How fast was that one? Opportunities for bowlers and their coaches

Fascinating article from Cameron Ponsonby for espncricinfo.com, on why some quick bowlers are perceived by the batters to be “quicker than they look”.

Cameron’s article starts to unpack the phenomenon of the “heavy ball”, and why some bowlers manage to hustle the batters more than another bowler who looks to be bowling quicker.

But I think there are several clues for the inquisitive bowler or bowling coach looking to develop pace and variations.

An early inspiration for me was Brian Wilkins’ “The Bowler’s Art” (published in the UK by A & C Black (Publishers) Ltd, 1992; ISBN 10: 0713634480ISBN 13: 9780713634488)

Not a coaching book, and not really about the art of bowling, Wilkins’ book contained the results of his private wind-tunnel experiments to find out why a cricket ball deviates in flight. The physics of swerve (generated when the ball is spun around an axis) and swing (shine/seam mediated) were described. From Shane Warne’s ball of the (20th) century to reverse swing (when swing forces “miraculously” reversed at a specific delivery speed), Wilkins explained the science behind each delivery.

There was next to nothing on how the bowler might actually bowl the wonder-ball. But the inspiration, for bowler or coach, was the knowledge that the ball could be made to deviate from its ordained path by the application of the appropriate spin or seam angle.

Fascinating!

And Cameron’s article provides similar inspiration.

What follows is a series of thought experiments — how could some of the effects Cameron has written about be adopted into the bowler’s art?

Pre-delivery cues

…there’s a correlation between a bowler being “different” and the feeling that they are faster than they actually are. Batters are brought up on a diet of right-arm-over bowling that is released from nigh-on the same area, ball after ball after ball. Remove that familiarity, and the feeling of speed goes up.

Cameron Ponsonby

For the bowler, having a slightly idiosyncratic bowling action might be worth a few (perceived) klicks as the batter struggles to pick up on your release point and timing.

And developing a metronomic, “mechanical”, bowling action might just be a bad thing, when a little natural variation just might be enough to upset the batter’s timing.

For the coach, there is a lot to be said for selecting bowlers with noticeably different bowling actions.

Over recent seasons, England have sometimes been criticised for picking 3 or 4 quite similar seamers — right-arm, gather with both hands in front of the face, slightly open-chested at BFC, fast medium (83-87mph). If the bowler can’t make the ball do something unexpected in flight, the batters will soon catch on.

But that requires coaches who allow bowlers to develop their own styles (with appropriate controls for safety & legality) rather than trying to impose a “national style”.

In his rather wonderful book How We Learn to Move, Rob Gray highlights the perils of adopting a “best” movement pattern based on the “average” positions displayed by a selection of “élite” performers.

The fact that we can put one number (an average) on a [cohort of experts’] movements does not mean that there is one correct technique, and that all experts do the same thing.

Rob Gray, How We Learn to Move, p10

Allowing bowlers to develop a more natural bowling style might also militate against some over-use injuries (Rob Gray, “How We Learn to Move, pp205-213).

Rather than trying to coach-out variability from our bowlers, perhaps we should be celebrating it?

Release point

In the Caribbean in 2019, TV showed Jasprit Bumrah’s release point was half a metre closer to the batter than Kemar Roach’s.

Cameron Ponsonby

It has long been known that some slow bowlers will occasionally deliver the ball “from 23 yards” i.e. some 1.2m further back than he might normally bowl. But, as Cameron’s article points out, a difference of just 0.5m might equate to a perceived change of pace of nearly 4mph for a quicker bowler.

It is interesting to note how, before the introduction of the “new” front foot no ball Law in 19##, some bowlers dragged through the bowling crease to release the ball from well beyond the batting crease. And some of these bowlers were noted as being disconcertingly quick.

We can’t go back to bowling from 21 yards!

Yes, the bowler will have to maintain an otherwise unchanged bowling action if delivering a “long ball”, or risk giving the game away before the ball is even released. And there will be the challenge of timing bound and delivery stride if take-off is now 0.5m further from the vertical cue (umpire, bowler’s end stumps).

But the adaptability to bowl from the closest legal position, or from further back, can surely be developed through appropriate practice.

And what a pay-off — plus (or minus) 4mph with no change in action whatsoever.

If it’s pace onto the bat we want, let go of the ball at the fullest possible extension (as close as possible to the batter).

But variability in release point is probably well worth developing, as well.

The quick bowlers’ spin

Cameron’s article briefly mentions the effect of back spin on the ball, and how it might contribute to the unexpectedly high bounce some bowlers can extract off a length. But I think there might be more to it than the ground-effect.

As Cameron’s article points out, the short pitched delivery will actually leave the pitch more slowly than one pitched further up, partly due to the loss of forward momentum to friction, partly as horizontal pace is converted to vertical.

Returning to Alan Wilkins’ “The Bowler’s Art”, the ball with heavy back spin will tend to travel slightly fuller before pitching, and will hit the ground at a shallower angle, and hence suffers less loss of forward speed (or, gives the impression that the ball skids on to the batter quicker than expected).

So — if a bowler can deliver the ball with more back spin (better still, with varied back spin), this will put another spanner in the toolkit.

Interestingly, the wobble seam delivery might just be exploiting this phenomenon. With the fingers split and not pulling directly down on the seam, the ball probably leaves the bowler’s hand with less back spin than a ball gripped with one or both fingers touching the seam.

So, in addition to the witches’ brew of seam movement, the ball might also drop a little shorter and bounce a little higher than a delivery released from a more traditional grip.

An observation — do bowlers hold on too tightly to the ball?

Modern bowlers do seem to hold the ball quite deep in their grip. I have seen several articles, from experienced bowlers and their coaches, suggesting that the ideal grip leaves a visible gap between thumb and forefinger (fig.1, below).

Fig.1 — grip for swing

But that means that almost all of the forefinger is in contact with the ball.

I have relatively small hands (my new batting gloves are a youth size, and a comfortable fit), but I learnt to bowl with the ball pushed significantly further to my fingertips (fig.2).

Fig.2 — “Fingertip“ grip

The ball is gripped by the top knuckle and fingertip only of index and middle fingers. And the one delivery I have been able to bowl with any consistency, over 40 years, is a late(ish) out-swinger, which almost certainly has a considerable portion of back spin.

I find that if I try to bowl with the grip in fig.1 the ball does feel seriously “choked”, and I tend to drop short of my ideal (very full) length. But learning to control this “choke” could be a viable variation for me if I can just learn when to release the ball from “deeper” grip.

Grip the ball (or at very least, release it) in the fingertips.

Closing thoughts — there’s more to science than numbers…

I do strongly believe that a more scientifically rigorous understanding of how the cricket ball behaves when bowled can be the spur to experimentation and adaptability for bowlers and their coaches.

But variability between bowlers in a team might be almost as important,


The section-head quotes in the post (unless expressly stated otherwise) are from Cameron Ponsonby’s Looks fast, feels faster – why the speed gun is only part of the story, on espncricinfo.com, 5th December 2021.

Published by Andrew Beaven

Cricket coach, fascinated by the possibilities offered by the game. More formally - ECB level 2 cricket coach; ECB National Programmes (All Stars & Dynamos Cricket) Activator Tutor; Chance to Shine & Team Up (cricket) deliverer; ECB ACO umpire.

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