Firstpost Masterclass: 'Fast bowlers are born, they cannot be manufactured in gym,' says TA Sekhar as he dissects science of pace bowling
How to bowl fast? Are fast bowlers born with something extra? What are the body mechanics involved in bowling fast? What's an ideal run-up? Former India pacer and a mentor to a host of fast bowlers, TA Sekhar, sheds light on the intricacies of the unnatural art.
Editor's note: Professional sport is as much a scientific pursuit as it is a recreational wonder. What appears routinely mundane is a result of the hours spent honing the craft and deciphering the body mechanics till it becomes a monotonous muscle memory. In Firstpost Masterclass, our latest weekly series, we look at precisely these aspects that make sport a far more intriguing act than we know.
Indian cricket team is currently blessed with a pool of bowlers capable of wreaking the opposition by sheer pace. The emergence of Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami and the reinvention of Ishant Sharma have transformed India's fortunes, so much so that the team has come to relish the challenges of pace and bounce in overseas conditions.
Things, however, were not always this hunky-dory. TA Sekar bowled fast in an era when spin ruled the roost in the country and India had just one fast bowler of note in Kapil Dev. Board politics and a subsequent knee injury meant his international career was severely cut short, but he did his bit in grooming the next generation of India's fast bowlers.
With legendary Australian pacer Dennis Lillee, Sekhar created a fast bowling nursery in the shape of MRF Pace Foundation in Chennai that has provided a steady supply of fast men to Indian cricket. The likes of Javagal Srinath, Venkatesh Prasad, Munaf Patel, Ajit Agarkar, Ashish Nehra, Zaheer Khan, and Irfan Pathan have all benefited from Sekhar's guidance at various stages of their careers, and it won't be an exaggeration to extrapolate that India's current fast-bowling riches have their genesis in Sekhar's vision and scientific approach.
In this edition of Firstpost Masterclass, TA Sekhar dissects the art of fast bowling with his trademark wisdom and earnestness.
Tell us something about your early life? Where did you grow up and how did you develop an interest in fast bowling?
I grew up in T Nagar in Chennai. I joined a club quite early and moved from rubber ball to hard ball cricket there. We used to play tournaments and five-day 'Test matches' that were spread across multiple weekends. There was no formal coaching. Nobody told me what to do or how to grip the ball, how to run in, how to swing the ball. I grew up and had had a big physique. I wanted to ball fast, and I bowled as fast as I could. I made a number of mistakes as I was coming up, but was still lucky enough to play a few games for India.
Were there any fast bowlers you looked up to while growing up?
Those days, there was no television, at least till the time I was in college. Later, Doordarshan came but their camera work was such that you could barely see the bowler. In the 1970s, if you wanted to watch cricket, you went to the ground. In the 1980s, gradually cricket started to appear on television. I remember watching the 1980-81 India's tour of Australia on TV, and the broadcast was quite good since it was their production. Of course, everything changed after India won the World Cup and then the World Championship of Cricket. Still, we never saw much cricket on television; we saw more on the field.
I remember watching the likes of Tiger Pataudi, Chandu Borde, Erapalli Prasanna, S Venkataraghavan, Bishan Singh Bedi in the stadium. Back then, there were no fast bowlers. My friend Vasu Paranjpe used to call them 'ribbon cutters.' Sunil Gavaskar opened the bowling for India in five Test matches I think. Eknath Solkar did it too. So they would 'inaugurate' the match before spinners took over. It was only after the emergence of Kapil Dev that things started to change. He gave us the belief that India can also have a fast bowler. That inspired a lot of people to take up fast bowling.
We had heard of the likes of Amar Singh and Ramakant Desai, but not many had watched them bowl. There was no TV, like I said, and India did not play that often either. Bangladesh and Sri Lanka were not playing Tests, and England, West Indies, and Australia would rarely tour India. The only way to get some cricket was through radio commentary. We would hear and imagine that Wes Hall would run from the boundary, Charlie Griffith would run from the boundary and chuck...so that's how we learned our cricket.
After your international career, you moved to MRF Pace Foundation where you worked closely with Australian legend Dennis Lillee. How was the experience of working with him?
It was a dream come true. When I began playing cricket, Lillee was my idol. I used to carry his photograph in my kitbag when I was playing college cricket. I never thought one day I'll work with him. I was coming out of my second knee surgery around September 1987 when this opportunity to team up with Lillee came about, and even though I had a stable job, I never thought twice.
