With bigger bats, shorter boundaries and a dizzying number of new-fangled strokes, bowlers need every possible trick up their sleeves to try and level the playing field, making the slower ball more vital than ever. Jo Harman charts the evolution of the slowie, from Franklyn's first moon balls through to the smorgasbord of cutters, splitters and back-of-the-handers that we see today.
When tracking the evolution of the slower ball, there's really only one person with whom to start: Franklyn Dacosta Stephenson. AOC located the former Notts and Sussex allrounder on a golf course in Barbados where he now plays professionally. He also runs the Franklyn Stephenson Academy, a training facility for the island's emerging young cricketers and players from overseas, and is only too happy to describe how he pioneered a delivery that has now become an essential weapon in any seamer's armoury.
Stephenson first conceived the slower ball while playing for Rawtenstall in the Lancashire leagues during the early '80s. As the club's overseas star he was expected to bowl a lot of overs and would sometimes switch to bowling off-breaks to ease the workload. While bowling spin he'd send down the occasional quicker delivery with no discernible change in action, which in turn lead him to invert the method and use the slower delivery as his change-up when bowling pace.
"I tested it in the nets and it really caused a lot of havoc," he says. "When I tried it in a game it was a real revelation - nobody knew what had happened! As I let it go of the ball the batsman would duck and the ball would then drop and hit the base of the stumps. When it came out of my hand it kind of floated and a lot of batsmen thought it was a beamer. That was an amazing thing. I got stronger and stronger at it for a couple of years in the leagues before I then bowled it at county level."
County batsmen didn't know what had hit them. Stephenson was one of the domestic game's most prolific bowlers in the late '80s and early '90s, first with Notts between 1988 and 1991 and then Sussex from 1992 to 1995, and his slower ball, delivered as an off-cutter, became his trademark. In 1988 - when Stephenson took 125 first-class wickets at 18 and hit more than 1,000 runs - he says 25 of those victims were snared using his slowie, a phenomenally high percentage for four-day cricket when the batsman's modus operandi is defence.
Such a potent weapon was never going to remain secret for long and the arms race began. Chris Cairns, who famously fooled Chris Read into thinking a yorker was a beamer at Lord's in 1999, was a flatmate of Stephenson's and would pick the Bajan's brains for hours on how to bowl the perfect slower delivery. Wasim Akram, one of the true masters of the art, said he first developed his in 1991 after watching Stephenson bamboozle county batsmen. "I said I must learn to bowl it," he said. "I spoke to a lot of people, Malcolm Marshall, Richard Hadlee, and then went to the nets and worked on it."
"It's Charles Darwin's evolution, mate - you've got to survive. I was never going to be Glenn McGrath or Dennis Lillee… I had to develop other skills - I was forced to evolve"
Adam Hollioake, another who used slower balls to great effect as Surrey gobbled up trophies in the late '90s and early '00s, says it was Steve Waugh who first alerted him to the delivery's possibilities. In a neat twist, Stephenson recalls that Waugh was the recipient of his finest-ever slower delivery when the Aussie was playing for Somerset in 1988. "First ball I bowled to him was a slower ball and he ducked it," remembers Stephenson. "He never saw it but he was still trying to play the shot with his head down to the ground." It would seem that the dismissal left an imprint on the future Australian captain, but while Stephenson delivered his slower ball as a cutter, Waugh's preferred method was out the back of the hand.
"I remember when I first joined Surrey everyone used to bowl this off-spin slower ball which I never really liked," says Hollioake. "That was the most popular one, I think it probably still is. It's an easy one to bowl. The first guy I saw bowling a slower ball really well was Steve Waugh. He started bowling it out the back of the hand and what I worked out then from watching on TV was the key to a good slower ball was the bounce, because that's what made the batsman hit the ball up in the air. When you bowl a normal ball there's an element of backspin on the ball - through the sheer release of the ball you impart backspin on it as it leaves your hand - which makes it skid on, so if you can bowl a ball with topspin or no spin on it, theoretically it should bounce more. That was my thinking. With all due respect, Waugh wasn't Wasim Akram or Glenn McGrath, he was your average sort of medium-pacer. It was then that I realised what a successful delivery it could be."
The likes of Waugh and Hollioake using the slower ball so effectively marked a new chapter in the delivery's evolution. While Stephenson was a genuine quick, using his slower ball as a dramatic change-up, military medium-pacers were now utilising it in a more subtle way. "It's Charles Darwin's evolution, mate - you've got to survive," says Hollioake. "I was never going to be Glenn McGrath or Dennis Lillee or even Darren Gough or Dominic Cork. I had to develop other skills - I was forced to evolve. I wasn't good enough to bowl without that change of pace. Some people have an inswinger and an outswinger, and it's not like I'm 6ft 4in or bowled at 90mph, so varying my pace was pretty much solely what I relied on."
