By Suneer Chowdhary
How many names can one come up with when it comes to a list of current left-arm chinaman bowlers? Brad Hogg. Kuldeep Yadav. And maybe a couple of other part-timers like Daniel Flynn? Roll back a few years and one could add a Paul Adams to that list. Dave Mohammad? Beau Casson, Michael Bevan and Simon Katich of which the last two were part-time bowlers. But not a lot of others anyway.
Chinaman bowling, or what is also called left-arm unorthodox action is a rare form, rarer than leg-spin and scantier than those who can bowl the doosra. It might also be the reason why it’s tougher to bat against when a chinaman bowler gets it right.
One such proponent of the left-arm spin is Michael Rippon, who is in India with the Netherlands squad currently taking part in the 2016 World T20. I caught up with him to discuss the nuances of left-arm chinaman bowling and it made for some enlightening revelations.
When Brad Hogg was asked how he took to chinaman bowling, he had had an interesting insight to offer. It was purely by accident, he had said, given that he was a batsman who could bowl a bit of medium-pace till he was 24. The switch came after that.
Rippon didn’t have to make that big a switch because as a kid, he was a left-arm spinner alright but he turned unorthodox at the behest of his coach.
The world must thank Ian Trott – former England cricketer Jonathon’s father – who spotted Rippon’s abilities early enough in his career to make him change from orthodox to the unconventional.
As a kid, Rippon twirled the ball in his hand before he began his run-up like he would be shaping up to bowl the chinaman but end up bowling the orthodox delivery. This didn’t escape Trott’s notice. He asked Rippon to try and follow his natural action and the rest fell into place.
“At 9-10 years of age, everyone wants to bowl medium-pace. I used to run in and bowl these dibbly-dobblies and then he (Ian Trott) asked me switch to spin. As I started bowling finger spin, over time he asked me if I could bowl chinaman.”
“Standing at my mark and twirling the ball like a chinaman bowler, I would nevertheless deliver conventional left-arm spin. Trott asked me if I can bowl chinaman. I did. He said from now on this is what you are bowling, no more finger spin for you. And then over the years I added the googly and the slider to my arsenal,” Rippon said.
While growing up the South Africa-born’s favourite cricketer was Jacques Kallis, Rippon admitted that he benefited immensely from having Hogg over at the South African franchise Cape Cobras for a season in 2012.
Hogg had, incidentally, replaced an injured Rippon in the Cobras squad but that injury turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the youngster, as he could then pick on the brains of the wily pro. Rippon terms the experience as ‘unforgettable’.
He revealed he was asked in one of his chats with Hogg to note down each of his deliveries in his four-over spell and what the youngster discovered was there was a pattern to what the Aussie was bowling.
“As homework, he asked me to watch the spinners and try and work out their blueprint.”
“If Hogg was bowling a four-over spell, I’d write down on a piece of paper what’s he bowled on each occasion. So ball one is chinaman, the second ball is a googly... and so on.”
“Look at those 24 balls and you will notice there’s a pattern. So, for example, every sixth ball he’s going to bowl that one type of ball and then you can actually start reading into what he’s thinking.”
But wouldn’t the batsmen then be able to work out this pattern and line up to bat against him accordingly? Rippon offers an interesting explanation.
“With T20 cricket, it’s all about predictability; you don’t want to be predictable as a spin bowler so that’s a valid point but at the end of the day, if you execute a yorker as a spin bowler, not many batsmen are going to put it away.
“And especially with Hogg, or with anyone bowling chinaman, there’s already a bit of mystery to it, so in 24 balls, the batsman just has to misread one…”
And we all know how Hogg has been tough to get away in T20 cricket.
Rippon is yet to become a regular in the Dutch side. His aim is also to get himself a long-term national contract in the near future.
The Dutchman still has time on his side to sharpen skills, fine-tune the rare form of art and get more consistent.
On what he would like to improve upon in his bowling, Rippon had a long, hard think before saying he wouldn’t want to complicate things too much given he’s a different bowler anyway. However, he felt he needed to add a few more yards to his pace.
“If I have to take the next step, I probably need to get my bowling speed up from my current average of 77-81 km/hr to around 83 km/hr.”
Probe him a little further on how does a spinner increase his average pace by that bit and he delves into the fascinating technique of spin bowling.
“I think some of it is down to muscle mass and technique. Bowling is about trying to get all your energy going towards where you want to bowl the ball.
“So if you can get that, like we can say in spin bowling – if I can do a quick little technical show – there are five things that you need to get going towards the target. Your run-up, you need your front arm towards the target, your hips and your feet towards the target and then your follow-through too.
“If you get all those things going towards the target with that energy you have created in your run-up, you are giving yourself maximum pace. I would say the one thing I need to work on is to keep my front arm a touch longer, because I can drop my front arm a bit quickly. If I can hold on to this arm for a bit longer, I can be taller at the crease, be more stable and give me a more solid base.”
I ask if the dropping of that front arm is a muscle-memory thing.
“Yes, I think it just drops down because that’s what I have been doing for a long time, it’s sort of a muscle memory thing.”
“It’s not like it’s hard to change it but it’s about me needing to work on it. The nice thing is I can look at someone like a Brad Hogg, he’s 44 now and he’s still playing and probably playing the best cricket of his life. And I am just 24 now! In essence if I can keep strong, I can keep playing for a long time too.”
This increase in pace, he says, will hold him in a good stead on pitches that are usually slow, like those in India. Back in England where he has played in club and county cricket, he says it’s the length that becomes the key than just the pace.
“Length is very important. In the UK, for club cricket, the pitches are quite slow and spongy but if you play county cricket, they are really good batting wickets, nice and flat. So length becomes even more important.”
“You got to bowl a touch back of a length, and force the guys to hit you square or whatever the ground determines,” he explained.
Interestingly enough, Rippon doesn’t want to focus on his bowling alone. He admits his batting could be a lot better than his first-class and ODI average of 24 suggests but more vital for him is to try and win more games for his side with the bat.
This is an age of cricket where specialist cricketers are becoming sparser in numbers and one is expected to contribute in at least one other department of the game.
There’s one other thing though; Rippon says his batting is rivetting in that he manages to hit the ball to what he describes as ‘funny areas’.
“My batting is a bit different. I hit the ball in funny areas. I try to hit it over extra-cover and it goes over point. What I would like to improve upon is my batting, become more consistent with it.
“With my current average it’s tough to classify myself as an all-rounder, for me to be able to that I need to push my average up to 30 and win more matches with the bat,” he said.