Lillee saw me train at Chepauk and inquired about me. He wanted someone who was still playing first-class cricket as his assistant coach at MRF Pace Foundation.
I joined there in April 1988. I used to run with him, bowl with him and train with him. I followed his tips and started getting good outswingers. Then, in one of the press conferences, he said that I was the best pupil he has and that I still had the potential to play for India. One of the reasons I joined was to prove a point to my detractors and colleagues, and my comeback became very close as well as very far because of internal politics.
When I became the coach, I didn't know anything about fast bowling, but I learned so much from Lillee. He is one fellow who would not keep anything to himself. He allowed me to learn. He took me to Australia and put me in touch with a number of coaches. He made me do the Level 3 coaching in Australia. I became more familiar with the scientific approach to fast bowling so that I could understand the technique.
What was Lillee's coaching methodology like?
A good coach is one who is able to find a fault in technique and is able to offer solutions. He/she need not have played 100 Tests or picked 400 wickets or scored 10,000 runs. Lillee was one who could identify mistakes after watching just two or three balls and give practical solutions. He would show their video recordings to bowlers, tell them where they were going wrong and what they needed to do.
When Javagal Srinath came to the MRF Pace Foundation in the early 1990s, he was predominantly an inswing bowler, but Lillee made him bowl outswingers in one session. Venkatesh Prasad was also predominantly pushing the ball into the right-hander, but Lillee made him learn outswingers in one session. That is the impact he had. There are some coaches who are inspirational. When you watched Lillee, you felt like bowling.
If he had to advocate some changes in a bowler, he would ask the bowler to bowl six balls with his old action, and another six balls with a new action that he'd suggest. He would ask bowlers to just try the change, and if it didn't work, they were allowed to go back to their old methods. In 99 percent of the cases, bowlers would say Lillee's methods were better. Thus, the trainee had a lot of confidence that the coach will not ruin his action. Lillee was an empowering coach, not an authoritative one.
He brought a sprint coach, a dietitian, a trainer, and a yoga specialist. He had drawn a schedule according to which the fast bowlers had to run long distance thrice a week for 35-40 minutes. We used to take different courses: uphill, cross country, stadium. In fast bowling, 70 percent of the efficiency comes through the legs, and he understood that very well.
In his playing days, when he started out, Lillee's action was all over the place due to which he injured his back. People suggested him to go under the knife, but he didn't. He instead went and worked with the Olympics sprint coach who remodelled his run-up. He met biomechanics expert Dr. Frank Pyke who tweaked his action. From a tearaway fast bowler, Lillee became a bowler of more than 100 percent perfection. Even though he lost some speed, he still he was bowling at more than 90 mph. He taught whatever he learned and whatever helped him. He was not pulling something out of some book or a manual.
I was lucky that I worked him with for 20 years. He is an excellent teacher and an excellent human being. He played his cricket his way. Even in benefit games, he would bowl his best because he didn't want anyone to say, 'I hit Dennis Lillee for a six.'
One of his biomechanic experts once said that Dennis Lillee was an animal once he entered the field. Outside the field, he was a thorough gentleman. He had a never-say-die attitude. He would say that when the captain gives you the ball, you should honour his respect and trust the skipper has in you. You should be able to win games for your captain.
Lillee believed that a fast bowler should not rely on the pitch to get wickets. He/she should rely on his skills and pace to induce errors from batsmen. When a bowler starts thinking, 'There's no grass, how will I get a wicket?' he is putting himself back psychologically. That should not be the attitude of a fast bowler.
A lot of people say fast bowlers are born. Do you agree?
I do. Bowlers who bowl over 140 kmph consistently cannot be manufactured. You should have fast-twitch muscles to run fast, and move fast. Your arm rotation should be faster. You should be able to stabilise very well. You should have strength in your legs and core. Your run-up should be very efficient.
Some people claim that they can make a 125 kmph bowler bowl 140 kmph, well, that's not true. A 125 kmph bowler can, however, bowl 130-135 kmph as gradually your action smoothens and your technique strengthens. Kapil Dev is an example. When he came along, he was not very quick, but when his action smoothened, he started bowling fast. He knew when to bowl fast and when to bowl within himself.
There are some bowlers who have natural speed. Take the case of Jasprit Bumrah. He doesn't run very fast, but his arm action is quick. His last 4-5 paces towards the crease make him bowl fast. He has a weird action, but he is born with it and that should not be changed at all. You should work with the natural ability of a bowler and look to finetune. You should also give options to the bowler depending on what suits him. Coaching should be empowering, not authoritative. Empowering coaching allows to build confidence between coach and players. You cannot force a player into doing something.
