Benny Howell: Gloucestershire's magical mystery man
The story of a lad who overcame ADHD to become an unclassifiable bowler who's one of the world's best in T20
Benny Howell is different. He knows it and his hair shows it. It's a faux hawk in his natural colour, but with a bleached blond streak on one side of the peak, kind of in the crease where the mohawk meets his closely shaved head. Like it's supposed to be one thing and ended up another.
That is what Howell is. He's supposed to be a batsman who bowled a bit of medium pace. Instead, he's perhaps the most interesting bowler in the world: a medium-paced spinning pitcher.
"I'm a bit different than a normal bloke. I'm a bit everywhere."
In 2005, Howell made 66 for Hampshire 2nds as a 16-year-old. It took him five years to make the 1st XI. He was an opener and Hampshire had a top order of Jimmy Adams, Michael Carberry, John Crawley, Michael Lumb and Kevin Pietersen.
There were no 1st XI games for the first two seasons. In his third season, in 2010, he played two List A games. The next season he played regularly. He even made his first-class debut, a 71 as opener after following on.
Howell played 13 T20 and 13 List A matches for Hampshire. He didn't bowl much in the List A games, but he averaged 44 with a strike rate of 92. In the T20s he floated around the lower middle-order, and with limited opportunity averaged 30 with the bat and 18 with the ball. At the end of that season they let him go.
"I made a few mistakes, I had a few issues with time," he remembered. "It was the end of the season. I decided to go on holiday without asking the coaches. I was getting frustrated with not playing, so I was probably lashing out a bit. At the time I didn't think it was wrong."
With a record like his, it should have been easy for Howell to find another team. But the county rumour mill said he was challenging and more trouble than he was worth.
In the 2011 off-season Dave Fulton, a former Kent captain, and an agent at the time, took on Howell to help him find a new county. No one showed much interest. Fulton called John Bracewell, then coach of Gloucestershire, and they agreed that if Howell turned up for pre-season, he'd get a trial. Howell would have to cut his contract with Melbourne grade cricket team Essendon, which he was willing to do.
The only problem was that every call Fulton put in to Bracewell after Howell had booked to come home early went unanswered. Howell struggled with the uncertainty. "My head wasn't great then. Before that I was pretty confident I was going to get somewhere. It was pretty obnoxious of me. They bred us in Hampshire to be confident."
The easy thing for Howell would have been to rely on his batting, and chip in a few overs when circumstances called. He chose to make himself into a kind of bowler who hadn't existed before
Fulton came up with another plan. In March 2012 he drove to Southampton to pick up Howell and took him to Oxford, where Gloucestershire were playing a practice game.
"We get there, and I see John Bracewell doing some paperwork sitting on the bench," Fulton remembered. "Gloucestershire are batting, so I pick the phone up to call, and I see him pick the phone up, think for a bit, and then put the phone down and carry on with his paperwork. So I walk around the ground and say 'Hello John.'
"'Oh hello Fults, you just phoned me?'
"'I think we both know I did.'"
Bracewell admitted that since their first call, he'd found out the county had no money.
"It's okay, he'll play for nothing," Fulton said. "He'll crash on someone's floor. He just wants an opportunity."
Howell spoke up. "I want to play for Gloucester, I feel I'm good enough. Will you give me a go?"
Fulton was nervous before Howell's first game.
"You become like Jerry Maguire, where you're watching it and going 'Come on', and his first game in the 2nds he got nought and one, and you go 'Grrrr.'"
Howell felt worse. "I didn't know where to go from there. I was pretty down."
He opened in the next game against Surrey and made 207 not out. He never had to sleep on anyone's floor again, and by July he had a contract.
These days when bowlers warm up, coaches stand behind the rubber stumps with a baseball glove. For coaches, most bowlers in the world are straightforward. Occasionally on practice pitches with inconsistent bounce, balls get past them, and other times the ball will hit the stump and veer off. Howell isn't a straightforward bowler.
Today the coach is standing two metres back from the stumps and some balls bounce twice, others kick up, and one just seems to roll after pitching. And Howell is so accurate he hits the stumps more than most. It feels for a whole session that the coach doesn't take one cleanly. And it isn't as if the coach hasn't seen slower balls. It's Ian Harvey, possibly the best deliverer of slower balls in the '90s.
To confuse someone as experienced as Harvey, you can't bowl normal. Howell could have been a standard medium-pacer with a few cutters and a back-of-the-hand slower ball - a poor man's Harvey. But he chose something else, and it's because of baseball.
