There’s a delightful tale of the final ball drama in the famous tied Test between Australia and West Indies in Australia. The narrator Wesley Hall, one of West Indies’ greatest fast bowlers, who incidentally delivered that final ball, had this to say of those tense, nerve-wracking moments:
“The skipper Sir Frank Worrel came up to me and said ‘I'm watching you.’ And I said, ‘I know.’
“He says, ‘And what is more, the umpire's watching you too.’
“He added, ‘One ball to go and if you bowl a no-ball... you will never be able to land in Barbados again.’
“And I made my last lonesome trek back forty yards away from stumps. As I came in, gasping for air, pressing through for the last ball, my feet planted some three yards behind the crease, just in case we had a benevolent Australian umpire.’’
Indian skipper Virat Kohli need not read the riot act so emphatically to his bowlers but the spinners, particularly Ravindra Jadeja, must wonder at their singularly dismal training method that could not avoid no-balls.
Twice replays showed Jadeja’s first landing to be faulty. His front foot, when raised or grounded, was not behind some part of the popping crease — as the law demands — and hence the deliveries were illegal.
In the first instance the transgression escaped the umpire’s notice and he fortuitously claimed the scalp of Angelo Mathews. Subsequent replays on the giant screen did not escape the umpire’s notice. Thus when Jadeja castled skipper Dinesh Chandimal a few overs later, the umpire Joel Wilson, who would have heard of the no-ball caution given by Worrell scores of times back home being a fellow countryman of West Indian Hall, was taking no further chance. He promptly asked the Lankan skipper to stand his ground and sought a television umpire referral. Not surprisingly, Jadeja had erred again.
This time, it not only reprieved Chandimal but facilitated Lanka’s escape to a draw.
Unlike T20Is and ODIs, there is no free-hit for no-balls in Tests. But that’s the only saving grace. In the ICC World T20 semi-final, Ravichandran Ashwin dashed India’s hopes by ‘scalping’ Lendl Simmons with a no-ball. The batsman was reprieved and went on to win the contest for his team.
In Jadeja’s incident too it was only the fall of wicket that prompted the umpire to review his foot landing. It is possible that he would have bowled dozens of other no-balls which escaped scrutiny because they had not fetched wickets!
Another instance of erring bowlers letting their team down comes to mind readily: Ajit Agarkar and Javagal Srinath liberally sprinkled no-balls in the World Cup match that India lost by a mere three runs to Zimbabwe in England. To complete the horror tale, India’s bowlers had sent down a whopping 16 no-balls and 21 wides in that match!
Certainly bowlers’ training methods to guard against no-balls haven’t changed since those days of ignominy. But elsewhere tremendous research is being conducted on how to restrict or avoid no-balls.
A team of Australian and UK researchers presented a paper in the European Journal of Sports Science which argued that vertical objects helped gauge distance when moving towards something. It gave examples of driving towards a traffic light or walking towards a door and said that these vertical objects served a ‘looming’ effect to gauge distance. Speed or a person’s stride was adjusted based on cues from these vertical objects.
The study revealed that bowlers similarly used the umpire to gauge distance at the start of the run-up. They subconsciously banked on the umpire and other visual cues like return-crease, bowler’s end stumps, stump-line crease, popping crease, etc to formulate subtle adjustments in making each stride marginally longer or shorter during each run-up.
The study held that although the run-up for each delivery seemed the same, there actually was a variation all the time and this was sub-consciously based on the vertical cues picked up by the bowler.
The bowler subconsciously made adjustments as he approached the delivery stride. The study said that the positioning of an umpire at the nets in the exact spot he would stand in a match provided a vital standard reference for a bowler approaching his delivery.
In the absence of an ‘umpire’ at nets, the stumps provided that visual reference for bowlers. But in a match the physical presence of an umpire subconsciously altered the reference points and forced critical changes to a bowler’s run-up to the delivery stride, the researchers felt.
It may be recalled that fast bowling great Richard Hadlee used to measure and mark the spot where he wanted the umpire to stand for his bowling. He believed that this gave him the comfort to bowl from close to the stumps while all along it actually might have subconsciously provided him that vital visual cue to launch into his delivery stride. He used a trash can to simulate a vertical cue (umpire) at nets.
Maybe something as simple as having an umpire standing at the right spot in the nets could be the answer to the Indian team’s training methods. Certainly Jadeja and Ashwin would do well to give it a shot.