Some people say you should be 6'5" to be able to bowl fast. I don't agree. You should have the right attributes. Malcolm Marshall and Dale Steyn were not tall. In modern times, Mohammed Shami is not tall but bowls quick. Sure, height gives you an advantage. You tend to deliver the bowl from a higher point and you could get some extra bounce, but that is not a basic requirement. 5'9"-5'11" is a reasonably good height to be able to bowl fast.
Virat Kohli once said that an angry fast bowler is a captain's delight. Is it good to have an ego as a fast bowler?
When you run in and bowl at over 140 kmph, the body produces a lot of adrenaline. Naturally, he (the bowler) will be pumped up. Sometimes, the batsmen also needle the fast bowlers. Teams like Australia sledge. Previously, we didn't give them back, but now we do. There's no point letting the Aussies and Englishman get on top of you. West Indies were the only team that would not resort to sledging; having four bowlers who bowled at 90 mph was scary enough.
The thing is, if you give back to them, they step back. That is what Virat Kohli is doing. But, in doing so, you should not lose your cool. It happened in the final of the 2003 World Cup, and you see the results. If you feel the opposition is getting on top of you, you should react, but being aggressive just for the heck of it solves no purpose. Then, you lose your cool, you start bowling short, you miss your line and length and the opposition runs away with the game.
Is there a right away to grip a ball? Some people hold it with split fingers while some have both fingers together behind the seam.
To me, grip is an individual thing. There is a basic grip where you hold the ball with your index finger and the second finger on either side of the seam. The thumb position is individual, depending on your comfort. You should not hold the ball too far inside or outside. The grip should be well balanced to allow you to release with some backspin.
There are bowlers who hardly keep a gap between the two fingers, and there are those who keep a bigger gap. There is no specific grip as such. Maybe for inswing and outswing, the shine is kept on the inside and outside respectively and the seam is kept towards the first slip (for an outswinger). There are bowlers who keep the seam straight because they feel the ball will move late. But largely, grip is individual.
What constitutes a good run-up? How important is it?
I feel 70 percent of the efforts and efficiency if a fast bowler is in the run-up, and if you want to bowl even 135 kmph-plus, you should have a very good run-up. Only then will you be able to convert the momentum into energy and generate speed. Run-up differs from technique to technique. If you're a side-on bowler, you start slowly, build up gradually, and reach the optimum speed where you are balanced. Balance is very important in a run-up. That's why long-distance running and sprints are very important for balance. You have to run so that your run-up becomes smooth.
Can you break down a good run-up?
When you run, it is not just your legs, but your hands are also very important. All your momentum, as you run, should go towards the target, which is the batsman. Both your hands should move in that direction, and that motion gives you balance. The pumping of hands gives you vigour to run. The arms should be close to the body on the sides, but there must be some space between the body and arms. When your left leg goes forward, the right hand should go forward.
The next important thing is the load-up. It is something that puts your body in a perfect pre-delivery stride. For many days, everyone advocated that cricket is a side-on game. Even Lillee believed this when he first came to the Pace Foundation in May 1988. In December the same year when he came back, he had a couple of bowlers who were not side-on and their foot was facing down the wicket. From 1983 to 1987, Australia did a research where a group of bowlers, orthopedic surgeons, coaches, and biomechanics experts went around the country. They found out that 40 percent of their Under-19 boys had stress fractures because their backfoot was not parallel to the bowling crease. It was facing the batsmen. But because everybody was told to be side-on, everyone started twisting. As a result of that, there was a twist happening to the spine which is not natural to the human body. Fast bowling as such is not natural to the human body. There are so many awkward movements happening. People should know that twisting is not going to get you in a side-on position.
If you go through the English coaching manual, it talks about winding and unwinding. Those days, you run with shoulders and hips facing the batsman and the bowlers would jump and twist in the air to get side-on. That is how side-on bowling was described in those days. That is what they meant by winding and unwinding. But, it is important to remember that there was not that much cricket back then. As you play, you don't know how much you are twisting in the air. There are chances that you can go past side-on also and your shoulders may face fine-leg.
I'll give an example. Australia's Graham McKenzie was part of the team that toured India in 1969. From here, they went to South Africa where McKenzie, who had bowled very well in India, could pick just one wicket. What happened was that without his knowledge, he was twisting a lot, and then he developed a back problem and lost his outswinger. After that, he was dropped.
