Southee's quest for an upswing

Tim Southee has had a tough struggle in ODIs since the highs of the 2015 World Cup. It's swing he is known for, it's the swing that has been missing and it's the swing New Zealand hope he can regain soon

Alagappan Muthu
Alagappan Muthu
Tim Southee at a training session, Auckland, February 20, 2018

Getty Images

Tim Southee is on the sidelines because he has been bowling straight lines.
Technically, it appears he is out of the New Zealand XI because they are trying to get a look at as many players as possible before the World Cup begins in May. And while it makes sense that an experienced player makes way - the team knows what to expect from him and he can be trusted to raise his game come the big day - the fact that Southee had to do so while the series against India was alive was odd.
After all, that meant New Zealand were happy to face one of the best ODI teams on the planet without one of their premier quicks. Except he has been averaging 45.29 over the last four years.
Simon Doull, a former fast bowler himself, and one of the sharpest commentators going around, called it even before Southee's name was missing from the second ODI against India, pointing out that he has not been able to swing the white ball as well as he used to. And there is data to back that up. According to Cricviz, Southee, who swung the ball 1.12 degrees through the 2015 World Cup, has seen that figure fall to 0.83 degrees of movement since.
It's a shortcoming that is affecting several bowlers in limited-overs cricket. Mitchell Starc, who was monumentally vicious four years ago, is now struggling to make any kind of ball - white, red, pink, rolled-up socks - swing. But he has pace. Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who once couldn't get through a wicketless first spell if he tried, is paying a steep 40 runs per wicket in the first 10 overs. But Bhuvneshwar has fashioned himself into a world-class menace in the death overs, alongside Jasprit Bumrah. Everyone - even the very best ODI bowlers - has had to find new ways to be threatening, with swing - both conventional and reverse - fading out of the game.
Of course, Southee doesn't lack for variations. There's that deceptive bouncer; it may not have scary pace but it has a nasty habit of coming at your nose. Cross-seamers, which he's rather fond of, since they have the potential to stop on the pitch or bounce awkwardly. The wide-of-the-crease delivery. The offcutters. The legrollers. But it is swing that he's known for, that the batsmen are wary of. Swing that makes a batsman slow to move his feet, that scrambles his mind. Swing that led Sir Richard Hadlee to label him and Boult as New Zealand's best-ever new-ball combo. Without it, he's a bit like Superman without super speed. The bad guys know if they take care and keep their distance they should be able to get away with it.
And the stats bear that out. Southee has picked up only 48 wickets in 44 innings since that fairytale run to the MCG. By comparison, Boult has 93 in 49, including an unmatched 36 during the first 10 overs of an ODI.
It is not prudent to compare the returns of a left-arm seamer, whose angle alone is often enough to trouble an opponent, with a right-armer. But it does illustrate the point that the old faithful firm is not as it once was. To their credit, New Zealand identified the problem and, as has been the case in the past - whether as recently as the tour of the UAE or their unbeaten run into the semi-final of the 2016 World T20 - sentiment was kept aside and a senior player was left out. The team management placed its trust in the express pace of Lockie Ferguson, the wristspin of Ish Sodhi and the allrounders Doug Bracewell and Mitchell Santner. India beat them anyway.
"3-0 is a tough pill to swallow," Ross Taylor said on Tuesday. "We just weren't able to capitalise when we were in a semi-dominant position. With bat and ball, we haven't been able to penetrate."
There was a time when a batsman could cover all three stumps and Southee would still find a way right through him. It was the defining feature of the last instance when he took five or more wickets in ODIs, sealed when Chris Woakes was beaten by an outswinger and he knew he should just walk off to the dressing room and not even dare looking back. It was the most visceral kind of magic and for New Zealand, it'd be great if Southee can do it all over again. Preferably sometime soon.

Alagappan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo