Just 1.1% of a full day of Test cricket; only 5% of a T20 innings. An over is the second smallest unit in cricket, but for a non-bowling cricketer, obliged by the format of a competition to bowl, it has the potential to be the period of time covering the transition from active playing to determined retirement. It lasts long enough for repeated humiliation that then echoes onwards for years ahead.
“You now,” shouts the skipper. The innings is short; the call inevitable. I trot towards the umpire, hand him my cap, and mark a short run-up, wondering if performing these conventional actions can somehow create an aura of bowling competence that will sustain me through the next six deliveries. That number, six, I put out of my mind. I know it’s a best case scenario. It could, with a mechanical merciless umpire, be infinite if I cannot control how I propel the ball. But even six deliveries, with these batsmen, could yield runs so richly that the game could be put beyond us.
Before any more thoughts can overwhelm me, as if approaching a cold pool for a dip, I step forward and send the first ball on its slow flight towards a violent fate. It’s straight and full. The batsman meets it on the half-volley and drives it swiftly to the left of our fielder (one of only four) at wide long-on. The batsmen run one, and there’s a call for a second. A powerful throw reaches the keeper on one hop, the stumps are broken, we shout, the umpire raises a finger. We cheer and congratulate. A new batsman comes to the wicket, takes guard.
So much has happened. The over should be finished soon, I feel. But, no, it has barely begun – five more balls required.
So, back up to the crease, getting this unpleasant duty done. Another drive sends the ball skimming straight past me to the boundary. The ball is returned to me and I wave the four fielders straighter. I should have done it at the start of the over, but the notion of setting a field for bowling that I feel I can barely control, seemed like tempting fate.
Here we go again, before my hand starts to tremble, a couple of steps and over comes my arm. I’ve managed to keep it full again, but this one is heading for the batsman’s legs. Down comes his bat, but somehow, probably through lack of pace, the ball evades it, hits his pads and bounces a yard or two into the legside. The batsmen run a leg-bye. My team-mates shout encouragement to me. I’ve made it to the half-way mark. It might be comical, these slow looping lobs, but I’ve not yet felt humiliated or put the game beyond us.
The tall opener is now facing me. Forward I go and launch another benign missile, which he steps out towards and drills past my left hand, ball bounding to the straight long-off boundary.
Not far to go now. I let a thought of technique into my mind as I move into my next ball: to pivot on my front foot so my chest rotates from facing leg to off-side. The tall opener clatters my next ball to my right. A full-length dive on the boundary cuts off the ball and keeps the runs down to two. I stop and applaud, relieved to be spared a boundary; embarrassed by the gap in quality separating my bowling and the fielding.
My finishing line, my summit is approaching. I don’t want to ruin things now. That sense of protecting something carries through into my action and, hardly possible one would think, I put even less on this ball, which floats along the 20 yards, descending towards the batsman’s thigh, in front of which he waves his bat and spanks it past the square-leg boundary.
“Over,” calls the umpire and I am released.
I was the top wicket taker in my first year at college. I bowled filthy, loopy slow lobs. Early the next season, we were knocked out of the Cup when a potentially close game was blown open by three consecutive sixes hit off my bowling and out of the ground. Bowling and I have never really been reconciled. Nets can be a torture, either side of the intense pleasure of a turn batting. So, there’s lots I don’t understand about bowling.
For example: Why can’t professional bowlers deliver a consistent line and length? Why do quick bowlers pitch short when conditions are favourable to seam and swing? What words would a bowler find helpful to hear from a teammate when he or she is struggling to direct the ball? How can a bowler carry on playing after being hit for six sixes in an over (three did for me)?
I also don’t really understand what ‘bowling as a unit’ means. Ian Smith said it of the New Zealand attack that has kept such pressure on the England batsmen in recent tests. I’m not clear how bowling as a unit is any different to all the bowlers bowling well.
To act as a unit means to co-ordinate efforts to work together. I infer from it that the sum is greater than the parts. It’s a familiar phenomenon in sport. A football team, say, when defending will combine to deny the opponents space and to pressurise the man on the ball. To some extent, it’s apparent in fielding as players back-up and support each other to deny the batsman opportunities for runs.
In these examples, the activity of the players making up the unit is happening simultaneously. They are interacting in real time to exert a combined influence on the game. Bowling is different to this: it is asynchronous, or more simply, each bowler takes their turn to deliver an over.
I understand well that bowlers have different roles. A stock bowler may be tasked with keeping an end tight, while strike bowlers attack from the other end. Alex of Lines on Grass has pointed out to me that some bowlers appear to have the ability to get wickets for the bowler at the other end. He cited Gavin Larsen; I would name Andrew Flintoff.
I can also see a bowler having a more specific role at a particular moment. For example, denying a front-line batsman a single towards the end of an over, to expose his partner, a tail-ender, to his fast bowling team-mate.