That is why I do not advocate jumping just for the heck of it or twisting just for the heck of getting side-on. Your load-up will get you in a good posture whether you are side-on, front-on, or semi-open. That is determined by your backfoot landing. If your backfoot landing is parallel and your front foot is in line with the back foot, your hips and shoulders are facing the leg-side, then you can be side-on. If the backfoot is not parallel and is towards the fine-leg or away from fine leg, then you have to be semi-open. You should not try to manufacture a side-on or a semi-open action. The position of your hips and shoulders should depend on how your backfoot lands naturally. Then you determine whether the bowler is side-on, semi-open, or open-chested.
What exactly do we mean by side-on, semi-open, and open-chested actions and what is the difference between the three techniques?
If you are a right-arm bowler who gets side-on, your torso faces your right side. When you are about to deliver the ball, your left shoulder should face the batsman while the right shoulder should be behind. The right shoulder thus will turn 90 degrees to deliver the ball. That is why I feel that the load-up and arm path are two very important factors. Take the case of a bicycle. When the left paddle goes up, the right goes down. This is to provide balance. Similarly, when your right hand is going up, your left hand should be at your waist level. When the bowling arm is coming down, the non-bowling arm should go up.
So first your right hand goes up and your left hand is at your waist level. When the bowling arm is coming down, the non-bowling arm goes up. By this time you have landed your back foot and your front leg is almost about to land. You position your front arm depending on your technique. If it is side-on, you look over your left elbow and see from your left eye. If you are semi-open, you don't need to see the batsman at all...your hand will cover (the view of) batsman. That obstruction though is only momentary; the moment you start pulling your non-bowling arm, automatically you'll start looking at the batsman.
For front-on, open-chested bowler, your bowling arm goes outside a bit and you'll be able to see (the batsman) from the right eye. These positions, however, are not more than 3-4 inches away from each other.
What is the role of the non-bowling arm in fast bowling?
The non-bowling arm is very, very important. It is the arm that gives you accuracy and speed. Bowling arm does whatever you do with your non-bowling arm. It is like the steering of a car. It gives you control. It should be firm and it should come down hard. That will pull your bowling arm and body through into the delivery.
For spinners, pivot is an important part of the bowling action. Is it the same with fast bowlers?
No. Fast bowlers should have a braced leg. Every time you run in and land on your backfoot and transfer the body weight on to the front foot, a pressure 8-10 times your body weight is exerted on each joint below the waist. Imagine a bowler going through this 60 times (in a 50-over match).
Dennis Lillee always advocated strong legs. He believed bowlers should have strong quadriceps, calves, hamstrings, glutes, back muscles, and core. When a fast bowler runs and lands on the foot, first the ankle stabilises. On top of the ankle, the knee stabilises. On top of the knee, your pelvis stabilises, and on top of it, your big torso stabilises. Then, your hand starts rotating and the ball is released through your fingertips. So, you see, there's a chain reaction happening, and for every action, you need to have proper balance. That is why I always put a lot of emphasis on balance and stability.
How important is the head position?
Your head should be stable. There are some bowlers who, due to their head position, are not able to see the batsmen, which is not good. Your head controls your body. If the head falls away, the body will also fall away. So the head has to be straight, looking through your arms. When you are running, your head should be looking at the batsman. When you load up, you can look at the spot where you want to bowl, but all this while, your head should be still. Head allows your body to run, walk, or stand straight. So it should not be away from the equilibrium of your body.
Does the front toe of the front foot need to point towards the batsman too?
The old English coaching manual says that you should be aiming to face your front leg towards the fine leg. What happens is, in trying to get the landing foot towards the fine leg, people end up going too far across. Instead, if it goes towards the batsman, you'll be able to pivot and get a better follow-through. If your front foot is going towards fine leg, you may get locked and may not get a good follow-through.
Why is it important to have a complete follow-through?
Follow-through acts as a force absorption. As I said, a force of 8-10 times your body weight goes through your joints when you deliver the ball. Stopping immediately after the ball has left you is not possible, so you run a few more steps. Lillee, for example, would be within handshaking distance with the batsmen. Follow-through absorbs the shock of the impact you've created in your delivery stride. It (follow-through) depends on how you use your non-bowling arm and also on the alignment of your feet, hips, and shoulders. Merely getting your arms across is not a follow-through. Lillee's fingers would almost touch the ground in his follow-through. He would lose his fingernails by the end of the season as they would scrape against the ground in his follow through all the time. You must understand that you are putting your bodyweight in the delivery. So if you don't bend, you are just bowling with your arms.
