means more swing. It'll be interesting to see how for long he'll be happy with this trade-off.
Wahab Riaz
On his day, Wahab can be the quickest of them all. He's the kind of bowler who is associated with bowling a "heavy ball", that hits the bat harder than expected. But while pace is his great asset, he doesn't seem to have the ability to swing the ball in the air. His wrist is not behind the ball at the time of release. If Amir's wrist is at 90 degrees at the point of release, Wahab's is at 45 degrees, and though the ball doesn't wobble after release, it doesn't swing either, because the seam isn't upright.
He takes it away from right-hand batsmen, and that makes him slightly predictable. As a batsman you need not worry about getting lbw, because if the ball is hitting the stumps, it won't pitch within the stumps and if it's pitching within the stumps, it's likely to miss them. The exception being when the ball is really full.
But Wahab has two potent weapons to make up for the lack of swing - a good bouncer and the ability to take the ball away from the right-hander after pitching when bowling from round the wicket. Since his stock delivery moves away after pitching, he can happily start his bouncers from outside leg when bowling over the wicket and have them follow the batsman. And when he bowls from around the wicket, the natural angle brings the ball in to the batsman but the seam position takes it away after pitching, and that's a tough ball to handle if there's some reverse swing available too.
Mohammad Irfan
As expected, the tallest of them all gets the maximum bounce too. Irfan's strength is to get extra bounce from a good length. The biggest challenge for a batsman facing him is that he's forced to recalibrate his eyeline. As a batsman you're conditioned to keeing your line of sight almost parallel to the pitch, for that allows you to follow the full trajectory of the ball. If you're looking slightly high, you may not be in the best position to play full balls, and if you're looking slightly low, you may misread short balls. In Irfan's case, you're forced to look higher, and so you start to think that every ball is a lot shorter than it actually is. In addition, the extra bounce he extracts also fools you into believing that you aren't actually misjudging the length, and that's when you end up going back to the ball that's pitched fairly full. Or you're so keen to go on the back foot that you're too late on the balls that you should be getting forward to. While facing him, you must remind yourself to prepare for the full ball and react to the short ball. Also, you must keep the hands and bat higher than usual, even on low, slow subcontinental pitches, to deal with the bounce.
The only thing that's preventing Irfan from wrecking more havoc is the fact that the ball doesn't come out with the seam upright from his hand. It wobbles, which in turn prevents it from swinging in the air and landing on the seam. The wobbly seam does get some lateral movement from the pitch every now and then but it's not consistent enough for Irfan to use it to his advantage.

Aakash Chopra is the author of three books, the latest of which is The Insider: Decoding the craft of cricket. @cricketaakash