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Couch Talk

'My kind of bowling style is gone now'

Former New Zealand seamer Gavin Larsen talks about wobbly seam-up bowling, the 1992 World Cup, and his role in the next tournament

Subash Jayaraman: You were part of the group of bowlers for New Zealand called the dibbly-dobbly-wibbly-wobblies, but growing up, no one really envisions themselves being such a specialised operator. Who were your role models, and how did you settle on that style of bowling?
Gavin Larsen: That is a difficult question. When I started, I was always a batsman who bowled a little bit. I played for Wellington through all the representative programmes, played in the Under-16s, 18s and 20s. I captained Wellington, I was a middle-order batsman, and I bowled a few medium-pacers. I found that I had an ability to bowl a tidy line and length on a medium pace. The one-day game was growing and I just grabbed that. I was making things more as a bowler than I was as a batsman. So I guess at the end of the day, the bottom line is that I put more emphasis on my bowling, the 50-over bowling, and that is why it became my blueprint.
SJ: How useful were the conditions in New Zealand for your specialised bowling?
GL: That was in the 1980s and the '90s. The pitches in New Zealand, they did a little bit, they gave us a bit of sideways movement. The one-day pitches were quite slow as well. It suits a guy to drop the pace off the ball and not try to run in in the mould of a 140kph type. I just had the ability to hit the back of a length, hit the top of off stump, and not necessarily at any great pace. The conditions suited me and there is no doubt about that. Guys like Chris Harris, Willie Watson and my old mate Rod Latham in the 1992 World Cup, who hardly bowled for Canterbury - we became quite effective on those pitches. I had to say that the pitches have changed dramatically in New Zealand over the last 15 years or so and they do produce very good one-day pitches now. They have more pace and carry.
SJ: Has that kind of bowler - a seamer who can bowl back of a length with a little bit of movement, controlling the direction more than anything else - vanished from international cricket? Was Paul Collingwood perhaps the last of the kind?
GL: I think like anything in life, times change. Things evolve. There have been some very positive rule changes implemented by the ICC on the playing conditions now. They have an extra man inside the circle. The boundaries have gone a bit shorter and the bats have become bigger. The fours and sixes are seen more frequently now. T20 cricket has had an amazing influence on 50-over cricket in the way the players go about the game, and the bowlers are a lot more attacking. The batsmen do not go into their shell in the middle overs of the 50-over innings. You still see an acceleration in scoring. I think the age of the old bowling style like mine is gone now. It is about variations and change of pace and being a lot more attacking in terms of your mindset now.
SJ: Do you think that you could still cut it, with your skills and variations in the modern ODI game?
GL: Oh yes, absolutely. Things evolve, and players need to evolve as well. I have no doubt whatsoever that when you want to bowl 120 to early 130 kph, if I just run in and bowl straight, just back of a length these days, I will get hit. It is about having a couple of change-up deliveries, I would bowl a cut bouncer or a slower bouncer, bowl yorkers on the mark and on a fixed line or pushing it into the leg stump. There are all sorts of variations that you are going to be armed with these days as a bowler. No doubt if I was 17-18-19 again, I would adapt to the game accordingly.
My coach told me, "You should be able to put a blindfold on and bowl your stock delivery ball after ball after ball. Once you can do that, you go and create the variations." I still say that to young guys that I coach
SJ: About the bits-and-pieces cricketers who played a lot in the 1990s and after, a listener wonders if that has done more harm than good to the game of cricket itself. If it were up to you, who would you pick in a playing XI - a Gavin Larsen or a Shaun Tait?
GL: That is a very good question. If I go back to the playing conditions that we were presented with in the 1990s, particularly in New Zealand, bits and pieces is a negative perspective. Guys who could contribute in all three portions of the game, with the ball and the bat and be very good fielders - they were like gold nuggets. As the pitches have gotten better and quicker, those types of players have been found out more. Specialists have come back to the fore. Shaun Tait, for instance, being able to run in and bowl at 140 kph and be an attacking weapon, is very imposing. And similarly, attacking batsmen, absolute specialists batting down at No. 7 and No. 8 are massive advantages as well.
SJ: Isn't it interesting that Test cricket was always said to be the game for the specialists and limited-overs cricket for anyone with two out of three roles? When T20 came in, that was said to be where you'd try to get in as many allrounders. But we are seeing that even the limited-overs game is becoming a game for the specialists.