These practices seem to me more about all bowlers bowling well, than any heightened teamwork. Is there more to it than this? There could well be and I would like to be informed.
If there isn’t, I think we are in the territory of the tactical post-hoc rationalisation that Ed Smith wrote about recently. In trying to explain an outcome in sport, as in other areas of life, we seek a cause. Taking England’s lean spell in the 1990s, and the multitude of aspects of the game and society blamed for the national sport’s predicament, Smith notes:
The point, of course, is that causes are being manipulated to fit outcomes. They weren’t causes at all, merely things that happened before the defeat.
I speculate that the ‘bowling as a unit’ causal explanation arises when the bowling team has gained an advantage, without one of the bowlers ending up with an outstanding analysis – say, a five-for. Our personality-led preference for a ‘hero narrative’ isn’t available. In its stead, perhaps influenced by the culture of management and performance improvement, commentators and cricket fans may identify the ‘bowling as a unit’ cause. It’s much more purposeful and, superficially, more constructive than saying, “all the bowlers bowled well.”
But, I reiterate, I don’t know a great deal about bowling.
Alex at Lines on Grass has written a response to this piece, Hunting as a Pack, which I recommend.
He was reduced to shouting, “Bowl f****** straight.”
Graeme Swann’s memoirs include this recollection of Kevin Pieterson’s captaincy in India in 2008. KP was never a natural leader, in Swann’s eyes. Indeed, that simple description leads quickly to a picture in the mind of KP struggling to get his team to perform, lacking the subtlety to motivate, unable to stifle his own frustration and failing to create the calm centre around which his team can thrive.
Swann may well be right about KP. Not having read his book, I don’t know whether he goes on to say how he thinks a captain should deal with a wayward bowler. And that’s the question that interests me – in the throes of a match, when a bowler is misfiring, how should he be handled?
International bowlers have their plans for each match and each batsman. Most are unlikely to forget their plan between dressing room and top of their run-up. If they’re not bowling well, the problem lies in the ‘execution’. What can a captain or other teammate do to get the bowler back on plan? Can it be useful to tell the bowler they should be hitting the top of off-stump (reiterate the plan)? Can a yogic call to ‘relax and let it happen’ bring a top class bowler under your spell? Should you rely on encouragement and optimism: ‘it’s coming, you nearly got him’? Or is it best to leave well alone: the crowd noise, replay screens and the salivating batsmen are a more persuasive comment on the bowler’s performance than anything the skipper can offer.
I have seen the ‘say nothing’ option used and professionally endorsed. It happened far from international cricket, in the instructive environs of a cricket coaching course. We were learning about net coaching, with half-a-dozen of the class playing in a net, while 20 more stood around with clipboards and pens taking notes on what we saw and heard. That created a pressure.
Alex, one of the four bowlers, hit the side-netting with his first six deliveries. He became embarrassed and the audience tensed with him as he bowled and cringed at the outcome. The course leader kept a constant dialogue with the players, providing specific praise and posing questions. But he left Alex alone. By the middle of his second over, Alex had found his direction. At the end of the exercise, the course leader explained that he said nothing to Alex because he could see that Alex was a talented enough bowler to work it out for himself and there was little the coach could do while Alex was in that struggle.
If finding the right word to help a troubled bowler is so difficult, perhaps even futile, specific words of praise when things go well are very powerful. I can clearly remember and cherish the moment when playing an intra-club match, the first XI captain, fielding at mid-on, responded to my crisp cover drive for four with a spontaneous, “that is the shot of the day.” He quickly entered KP territory by turning to the bowler at the top of his run up and instructing, “For f*** sake, don’t bowl it there again.”
The most memorable ticking off I have received from a captain came on the 5-a-side football court. Our works team was in a long-run of double-digit defeats to younger, more cohesive sides. Our players quarrelled, moaned and sniped at each other. I remained untargeted, not at all because of my competence, but because of my senior status in the company. That lasted for weeks until a game where I under-cooked two back passes in quick succession, causing us to concede a brace of goals. Eric, the captain, walked across to me and with escalating volume and honesty said. “You’re a great footballer. It’s good to have you around. But that was f****** pussy football.”
So, if a skipper has a bowler firing the ball down leg-side, dropping it short and wide outside off, no amount of prompting to the bowler to make the batsman play forward, or hit the top of off; no degree of hypnotic suggestions to relax and let the ball do the talking; no level of optimistic encouragement that a wicket’s only a ball away; and not enough runs on the board to afford to let the bowler work it out himself – what is he to do?
“Take a blow. Fine leg both ends.”
And if it’s his whole bowling attack misfiring? He might just as well swear at a couple of them. It can’t be as damaging to his reputation as a captain as it would be to publish a book where he calls into question the character of his current teammates.