Wednesday, August 10, 2011

10 Questions about Bowlers and Batsmen

If you want to "read" a Cricket Match, here is a simple model. This is how I observe Cricket.

While Test Cricket is phenomenal because for all its vagaries, only one thing really matters. Everything begins from this. Where did the bowler bowl the ball? This is essentially the foundational question of the Test Match contest. And it is so in a very non-trivial sense. For all tactics, all strategy, all guile, all control stems from this basic fact. Even the batsman's form stems from it. Greatness in cricket is based on this simple question.

Where did the bowler bowl the ball? This is not an easy question. It is made up of all the following questions:

First, did he bowl it where he wanted to bowl it? Not a foot fuller or a foot shorter or a foot to the off or a foot to the leg, but pretty much exactly where he wanted to bowl it? If not on the proverbial dime, then at least on the proverbial folded handkerchief.
Second, can the bowler consistently bowl it pretty much where he wants to?
Third, and now we're getting into more advanced questions, has the bowler made a good choice of line and length?
Fourth, can he string together a pattern of deliveries to out fox the batsman, or, more realistically against Test quality batsmen, to keep them quiet and induce the slightest mis-stroke?

And finally,
Fifth, has the bowler set a good field?

Each of these questions are important, but unless the earlier question has been answered well, the next question is irrelevant. If at least the first four questions are answered reasonably well, then the bowler can be said to be bowling "well". How well these questions are answered, or even can be answered by a bowler depends to some extent on the batting and the conditions.

For a Test batsman, the questions are simpler:

First, does the batsman read line and length well?
Second, can he concentrate for a full session of play?
Third, does he have the ability to score runs in front of the wicket against fast bowling?
Fourth, does he have the footwork to play against spin bowling?
Fifth, can he hit good balls for runs?

If a batsman answers the first question well, then he's in good form. If he answers the first four well, then he's going to be a good Test Match batsman. If he can answer the 5th well, then he could well go on to become a great Test match batsman.

How well batsmen can answer their five question affects how strictly the bowler's answers to his five questions are judged. It also helps if a bowler has someone at the other end who is also bowling well. Similarly, if two great batsmen are at the wicket, then the bowlers job becomes that much harder. But the bowlers still hold sway, because of the way Cricket works. Bowlers have the dismiss a batsman only once.

Playing conditions matter as well. In certain conditions, a fast bowler will simply not be able to do better than a certain basic amount. If there's no help off the wicket - no serious pace, no lateral movement, then try as he might, the bowler will not get much past the batsmen (there are exceptions, such as a genuinely quick bowler, bowling at his fastest, like Michael Holding at The Oval in 1976, or an unorthodox bowler, like Lasith Malinga). When batsmen have nothing much to worry about against a bowler, then can slowly wear him down, and once he starts tiring, master the bowler. For a spinner this is an even more serious problem, because by definition, batsmen get a better look at a spinner's bowling than they do a fast bowlers'. So if there's nothing on offer for a spinner, good batsmen can milk the spinner at will. Wrist spinners have an advantage over finger spinners here, because they are able to impart greater spin on the ball, and hence also get it to do more in the air, and not just off the wicket. But the problem is, it is much harder to control wrist spin than it is to control finger spin.

But when the conditions are in a bowler's favor, how do you judge fast bowling? If you take away the exceptions - like the genuinely quick Shoaib Akhtar (and even for him, the following is true to a large extent), then the successful medium-fast bowler is able to do two things:

1. He's able to draw the batsman forward without bowling a half volley.
2. He's able to force the batsman to defend his stumps most deliveries - i.e. make the batsman play.

Occasionally, if a batsman shows extremely good judgment of his off stump and forces the bowler to bowl straighter (so that he can then score on the leg side), the top class fast bowler will be patient and keep it outside off stump, before bowling the occasional ball (maybe once every 2-3 overs) that is slightly fuller and slightly wider, trying to lure the batsman into a drive. On other occasions, if a batsman is seen to commit too early to the front foot, then the fast bowler may use the bouncer to check this. This makes the subsequent good length ball that much more effective. Typically, a Test quality batsman will feel he has made an unforced error if he gets out to either of these tricks in a Test.

If bowlers bowl "well" (i.e. answer the first four questions for bowlers well for a prolonged period, or, in the case of the great bowlers, answer them well as a matter of habit), then this tends to wear most batsmen down. The great ones will try and stop the bowler from bowling well by taking runs regularly off the good balls - and limit the zone of the "good" ball.

Working batsmen out - setting batsmen up and then bowling a sequence of deliveries designed to dismiss the batsman off the last ball in the sequence, is a far more advanced skill. In most top quality cricket this sort of thing is typically needed to get batsmen out on good wickets. In conditions of the kind we have seen in England, and in the recent Tests in West Indies and South Africa, it is possible for bowlers - especially fast bowlers to deliver the unplayable delivery. Rahul Dravid got one such today at Birmingham. In most cases, teams know if the conditions afford unplayable deliveries. This affects their approach to batting.

In the on going Test series in England, India's fast men, except for stray spells, have not answered even the first three questions on the bowler's list of questions reasonably well, while England's bowlers have consistently answered the first four questions well, with the possible exception of James Anderson in the first innings at Lord's and Trent Bridge.

The result of every single Test match can be explained using these 10 questions.

No comments:

Post a Comment