GL: I absolutely agree with that. I am pleased you mentioned Test cricket too, because it is still the No. 1 form of the game and the pure form of the game. And the role a genuine allrounder plays in a Test team is so vital and pivotal. If you have a world-class allrounder or two who you can slide into the middle order and have as your front-line bowler, there are just so many options for a captain. You can play two spinners, you can play the extra batsman down the order. Similarly, if you have wicketkeepers who can bat and score Test hundreds, that is a massive help for the team balance as well. I would really stress the point that whilst I do talk a lot about short-form cricket, because I have played a lot of 50-over cricket, I still believe that the long form is still where it is at.
SJ: What were your options of getting wickets at the first-class level? Did you try to get wickets in front of the wicket or behind the wicket?
GL: That is a good question. I didn't play as many Tests as I would have liked. I played just eight. I had reasonable success. I got about 24 wickets. I always recognised that my style of bowling was going to be that of the third seamer at best or possibly contributing as a batsman at No. 7 or 8 or 9, and as a fourth seamer. I recognised that I didn't have the ability to be bowling at mid-130s consistently, because I tended to angle it into the right-hander, and as I didn't have a natural outswinger, I wasn't bringing the shots into play. In long-form cricket my appearances were going to be limited.
SJ: So you were trying to take wickets in front of the wicket, whether it was trapping the batsman lbw or getting him caught in the covers?
GL: Yes. I realised that my action was that I could bowl very straight. I was accurate. For me, in long-form cricket it was about building pressure, bowling in tandem with an attacking bowler from the other end, creating the holding pattern and trying to bowl maiden overs. There is a real correlation between the number of maiden overs bowled in long-form cricket and the success that the team has, because it is all about building pressure. There is always an upside to having guys in your team who hope to build that pressure and allowing attacking bowlers to do their job at the other end.
SJ: Lasith Malinga practises bowling yorkers accurately by placing a pair of shoes at the crease and targeting them. What did you do for accuracy?
GL: No, I didn't put down shoes or anything like that. Not really, I just found that I had this natural ability to put the ball on the right spot more often than not. I go back to a coach I had, Artie Dick, who played for New Zealand a few generations before me. He was my first true coach when I was working my way through the age-group programme. He told me one day, "You are a young man. You should be able to put a blindfold on and bowl your stock delivery ball after ball after ball. Once you can do that, you go and create the variations." I still say that to young guys that I coach, which is that until you have a very good stock delivery that you can bank on, don't try all these fancy variations. That was one really cool piece of advice from my early coach.
SJ: You opened the bowling a few times and averaged a very good 21 at just over three runs an over. Did you enjoy bowling with the new ball or did you enjoy bowling with the softer one?
GL: I didn't get to take the new ball very often, I can tell you that. It was in the West Indies in 1996, when we were riddled with injuries. I opened the bowling in a couple of Tests and I remember in Barbados I looked at the scoreboard and I had the first three wickets. I had taken them pretty much with the new ball. That was neat. When you do bowl with the new ball you have these chance and opportunities that it might swing a little bit. That was nice. I always realised that that was only going to be a stop-gap measure and I would fall back to a third- or fourth-seamer role, and that was really my job.
SJ: The 1992 World Cup was a high point for New Zealand cricket. But the way the tournament ended, that must still rankle for you guys?
GL: Look, I still think about it and I have a vivid memory, but I wouldn't say that it still rankles. We moved on from that very quickly. It was an amazing month of cricket. We captured the hearts of all the New Zealanders, there is no doubt about that. You know you have cracked that when the politicians want to come into your dressing room and have photos with you. That meant the things were going well, to be able to walk through airports and have people pat you on the back - that doesn't happen that often. To win seven games in a row was unprecedented. It created almost a tidal wave of cricket enthusiasm in the country and it was neat to be a part of it. That semi-final at Eden Park was incredibly disappointing the way it panned out. We had enough runs on the board, 260, which was probably the equivalent of 320 these days. We should have won. But, Inzy [Inzamam-ul-Haq] had a great knock and we got finished off by Javed Miandad, who wasn't a bad little player. Unfortunately we came up a little bit short.
SJ: How did you guys handle that pressure of expectations within the team? What did Martin Crowe or your coach say to make sure you were focused on the game?
GL: We had some good experience in the team. A lot of guys had played a lot of cricket domestically and for New Zealand. It wasn't a young, raw, immature team. First and foremost, there was some mental strength across the individuals in the team. The other thing that I do remember is how Martin Crowe insisted that we depersonalised each of the teams. New Zealand has played Australia in the past and you can get caught in the Trans-Tasman hype - playing the old enemy from across the ditch.
