Pakistan's Wasim Akram perfected slower balls but they have begun to signal a mediocrity of bowling in today's game, writes Osman Samiuddin.
Sudden threat, but a tame end to the bowler's slower one in cricket
Wasim Akram is not cricket's best raconteur. Occasionally his Punjabi wit enriches a recounting of a great memory, but usually he gives the impression that nothing he did on the field is worthy of remembering.
That is both endearing and unfulfilling, and this strange muting of the stories of his own magnificent career and the lessons it offers often drains the colour and substance from his broadcasting.
But when he does stray into technical talk is when he is a treasure. That much is evident from the immediate effects of his roaming, troubleshooting consultancy with several young bowlers. A sprinkle of knowledge here, a little there and boom: bowler transformed.
We happened to be discussing recently his development as a bowler in the late '80s, when he segued unexpectedly into how he learnt to bowl the slower ball. Akram's slower ball is not a thing of particular legend. He had too much else going on for just one delivery to stand out, though he did do Sachin Tendulkar with a beauty once in Sharjah.
But it was how he talked about it, as an offensive weapon for wicket-taking that struck me, because the slower ball these days is not a weapon. Akram first came across it in England during a county season, where the West Indian Franklyn Stephenson was employing a devastating early version of it.
Akram's first reaction to it was instructive. "I'd seen him bowl a lot of guys, getting them to duck and bowling them. This was in '89 and I thought I had to learn it, but then I thought, I am a fast bowler, why should I learn how to bowl a slower ball? So it took me two years to learn it properly."
It is instructive because, instinctively he thought of it as defensive, like an admission of weakness in a paceman, to have to resort to cutting pace. But as his thinking about bowling expanded, he began to understand its attacking potential and, like Stephenson, intuited early what makes a good slower ball.
"The key thing I learnt is that you have to toss it up, give it flight. If you throw it straight, it just skids on. The faster you run in, the shoulder should rotate as fast, but it's just the fingers and wrist. Some bowlers, when they try to bowl it, psychologically become a bit slower in their run-up, their shoulder rotation is a bit slower and batsmen read it. So you have to do the opposite – the shoulder will go around as fast, but you use the wrist to kind of twist the ball and get that dip."
This is what unites the best slower balls, this high-arcing moon-ball tendency. It is in losing the flight that any batsman becomes most vulnerable, when his calculus on receiving a ball – honed over years and years of preparatory repetition – is so disturbed that all other considerations of line, length or even pace, get scrambled. The late, sharp dip after that completes the loop batsmen hate even more.
The drop in pace is important, but secondarily. Shoaib Akhtar showed in 2005/06 against England, as Steve Harmison did one magical Edgbaston evening against Michael Clarke, that the more sudden the drop – from 95mph to 70mph, for instance – the greater the threat.
As much as the deliveries themselves, it is the batting reaction that makes the best slower balls great; Chris Cairns and Courtney Walsh making batsmen collapse in on themselves; a succession of English batsmen looking around lost, maybe for a no-ball, as Akhtar picked them off.
One of the best ever did not even get a wicket. Steve Waugh bowled one to Viv Richards at the Gabba Test in 1988/89, which looped high but dipped so much that it struck a ducking Richards on the shoulder. The lbw appeal, turned down, looked good, but in making the great Richards look a bit foolish was a little victory.
And so one of the most annoying by-products of limited overs cricket generally and Twenty20 specifically is that the magic of a really good slower ball has worn off. Fifty-over cricket did initially help to enhance it and Waugh and Simon O'Donnell were beautiful pioneers in their own way.
It was still rare enough to be a spontaneous plan, as Aaqib Javed's delicious off-break to dismiss New Zealand's Mark Greatbatch in the 1992 World Cup semi-final was; Aaqib only decided upon it halfway through his run-up.
But Twenty20 has propelled its ubiquity so much that it is no longer primarily a wicket-taking attempt. The variety of the genre has actually blossomed. There are different grips, different trajectories, subtler changes in pace, but by and large, there is only one purpose behind them: to prevent runs.
Batsmen are probably better prepared to pick them, but Akram's warning that without thought and effort it loses potency, seems an equal explanation. To be unkind would be to call this the Dernbach-isation of the slower ball, because though Jade Dernbach has a decent collection, he epitomises the new-age deployment of the slower ball, delivered by rote, not inspiration.
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