On holiday in America a few years ago, Howell went to a Miami Marlins v Philadelphia Phillies game. He became obsessed with the duel between pitcher and batter. When he went back to one of his regular stints in Melbourne district cricket, he decided to play baseball for Malvern Braves, a small amateur club. He played centerfield to start, and would come in as a relief pitcher towards the end. It changed everything.
"I loved the idea of a knuckleball, a curveball, so I played around with it. I thought, why not use it in cricket? No one was using it [the knuckleball]. That's when my bowling took off.
"The knuckleball became my main change-up. It was doing things that people hadn't seen before."
This was before Andrew Tye started taking over the world. Until then, Howell had been a batsman; these deliveries turned him into a white-ball allrounder.
Howell doesn't have just a knuckleball, he has one he rolls off the end of his thumb, making it rotate forwards. Another is a wobble ball, and one that sometimes acts like an in- or outswinger.
"I was looking at all the clips of the different pitchers. I liked the look of a screwball, the way it drifts in, like a legcutter, but sometimes skids on, or it might hold. Instead of bowling just a standard offcutter, which I don't think is that valuable these days, I try to hold it like an offspinner and bowl offspin.
"The commentators are always saying I bowl cutters - no, I don't. I also bowl barrel balls [which is when an offspinner bowls around the side: a ball might skid on or hold].
"As I was going on, I was seeing what works, because obviously a few pitches don't work because the ball has to bounce. And the cricket ball doesn't do as much as a baseball in the air. And then I started working out how to hold knuckleballs differently, how to drift the right way."
The majority of slower balls in cricket are offcutters, back-of-the-hand, or split-fingered. Howell uses none of these. He's working on a back-of-the-hand slower ball, but even then it's something different. It sounds like Abdul Qadir's great finger wrong'un, where instead of coming out from the palm of the hand, it is flicked out quickly from between the thumb and index finger.
Baseball doesn't have spinners. But they do talk about spin. They measure baseball pitches with a spin rate: imparting spin allows them to move the ball more in the air. This is the Magnus effect - how balls from spinners drift and drop.
Baseball techniques have been used in cricket before. Fred Spofforth studied baseball to master his swerve. Glenn McGrath, over 100 years later, had a lot of success with the split-finger slower ball - baseball's splitter.
But the reason Howell is using them is also because of how similar T20 is to baseball. Batsmen now come harder more often, and working the ball around is far less important than hitting it for six. A wicket is not valued as much in T20 as in longer forms. The contest now is much closer to the kill-or-be-killed nature of baseball.
It feels like I have a million thoughts going on in my head. I can't put a mark on what I am confused about. It just feels like everything is a bit muddled, jumbled up in my brain
The primary contest has always been the same: if you can consistently deceive the batter, you'll be more successful. In baseball they focus on the curve of these variation pitches as much as on the lack of pace. In cricket, Howell recently told the Batflips and Nerds podcast, "we talk too much about the changing speed. It's actually about the movement of slower balls as well".
If you look at great slower-ball bowlers, they often beat batsmen through dip, or eventually, spin. Lasith Malinga's economy for full tosses was better than when most bowlers landed the ball because many of his full tosses were slower balls with incredible late dip. (Howell has experimented with Malinga's low-arm action, because of course he has.) His pace doesn't change as much as that of others, but he's trying to beat you with movement, bounce and drop.
Howell loved baseball so much, he thought about quitting cricket and trying to make it in the minor leagues. Many cricketers are obsessed with baseball. When Howell talks about it, he often mixes its terms up with those of cricket. He is a pitching obsessive. Recently he claimed to the Cricketer that he has 50 slower balls. Fifty - from those that are match-ready to those he is experimenting with on his own.
He is mostly referred to as a medium - or generously - a medium-fast seamer. He's not that at all. "I call myself more of a spinner. I wanted to push myself to be a bit different."
He's not a spinner either. He's different.
"I'm a bit different than a normal bloke. I'm a bit everywhere".
There's a nervous energy to Howell when he speaks, like he's not sure if he has said the right thing but really hopes he has. In cricket, people gossip a lot and they say he has autism. It's not true, but these things stick.
"Everyone thinks those things, but others don't act on every single emotion they have. That is what I have worked on to control. When I was a kid, I was diagnosed with ADHD, and then I sort of forgot about it. And then at the end of [the] Hampshire [stint], I was diagnosed with depression, but I didn't feel like it was depression, I just felt confused. So I read a few things, and ADHD sounded about right, because I was doing things that are impulsive, I was getting confused, not thinking straight. I would say things without even thinking about it."