Your back is designed to bend forward, sideways, and to an extent, backwards. But the back is not designed to twist. However, there is bound to be some twisting while bowling fast, and that is why injuries occur. That is why fast bowling in inherently unnatural. Having a good technique helps in injury prevention also. Mind you, only prevention. Anybody who bowls 140 kmph or more will have injuries because of the awkwardness of actions. That's why bowlers carry so many niggles or back catches. These things can be resolved within two weeks, but if a bowler has stress fracture, it means something is wrong with his technique, preparation, or fitness. Most of the injuries happen because of a technical flaw, but not many people look into it. In India, people are quite averse to changing their bowling actions. If somebody is having a bad run-up, he is bound to have a bad action.
What is your coaching process like? How do you approach a bowler?
When I coach, I use a software that helps me watch a bowling action in slow motion. I stop the tape two-three steps before the delivery stride and watch frame by frame. I first look at the load up. In the load-up, I look at how the backfoot is landing. Once the arm path goes behind the body, I look at how the front foot is landing. Where are the hips and shoulders between landing of the back foot and front foot, whether are not they are aligned with the foot landing.
I look at whether the non-bowling arm is being used to the best of its ability, and how they follow through. Most coaches look at only the top half of the bowler. They don't look at the bottom half. On that limited basis, they decide if the bowler is side-on. If you look at only the top half of the bowler, due to twisting motion, the top half will always appear side-on even if the feet are front-on.
As a coach, you have to look at the bowler from the front, back, sides, and every other possible angle. Then, you assess if the foot is landing correctly, whether the feet, hips, and shoulders are aligned, where is the front arm going – is it too far away from the face, in front of the face or outside the face depending on the technique.
Coaches will be able to identify the faults only if they analyse minutely. There is always a cause and an effect. Most coaches look at only the effect, but actually you have to look at the cause. You can't keep telling a bowler that you're falling away. As a coach, you should be able to identify the reasons and offer a solution. The thing in India is, if you tell a bowling coach about a technical flaw, they'll say 'no, no, he is bowling well. Do not change the action.' Things are quite different in batting. Batting coaches correct the bat swing, backlift, top hand etc so often.
What is the role of wrists in fast bowling? How important is the wrist position?
Wrist comes into play only in the last few fractions of the second. The wrist should follow the ball to induce backspin. That is what helps generate swing. If you look at Zaheer Khan, S Sreesanth, or Irfan Pathan, all of them had a very upright seam position. Their straight arm paths ensured they had a very smooth turnover of the arms. That helps you keep the wrists in the right position. A lot of guys cock their wrists and run, but that slows down the arm path.
So, the correct wrist position is always right behind the ball. At the time of release, as your bowling arm goes up in the 12'o clock position, the wrist will go back a little and when it comes down, the fingertips automatically push the ball down. Then, the bowl goes with some backspin. If it hits the seam, it will generate a bit of pace and bounce. If the pitch is green, the pace generation will be more. If the pitch is rough and dry, the bounce generation will be more.
Do the action and wrist position have a role to play in generating swing and seam movement?
To some extent, yes. There are some guys who move the ball despite having weird actions, but ultimately it is your body posture, release, and finish that determine the swing. You should be able to get in a good posture and then make sure the wrist is following the ball as it leaves your hand. The ball has to go with a straight seam for it to swing because of the aerodynamics.
An upright seam creates the turbulence around the ball and depending on the wind conditions, the ball starts moving. A wobbly seam will never swing. Hence, it is very important to have a good wrist position to get the ball to swing. The role of the wrist is all the more important if you want to get reverse swing. For that, the wrist has to be really firm and right behind the ball.
It is the same with seam movement. Swing and seam always go together. When you are trying to get the swing, you release the ball with a straight, upright seam. When the seam hits the pitch, it starts moving either way. That is what is seam movement. Swing is something that happens in the air, seam happens off the pitch, but an upright release of the ball is essential to achieve either or both.
Do you think bowlers, especially in ODIs, rely enough on their stock ball, or are they going the T20 way in 50-over matches?
In ODIs, between 20-40 overs, you are bowling with four fielders outside the circle. So it is very difficult for bowlers. A fast bowler cannot keep three of the four fielders on one side of the wicket. Even a bad shot, or edges, go for boundaries. You have to be unpredictable. If you stick to a line or length for too long, the batsmen will line you up and hit you over the top through the line. With new bats and better protection, and the fact that you can ball just one bouncer an over in T20s and two bouncers an over in ODIs, things are very difficult for bowlers. You take away bouncer restrictions and I'll see how many batsmen are comfortable against pace.
In the 1970s, people bowled four or five bouncers in an over, and the batsmen were always circumspect and wary. They would stay in their crease. Now, you see batsmen moving front or back to change the length of the ball. Basically, the batting dynamics have changed and bowlers have to bring variations to fool the batsmen. Now, they have a wide yorker, slower bouncer, knuckle ball, slower deliveries, back of the hand slower ones, and so on. Cricket is a batsmen-oriented game. You cannot bowl too many bouncers, you cannot bowl beamers, you cannot have too many fielders outside the circle. As a bowler, you have got absolutely nothing other than relying on your variations.
If a bowler returns to the longer format after a T20 series, what are the changes that you'd recommend him/her to make in bowling?
Length changes. T20 length is between 6-8 metres from the stumps, the one-day length is 5-7 metres, and the length for a four-day or a five-day game is between 4-5 metres. When the length changes, the ball swings more in a four-day/five-day game. In a T20, the white ball swings only for 3-4 overs. In longer formats, the ball moves a lot, and then you have the factor of the reverse swing too after 35-40 overs if you are playing in the subcontinent. You can get the ball to reverse in an ODI too, and in T20s, if you are playing on Indian tracks, you can get one or two overs of reverse. You should have all variations.
If you know how to bowl a yorker at over 140kmph, the reverse swing can be very effective. So length is very important. You should be able to bowl different lengths on different tracks and in different formats. Length also changes depending on the batsman. Control over length is mandatory for any bowler, not just pacers. Line changes according to batsmen, but lengths remain the same.
I know it is different for every batsman, but what is the key to setting up a batsman?
Basically, you have to watch the batsman. Nowadays, with all the technology and analysis, you can watch them before actually bowling to them. If I were to bowl against a team, I will first look at the openers. I will look at how the batsman is moving: Whether he is going forward first or has a back and across movement, I will see his grip and judge whether he is a bottom-hand player or a top-hand player, whether he is very strong on the off side or on the legs, whether he is a front foot player or a backfoot player.
I will also look at his dismissals, what type of balls does he gets out to, what is his strike rate in first 10-15 balls, and so on. Video analysts can give you enough data, but if you want to succeed, you have to be a smart cricketer. You have to be one-up on the batsman. You can't be a dumb fellow who doesn't know which ball to bowl next. A captain should not be telling you that.
In T20s, they bowl a yorker and follow up with a bouncer or vice-versa. There are certain patterns that bowlers follow. Some follow up a bouncer with a knuckle ball. When you bowl a bouncer, the batsmen don't come forward on the next ball anticipating a back of length ball. When you deliver a knuckle ball that is on length or back of length, basically hitting length, the batsman goes for his shot, mishits, and gets out. Like that, you have to set up a batsman according to who you are bowling to, wicket, situation, and so on.
A lot of bowling experts say that bowling a yorker is more taxing on the body than bowling a bouncer. Is that true? If yes, why?
What I feel is bowling a bouncer takes at least two or three deliveries' energy. Yorker, I don't think is that taxing. With yorker, you need to be accurate. With a bouncer, you don't need great accuracy. You pitch it in the middle of the wicket and it will go towards the batsman's head, whereas if you miss a yorker, it can go for a six. A lot of times bowlers end up giving full tosses while trying a yorker; it is that tough. That's why Lasith Malinga would practice his yorkers diligently before a match. He would bowl at least 20-30 yorkers at a pair of shoes in nets. A yorker demands more perfection than effort. It is one of the most difficult balls to bowl.
You also have to be mentally strong to attempt it in a limited-overs game. A bouncer is not that tough to execute, but in case of a yorker, your release time has to synchronise with your action. If you are bowling a length ball, your release point is in line with your front toe. If you want to bowl a short ball, it goes beyond the front toe. For a yorker, you have to actually find a perfect release point from where you can hit the perfect yorker length. The release point, for a yorker, has to be behind the front toe, only then the trajectory will hit the yorker length.
Look, yorker is not really a type of delivery, it is a length. And, it is a length that batsmen create. Look at MS Dhoni. If you bowl him a yorker on the stumps, he will hit it for a six, but if you bowl him a wide yorker, he won't be able to put it away, because his hitting arc is between mid-on and mid-wicket. Glenn McGrath was the first to find it out in 2008. With all the video technology available now, it has become easier for bowlers, but unless you practice enough, you won't be able to hit the right yorker.
Wasim Akram said in an interview that a fast bowler must have Plans A, B, and C when he stands at the top of his run-up in a T20 match. Isn't it an information overload for a bowler?
No, I don't think so, not if you practice enough in the nets. You should definitely have a Plan A and Plan B, if not Plan C. You cannot go with just one plan, and if that plan fails, you are clueless. When you practice, you simulate match conditions. You go and challenge the batsman. You tell him that you're bowling the top six overs and this is your field. Then, you decide whether you want to attack the batsman's strengths or you want to go after his weaknesses. There are some aggressive bowlers who go for batsman's strengths. It is all psychological. When a batsman knows that he has got out in a certain fashion before and you are trying to set up the same field, you are sending a psychological statement that says, 'I am trying to get you out.' That is where good, aggressive bowlers strike.
These days, there's the perception that while bowlers are bowling quick, the intimidation factor is not there. Batsmen line them up and hit them out of the ground, something you never saw with the legendary West Indian pace attacks. Why do you think that has happened?
Batting application has changed. These days, even if a fast bowler takes the top edge, it carries over the wicketkeeper for a six. Imagine Bumrah bowls a brilliant yorker, and the inner edge goes for a four. Then he tries a bouncer, and the top edge goes for a six. So 10 runs off first two balls, and he will end up giving 45 runs in three overs. Naturally, he'll go defensive, because he doesn't want to lose the match. Mishits also have value today.
Remember that IPL match where AB deVilliers went after Dale Steyn and won the game for RCB? So many innovations have come in batting. Batsmen nowadays start moving in the crease. The bowler thinks whether to bowl towards the batsman or away from him. If you have a plan to bowl away from someone like De Villiers, he will still get inside the line of the ball and hit you over fine leg. I remember an IPL game where he swept and reverse swept Irfan Pathan as if he was batting with a paintbrush. Now if you are a smart bowler, and if you have some luck, you'll come trumps. In AB's case, he will make you bowl to his strengths, but if you change your plan, you are stuck. That ability, to stick to your plan, is something that a bowler must possess. The captain should also back the bowler. They must understand that nobody bowls to give runs.
You talked about intimidation. Look, West Indian pace-bowling stock has gone down. Hardly anyone is bowling 145kmph-plus, maybe with the new ball, yes, but then it comes down to 135-137 kmph. Kemar Roach is quick, but he bowls all over the place. Oshane Thomas plays largely white-ball cricket. I don't think anyone bowls really quick in West Indies because their fast bowling stock is gone. In Australia, they still have fast bowlers. Pat Cummins and Mitchell Starc are quick. Josh Hazlewood bowls around 140 kmph, but beyond that, even they don't have anyone. The thing is, you cannot have every bowler bowling 140-plus all the time.
You spoke about the importance of having good leg muscles. How is bowling fitness different from gym fitness?
As I said, 70 percent of your bowling efficiency comes through running. In gym, you hardly run. Just jogging or sprinting will not take you very far. In bowling, you have to start slowly, build gradually, load-up...it is a co-ordinated effort. Unless you practice, co-ordination won't be perfect, and even a slight lapse will undo whatever good technique you may have.
If you are coming out of an injury and you want to play a T20 game, you should be able to bowl 6-7 overs on the trot. Only then, you can be deemed fit enough to bowl four overs in the match. You cannot bowl just 12 balls and say you're fit. If you're playing an ODI, you should be able to bowl 7-8 overs unchanged, because you will bowl 4-5 overs on the trot in a match. If you're playing a Test match, you should be able to bowl 10-11 overs in one go in each session. Once you have bowled enough overs, you get the right co-ordination in the body. That can come only by bowling, not in the gym. Match fitness is thus quite different from regular or gym fitness. You should be able to bowl, field, and come back to bowl across different spells.
If you have a strong shoulder that you've built in the gym but you haven't bowled enough, there's no way you can bowl quick. Had that been the case, weightlifters will be the fastest bowlers in the world. Working out in the gym obviously has its advantages. You need inner strength. The workload puts a lot of pressure on the joints and they need muscle support to minimise injury. But that doesn't guarantee pace. You need power to run. You need strength in your legs, core, and shoulders, only then can you bowl quick. Ajit Agarkar is a fine example. He had a very smooth run-up, perhaps the smoothest I have seen. He had a very good arm action too. He was a bit round-arm, but the action was still very good. He didn't complicate things a lot.