When charting the progress of the slower ball, it seems all roads lead to Waugh. Hollioake too says his most memorable slower ball dismissal was that of his hero at the SCG. "I got Steve out first ball, I think it was his 200th ODI. I was like, 'Take that, I'll give you a slower ball!' It's like the coward's way of getting a wicket! It's not like bouncing someone out or cleaning up someone's stumps with a 90mph yorker. It's not exactly gladiator-type stuff!"
With 2003 came the advent of T20 - a format that would revolutionise the role of the slower delivery. While slowies were already a familiar part of the game, there were a relatively small number of bowlers who would use them regularly throughout an innings. It was still by and large considered a specialist art reserved for skilled death bowlers such as Gloucestershire's Ian Harvey.
With batsmen now on the charge from ball one and bowlers feeling the pinch more than ever, the slower ball became an essential delivery for any seamer worth his salt. Surrey won the inaugural Twenty20 Cup with their skipper Hollioake topping the wicket-taking charts. "I think I adapted to T20 pretty well," he says. "Because I tended to bowl my overs at the end of the innings anyway, when T20 came in it was like the whole innings was the end of the innings. I didn't feel like it made any difference to me but I think it accelerated the need for guys who didn't necessarily bowl at the end of the innings to develop a knowledge of slower balls."
One of those guys was Hollioake's Surrey teammate Rikki Clarke, now perhaps the finest exponent of the slower ball in county cricket. His preferred method is the back of the hand delivery and it's proved so successful that he rarely deviates from it, despite having a couple of variations in his locker. Now at Warwickshire, Clarke's economy-rate of 5.41 in this season's NatWest T20 Blast was by far the lowest in the competition, in no small part down to his well-disguised slower delivery.
"For the back of the hand slower ball I try my best to finish my action, and everything else is just normal," says Clarke. "As the arm is coming over, I just turn the wrist slightly to get the palm facing the batter, then pull through as fast as I can and finish my action. The only time you have problems is when you've not finished your action properly. Finish the action and it should go where you want it and have that dip, topspin and kick that buys you that split second where a batter is thinking, 'What is that?'.
"I was a bit self-taught, but watching Adam Hollioake in my younger days I saw how effective they were and how they picked him up wickets and got him dot balls when he wanted them. When I first came through it was predominantly off- or leg-cutters, then Ian Harvey introduced the back of the hand slower ball and Adam had the knuckle ball or split finger ball.
"Generally these days it's moved away from the cutters but it's down to the individual and what's best suited to them. Matt Coles at Kent uses a split finger ball and a knuckle ball, there's Jade [Dernbach] with the back of the hand slower ball. At Warwickshire we have Recordo Gordon who uses the leg-cutter and people just can't hit it. It's so subtle in his action and it just holds up, moves a touch and it looks like he's bowling a quicker ball but people are through their shot. If I went with the leg-cutter it wouldn't work as well because I don't have the pace, so I have to go with a more deceptive seam-up delivery that looks like a normal ball but drops down by 12-14mph."
With the slower delivery becoming an increasingly important tool for bowlers, and batsmen wising up to the myriad variations, it's no surprise that standards are rising. "We're talking about evolution," says Hollioake. "There are so many guys who bowl it so well now. Back in our day there weren't as many guys doing it well so I stood out. If I bowled it these days I'd just be another bloke bowling a slower ball. The general standard has lifted. The guys these days, they've got to have a bloody good one. You can't just run up and turn an off-spinner out because you're going to get whacked out of the ground."
So if the general standard of slower balls is rising, and more bowlers are equipped to deliver them, then should we be seeing them utilised more frequently in Test and first-class cricket? After all, many of the most famous slower deliveries - Cairns, Walsh, Harmison - were Test dismissals, but perhaps they're the exceptions that prove the rule?
Clarke says they're typically a "last resort" and should perhaps be used more, but Hollioake doesn't expect to see many sent down in Test cricket. "The guys who are bowling in Test cricket have all the features that I lacked: height, pace and swing," he says. "If I wasn't 5ft 11in, bowled 10mph faster and could swing the ball both ways, you probably wouldn't have seen me bowling slower balls either!"
The past master Stephenson says he'd like to see more, but points out that there are drawbacks. "If you've got a good slower ball it should be used in Test cricket but the thing is batsmen aren't setting up to play shots. In the one-day game you know that the batsman wants to play big shots, so he's often already into the stroke. They're really effective when you know the batsman has already planned to play a big shot. There the slower ball really works.
"You really need to have a fantastic slower ball to actually bowl it in Test or first-class cricket and trouble batsmen because another thing about bowling a slower ball [in Test cricket] is that if you've got three slips and a gully for instance, then you don't have the field set for the delivery."
It's an intriguing prospect, though, as we contemplate the next process in the slower ball's evolution. In years to come, will it become commonplace in Test and first-class cricket, just as it has in one-day and T20? With run-rates soaring and bat dominating ball more than ever, bowlers are having to continually evolve in order to redress the balance. It's a tough world out there. Only the fittest will survive.
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