What we did was in the first game of the tournament, we were playing the Yellow Team. We just called them the Yellow Team. We played Zimbabwe at Napier, we called them the Red Team. Pakistan was the Green Team. That made us focus on what we needed to do as a team to beat that Yellow Team. That took away some of the emotion. All of that was a great little period in New Zealand cricket, and I'm really proud to be part of it.
SJ: How much truth is there to the perception that you guys were taking it easy in the final round-robin game against Pakistan, which you lost, which guaranteed New Zealand a home semi-final?
GL: No, no. When you are on a roll, you stay on a roll. Winning is a habit. We wanted to win every game in that tournament. It was always on the cards at some stage in that tournament that you are going to trip up in some way. On that day our top order had a bad day at the office. We didn't have enough runs on the board against Pakistan. They had their backs to the wall and they came out charging. That day it was a must-win game for them. I don't think it took the wind out of our sails at all. In fact, in a way, it allowed us to sit down and reassess and remind ourselves that we are playing sports here and there is always going to be a winner and a loser. We did that very well. We scored 260 in the game after. We thought we had enough to win that game and probably should have.
"There is a real correlation between the number of maiden overs bowled in long-form cricket and the success that the team has, because it is all about building pressure"
SJ: You are the operations manager for New Zealand for the 2015 World Cup. What are you in charge of?
GL: I am the cricket operations manager. There are two areas that I am responsible for. One is called team services. It is what the cricket teams will encounter and experience from the moment they land in either Australia or New Zealand, till they depart from the tournament. It's the hotels, getting them from A to B, to practice, the catering, etc.
I have a team in New Zealand putting all the logistics together. The second area is the cricket operations side. That is around the venues themselves, the pitches, the outfields, the training facilities, which is a very important focus for the ICC - making sure we have secondary training venues for when we have multiple teams in one city, contingency venues up and running, and making sure that the space is available for the players and the match officials - the likes of changing rooms. It is about coordinating and communicating with all cities to make sure that the facilities are in order.
SJ: What sort of lasting legacy are you guys trying to build up through this World Cup so that cricket as a sport is continually supported?
GL: First and foremost, it is very apparent that the whole of New Zealand is behind us and people are excited and engaging with the World Cup. As you alluded to, it is a massive opportunity to leave something that is going to be long-standing and of real value for New Zealand cricket. I guess that one area of real focus is the participation numbers of young cricketers around New Zealand. There is no doubt that there is going to be a spike. It is about making sure that the cricket associations maximise the opportunity the cricket World Cup will present. That is around making sure that the physical infrastructure will be able to support us. That is, are there enough artificial pitches, enough grounds around New Zealand? When we have 10% increase in playing numbers, if that is the number, then you have to be able to cater to these new cricketers, because the last thing you want is to offer bad service and lose them quickly.
SJ: How deep do you think the current New Zealand team can run in the World Cup?
GL: New Zealand have got a good pedigree and history in the World Cup. Plenty of semi-finals - five or six, I think. Other teams know that. So I certainly wouldn't say that we are a dark horse, we are certainly up there as one of the teams that can do well in the World Cup.
It is a really good mixture of experience and youth coming through. There are x-factor players who can win games all by themselves - the Brendon McCullums and Ross Taylors of the squad - and any number of other guys who can hit the ball a country mile. There are a number of attacking bowlers with really good variations.
I think most importantly, there is depth developing in the game in New Zealand. So what that means is that there is competition for spots. If they can avoid injuries, in particular to the quicker bowlers, and get them to the January period and be picking from a full squad, I think our guys have a good chance to run deep into the tournament. The big issue will be if/when they reach the quarter-finals/semi-finals. It is where you find out if they have the mental ability to jump that final hurdle, because as I said, the New Zealand team has not played in a World Cup final before.
SJ: What do they need to make that jump?
GL: I am not sure. It will be a mental hurdle, no doubt about that. Physically, technically, tactically, they cover the bases very well. If you do reach a quarter-final and they play here in Wellington and there are 34,000 people in a full stadium watching them, the expectation is going to be massive. It is just whether they can mentally work their way to that. It is going to be a massive challenge against a very good team, whoever they are playing. On the day, who knows. That will be in the mind, I believe. Definitely.