Given the busy international schedule, how important is an off-season for fast bowlers? What should you do when not playing cricket?
With the amount of cricket being played these days, there's hardly an off-season, more so if you play domestic as well as international cricket. If you've had a very long season, let's say you have played cricket for eight months, you should definitely take a break of 3-4 months if you are a fast bowler. It is important because if the fatigue sets in, it won't allow you to give your 100 percent on the field.
You need to go away from cricket and relax completely. You can eat well and put on some weight. You should sleep well, relax completely, and go out of the game. Maybe a bit of jogging to keep the leg muscles going, and then slowly come back into fitness training. You should start working hard one or one-and-a-half months before the season, and that will last throughout the season. If a fast bowler is 100 percent fresh, he gives 120 percent; if he is 90 percent, he gives only 70 percent.
You have coached and mentored many fast bowlers who have gone on to play for India. Why is it that bowlers such as Munaf Patel and Irfan Pathan were quick to begin with, but dropped their pace soon after. How do you explain that?
Who was India's coach at that time? That's my answer. Look, people wanted our bowlers to model themselves on Glenn McGrath, but they failed to realise that McGrath could bowl 130 kmph in Australia, 135 in England, and 127-132 in India. He could change his speed according to conditions.
Munaf, when he came, he bowled 147 kmph to Steve Waugh at the MRF Pace Foundation. Waugh came to me and asked, 'From which tree have you plucked him? He is making me hop every ball.' England batsmen had no clue when he made his debut in Chandigarh. After that, people advised him to bowl within himself. Obviously, he had to oblige, otherwise, he would be out of the team. Then he had a few injuries too, and he decided to bowl 130-135kmph.
In Irfan's case, his technique went for a toss, that's why he lost his pace. He made his debut in 2004, and in 2006, he lost his way a bit. His technique went wrong. After that, he came to the Pace Foundation and remodelled his action and he was fine. Later, when he came back for the T20 World Cup in 2007, he was a different bowler.
Would you say this is the golden generation of fast bowlers in India? I don't think we ever had a bunch of genuinely quick and skilful fast bowlers ever.
Yes, you are right. Earlier, it used to be said that captains make spinners in India. We had the example of the famous spin quartet. Sunil Gavaskar or Eknath Solkar or Abid Ali would open the bowling with Bishan Singh Bedi. Now, we have a good group of fast bowlers, and no wonder the captain backs them. Mohammed Shami bowls so well with the red ball. People are still struggling to decipher Bumrah. Batsmen look to play him out and take chances against other bowlers, which helps them.
Previously, India did not have a fast-bowling role model until Kapil Dev came along. After Kapil, we had so many fast bowlers. Now, India pick four fast bowlers when they go on a tour from a pool of six-eight pacers. Naturally, more fast bowlers will come when you have role models.
You have had a long career as a player and as a coach. Who are some of the fast bowlers who you would call the most complete fast bowlers you have seen?
Dennis Lillee and Andy Roberts. Their Test records were unbelievable. Lillee had 355 wickets from 70 Tests, and 70 percent of those were top-order batsmen. He also played about 20 World Series matches and picked over 100 wickets. The cream of world cricket played the World Series, so taking 100-plus wickets there meant something. Roberts, when he played in India, irrespective of the pitches, picked 30-35 wickets. In the 1974-75 series, he bowled a spell in the post-lunch session in Chennai, and we couldn't see the ball. He never complained of the dead wickets. He just bowled quick and made the batsmen run away. These are two bowlers that were the most complete ones, according to me.
Later, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis came along. Richard Hadlee was another one. He bowled in all three Tests in the 1989 series in India, and was the highest wicket-taker on turning tracks. He made the ball talk. All of them were quick through the air and bowled 140 kmph plus. The difference between 135 kmph and 140 kmph is that of just five kmph, but it makes a lot of difference.
Anything you'd like to tell the upcoming fast bowlers?
Train well and run well. You should look at your technique. You should not copy someone else's action. Your foundation should be strong. Speed is something that you can increase if you have fast-twitch muscle fibres, so don't get too obsessed with it. You should be able to move the ball at pace. Swing, along with speed, is dangerous than speed alone.
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