I remember a moment in a T20 International: It was around the 8th over and a seam bowler ran in and bowled the first ball at the stumps on good length; the batsman got a single. The next ball was similar; no runs were scored off it. The third ball was no different; the batsman again picked off a single.
The next ball, the 4th of the over, was a loopy slower delivery that went for a six. The final two deliveries were reactions to the six, variations that disappeared for boundaries. What started off as a promising over, ended up being a very expensive one. The bowler was withdrawn from the attack.
So, what happened here? Well, the key word here is ‘variation’. After three similar deliveries on the good length, the bowler felt obliged to bowl the variation. In this case, it set the batsman free.
Variations came into limited overs cricket because bowlers didn’t want to be predictable as batsmen started attacking them more and more. The key word now is ‘predictable’ – so, in came the slower deliveries and other novelties. Simon O’Donnell made quite a name with his slower balls in the 80s, Steve Waugh after that, so bowlers found ways to survive by deceiving the batsmen with something they weren’t expecting, with sudden changes of pace and trajectory. Bowlers were not only able to keep batsmen quieter now, they also started getting lots of wickets with these variations. The problem in the T20 game I mentioned at the start is that the bowler’s variations themselves had become predictable for the batsman.
The bowler followed his normal strategy – three stock balls and then a variation. But because batsmen have seen this happen over the years, they knew what to expect.
There is a nice paradox in limited overs cricket right now: the best variation for a bowler is no variation.
In the IPL, it’s been fascinating to see this aspect reveal itself prominently: Seamers, and to an extent, spinners too, who are not using too many variations are rising head and shoulders above the rest. The rest, still stuck in time, are trying a lot of different things and getting carted all over – Khaleel Ahmed being the prime example.
R Ashwin too bowled a superb first over of his DC career versus KXI to get Karun Nair and Nicholas Pooran out, bowling two beautiful simple length balls, the same over where he injured his shoulder.
On his comeback after the injury, with his team defending 228 at Sharjah, the bowlers’ graveyard, Ashwin bowled 6 different deliveries – changing his arm angle on one, crease use on the other, then the stop and deliver ball, plus variations with his fingers. He bowled just 2 overs and went for 26.
We have so much data available around matches these days and every time I see it, balls that have been fast, straight and on length are the ones with the lowest strike rate. Balls outside off, slower balls, yorkers gone wrong…these are all going at a strike rate of 170 and above.
Variation as a tactic is hard to shake off: After two similar balls, the bowler thinks, the batsman is now certainly going to hit the next ball for a six if I bowl in the same place again. So, he tries something different and gets hit for a six, because the batsman is actually all set and ready for that variation.
A few brave bowlers – or call them smart bowlers – are outfoxing batsmen by bowling the third or fourth ball exactly where the first two or three were bowled, in that narrow corridor in the stumps. The data consistently shows that these bowlers are not getting hit as much. Plus, a bowler stands a good chance of getting an LBW or of hitting the stumps with the old ‘you miss, I hit’ tactic.
When AB de Villiers moves around in the crease before a ball is bowled, I see the bowler’s survival instinct kick in and he follows AB wherever he is and AB is expecting just that. So, the bowler has gone after AB, when the stumps are lying exposed almost 3 feet away. Yes, AB being the genius he is, would likely even hit that ball in the stumps for a six, but at least if you bowl at the stumps you give yourself a chance to hit them!
In UAE, we have seen Jasprit Bumrah, Md Shami, James Pattinson, and Ishant Sharma too – in his first spell for DC in the only game he played – use this tactic and emerge successful. Even the great Kagiso Rabada goes for runs on the rare occasions he starts varying too much.
Navjot Singh Sidhu had a standard approach against spinners, after hitting a six off them, he would blindly sit on the back foot for the next ball and cut it for four. He always knew the next ball after the six was going to be flat and short, for the spinner is now scared of getting hit for another six. If the spinner had bowled that exact same delivery again, he would have actually been one up on Sidhu.
The 2019 50-over World Cup in England, the slow bouncer was the staple ‘survival ball’ for all the seamers in the tournament (Hardik Pandya used it best amongst the Indian seamers).
This IPL, the old-fashioned, good-length ball on the stumps is the ‘go to’ delivery for seamers. The superior bowling minds are already on it and reaping rewards. Others may catch up soon or may not, for it needs a brave bowler to bowl the exact same ball that has just been hit out of the ground’. Yuzvendra Chahal does this brilliantly. I haven’t seen a spinner with a bigger heart.
Essentially the bowler needs to conquer fear. The captain could help the bowler by taking accountability and instructing the bowler to keep it there, no matter what. Apart from today’s reality that the batsman is expecting a variation, there is also the cricketing truth that there is very good chance that the execution from the batsman could be wrong this time.
We as players have seen that happen in the nets a lot, where even the best can’t hit all identical deliveries identically for a boundary.