When he was at Gloucestershire he was diagnosed officially and sought help. "Medication, and actually more meditation, in fact. I do a lot of meditating to help me to be a bit more clearer, and not so jumpy on each sort of thought I have.
"It feels like I have a million thoughts going on in my head. I can't put a mark on what I am confused about. It just feels like everything is a bit muddled, jumbled up in my brain."
There are many athletes around the world with ADHD, including Michael Phelps. Some have talked about it as something to overcome and others as something that helps them. Either way, it certainly gives these athletes a point of difference in how they view the world and sport.
It's very hard to be an innovator in professional sport because everyone has arrived at the top level doing things the one way. In basketball the underhand free throw is far more accurate than the standard way, yet players are embarrassed to try it. The broomstick putter and metal drivers in golf were not instantly taken up, despite huge advantages. The easy thing for Howell would have been to rely on his batting, and chip in a few overs when circumstances called. He chose to make himself into a kind of bowler who hadn't existed before.
"I think if I didn't have ADHD I wouldn't have experimented with all my variations. I jump on things, I'm impulsive. But it's helped my game.
"I don't think people knew what I was doing for a couple of years, maybe until a year or two ago. I was just having fun. People thought I was a bit crazy."
In 2013 he took T20 wickets at an average of 23 and an economy of 7.24. In 2014 the average was 19.60, the economy 7.24; the next year, 22.17 and 7.25; then 17.44 and 6.65; and last year, 14.88 and 5.95 (all but six matches in the Blast).
Howell has got better the more teams have seen him. Even as teams have scored less off him, he continues to take wickets. Unlike players with similar records, like Sunil Narine and Rashid Khan, teams don't really play around him and look for singles. Howell thinks they are starting to do that, but he has a theory on why they haven't so far. "There is still an element of 'he's a medium-pacer, we should try and take him down', which is fair enough, but it comes to my advantage."
People kill to face gentle medium pace. Medium-pace bowlers have been dying a slow-medium death in cricket since the war. Fast bowlers are in every team, so there are few medium-fast bowlers at the top level, let alone medium. Those who are medium-paced are almost never specialists. Fewer still are front-line bowlers.
That is a big reason Howell has a career. Now, if he batted 11 and couldn't physically hold a bat in his hands, he'd still be close to the first name on Gloucestershire's team sheet.
There are a growing number of slower-bowling specialists in T20. Tye is their current rock star, but Dwayne Bravo is their spiritual leader. In the last three years, Bravo, Tye and Thisara Perera are first, third and 11th on the T20 wickets list. These three medium-fast bowlers (according to their ESPNcricinfo profiles) are three of the best wicket-takers in the world. But they are quicker than Howell - over 80mph and sometimes over 85. Howell would be lucky to break 75mph - he thinks high 70s. The others can bowl quick yorkers, surprise bouncers; Howell can do neither. He's left with his change-ups and very friendly pace.
Cricket used to have hybrid bowlers like Sydney Barnes, who some called a seamer and some a spinner. But since Derek Underwood, there has been no one even kind of similar to that. Howell is not sure what bowler he's similar to.
Recently Howell claimed that he has 50 slower balls. Fifty - from those that are match-ready to those he is experimenting with on his own
"Ian Harvey, maybe, or there was a guy from New Zealand." (He means Chris Harris.) Harvey was a standard medium-fast, quicker than Howell, with great slower balls, and Harris bowled legcutters. Howell's not like them.
A former bowler was recently contracted by his board to look at some bowling prospects for all formats. Of the four, he liked two. The board told him they were both too slow and then asked what he thought of the others. He said they weren't much good but they were fast. The board went with the faster bowlers.
The eye test is still how most cricketers worldwide are picked. How do they look?
Tye looks better than Howell because he's taller, stronger, quicker, and in cricket parlance, hits the deck hard. He also plays in the BBL, a higher-quality league. That means people are willing to take a risk on him for international cricket, the IPL, and now, other competitions.
One of those competitions is the Blast, where Tye played alongside Howell for Gloucestershire. Tye played 14 games in which both took a wicket every 16 balls (which is incredible). But Tye's smart economy is 8.6 and Howell's is 6.1. It is great, but it doesn't mean Howell's numbers will translate to overseas leagues.
The only other league Howell has played in was the BPL. He travelled there against the direct advice of the PCA in 2016 because it was his first big shot. In two seasons he has played six games (curiously only one in the second season). In those games, he averaged 20 and his smart economy was 5.28.
The other problem is how little he's seen. He's not in a big-market team and Blast games are rarely televised. This year his team had two televised games, the first of which was played when England were facing Croatia in the football World Cup semi-final. At times he plays Royal London (50-over) matches that are on TV as well, but his bowling isn't as good there.
Still, England has one of cricket's most professional scouting networks. And Howell has been the best T20 bowler in England for five years. He has taken the second most wickets in the last five years of the Blast, has the seventh-best economy rate, and takes a wicket every 16 balls. For three out of the last six seasons, the Blast has had the highest run rate among the world's T20 leagues, so Howell's economy is impressive. He has bowled to some decent batsmen - Chris Gayle, Colin Ingram, Jesse Ryder, Eoin Morgan, Andre Russell, Kumar Sangakkara, Jason Roy, Richard Levi, Dwayne Bravo, Aaron Finch, Brendon McCullum, Sunil Narine, David Miller, Corey Anderson. He has taken Ravi Bopara three times in nine games, and Sam Billings three times in seven. But England haven't come calling.
"I'm not shocked I haven't been picked up, but I am disappointed," he said. "I've never played Lions. I know when they were looking at the T20 friendlies last year, I was one of the names that came up. Apparently my slower balls weren't too different when they were looking through speed analysis. That's what I've heard - not sure how true that is. They still see me as not quick enough - a seamer with change-ups - and they think at international level I'll get hit."
If that is true, it's a massive misunderstanding of what Howell does. If anyone deserves a chance to get hit at international level, it's him.
Thisara Perera bowls in the Powerplay for Gloucestershire at Uxbridge. It's clear that although Perera is a slower-ball bowler - especially at the death - he's still more than quick enough. Howell replaces Perera and the keeper comes straight up to the stumps.
Like for spinners the world over, Howell's first over is the one straight after the Powerplay ends. He's wearing the number 13. His first ball is full and straight and for all his alternative methods, he likes the "if you miss, I hit" mantra. They steal a second run off his first ball, and Howell gets struck on the fingers from the throw. There's just a touch of the prima donna about his reaction. The over is a collection of balls hit hard to fielders and mishits that bobble off the bat safely.
Howell's wickets are off floating balls that come off the bat impossibly slowly and loop up in the air. There are no attacking fielders for one of the best T20 wicket-takers - everyone is back on the edge of the circle or boundary. At long-on, a mishit by John Simpson that never looks like going over the rope is taken. Howell seems to have a pre-planned wicket celebration and then adds a second one that doesn't quite match. Both of them seem to be from '80s comedy movies no one can remember.
His next ball is to Dwayne Bravo, who pushes nervously back down the wicket. It should be stopped, but as Howell tries, he sort of folds over on himself. At first it doesn't look like a significant problem and he gets up and walks back to his mark, but his limp gets worse. He stops and stretches before continuing to walk, limping again, starting and stopping, limping a few times. It's long and dramatic. Everyone knows he won't be able to bowl, but Howell keeps trying to get himself right, trying to prove he can overcome whatever it is. It's a real injury, and he'll be out for a couple of weeks.
Howell has only bowled 11 balls, but in that time he has bamboozled top-order players, shown his hair to the crowd, covered the ball up like it's a state secret, wrung his hands like a finger has been detached, celebrated a wicket with at least one, if not two, pre-planned celebrations, and then limped around one ball after his wicket. It has been dramatic, captivating and very different.
Slower balls lose their effectiveness. Cutters are smashed out of parks in club cricket now. Players see a ball coming above their eyeline and know it's a back-of-the-hand slower ball. You see bowlers have a good season or year, when the slower balls can't be picked, before struggling for a while when word gets around on how to pick them.
Howell has got better the more people have faced him; he doesn't have a few slower balls, he has a never-ending collection of deliveries to confuse batsmen, all while struggling with his own confusion.
When you ask him about his ADHD, he says: "If you could imagine an old room full of stuff that hasn't been used in 20 years, cobwebs, dust, things everywhere, that's what my brain was. I was like that, a bit strange, a bit different."
It's an answer you can tell he has used before. He was asked a question, and he went into that old room full of stuff and came out with the exact right answer for this situation. The same old room of stuff that's also full of 50 slower balls.
Benny Howell is a bit different from a normal cricketer. He's a different bowler from almost everyone in T20.
Jarrod Kimber is a writer for ESPNcricinfo. @ajarrodkimber