Archive for December, 2011

The Perils of Imitation

Why the aspiring leggie should not be looking up to Warne’s model

Originally for Dawn

Richie Benaud, the celebrated leg spinner also known for his legendary one-liners in the commentary box, once said, “a bleeding ring finger at the end of every training session was not only normal but essential for my development as a wrist spinner.”

Being one of the most influential and highly-regarded leg-break bowlers at a time when leg-spin was both rare and misunderstood, Benaud knew what he was talking about. He recalls spending most of his late teenage years at the New South Wales Colts’ nets. He would practice landing his stock delivery on the same spot for hours on end.

“Four times a week I would turn up at exactly quarter to three with Billy Watson (who coincidentally would go on to play for Australia himself) and practice in the same net.”

Numerous others would show up at their own leisure to replace Billy, but Benaud would keep practicing until the last ray of light had faded into yet another Sydney summer evening.

“It (leg-spin bowling) is perhaps the hardest and most complex facet of cricket”, Benaud said and the “easiest thing starting out would be to keep it simple and true to your ability.”

The end of that statement is perhaps more significant than it has ever been, for the modern day leg-spinner has to learn not only the complex art, but also to grow out of the shadow of the greatest spin wizard of them all — Shane Warne.

The apparent simplicity of the genius, with his easy flowing action, unprecedented success and captivating personality seems to offer the perfect road map for an aspiring leg spinner.

In the years since Warne’s retirement, talented young bowlers have devoted their energies to modelling themselves on the brilliant Victorian, misguidedly expecting such an ordeal to be rewarding. The truth, however, truth is far closer to the contrary. Such pursuits often give birth to “spinners” who rarely turn the ball or for that matter, possess any of the other bamboozling variations (flipper, top-spinner, googly) so essential to the authentic leggie’s bag of tricks.

The explanation to this fascinating conundrum lies in both the sheer inimitable genius of Warne and the finer aspects of the leg-spinning trait itself.

Leg-spin, unlike any of the other bowling traits, does not require a high-arm delivery release. The bowler, instead, is required to have the shoulder stretch a bit to the side at the point of delivery. This is due to the peculiar and extremely strenuous way the ball is released from the wrist (the flick).

Abdul Qadir ripping a leggie.(Notice the arm to the side

The round arm action makes it much easier for the bowler’s wrist to make the necessary flicking movement, transitioning from facing the sky to facing the bowler at the time of release. It also allows for the maximum number of revolutions to be imparted on the ball, resulting in the drift and fast turn, which are crucial to the lethal leg break.

What determines the amount of turn more than any thing else, however, is the pivot of the legs of the spinner. This pivot has to be strong because it needs to drag the entire body with it, the rule being that the greater the momentum the greater the turn. The pivot is greatly aided by a side-on action. If the bowler is completely side-on in the delivery stride, half his work is already done for his body can then easily be dragged with the momentum generated by the motion of delivery.

Mushtaq Ahmed and Devendra Bishoo completely side-on making it easier to pivot

The authentic leg-spinner’s action then requires an equal amount of work to be done by the front arm and the bowling arm, resulting in quick shifts in momentum that appear a bit haphazard in real time. This leads to “funny” actions being associated with leg-break bowlers.

My whole analysis goes out of the window when you look at Shane Warne. Having the most insignificant of jumps, Warne’s action is much more front-on compared to the traditional leg-spinner. His action doesn’t involve the extravagant movements associated with the likes of Qadir or Mushtaq and is in fact so fluent and easy on the eye that it often appears deceptively lethargic.

Shane Warne gets much more front-on and also avoids the extravagant momentum shifts to display one of the most graceful bowling actions

“How, then, did the magician conjure the wicked turn that mesmerised so many?” Mike Gatting would surely ask. And the answer really can only be attributed to the oddity of Warne’s natural ability. His shoulder and wrist, both freakishly strong and flexible, were able to impart a vicious spin on the ball that others will find impossible to replicate.

This freakish nature is demonstrated even more clearly when you notice his variations. The top spinner and googly, the most common leg-spinning variations, both require the ball to be released with a very different wrist position compared to the stock ball, needing the back of the hand to end up facing the batsman (top spinner) or the ground (googly) after release. This is an extreme change that normal bowlers cannot achieve by a simple adjustment of the wrist. A change in the point of delivery is essential to bowling these variations. Where initially the shoulder stuck out to the side, the arm is now closer to the head for the variations. Compare, for instance, Qadir’s top spinner to his normal action shown above.

Abdul Qadir’s action; much more round arm for the change ups

Qadir was not alone in needing to make this switch. Almost all leg-spinners who have versatility, so crucial to being a complete wrist spinner, have to rely on this slight give-away to land their change-up deliveries effectively.

Kaneria Legbreak) Kaneria Googly (Blue:Head, Red:Line of Release)

Now compare this to Warne, and the difference is evident.

Shane Warne Legbreak Shane Warne Googly

In fact, comparing Shane Warne’s repertoire just confirms why it was so hard to pick the great spinner, who was able to churn out his entire array of deliveries without the slightest hint of change in his action or release point. His strong shoulder and unusually flexible wrists bore the brunt of the change up every time.

(Left to Right/Top to Bottom: Leggie, Wrong-un, Flipper, Slider)

Therefore, while Warne’s ability to turn the ball and perfectly camouflage his variations is nothing short of breathtaking, one must at the same time keep in mind the anatomy and natural gift of the great spinner that frankly can’t be imitated. With his destructive attitude and knack of getting under the batsman’s skin, Warne is definitely the embodiment of an attacking spinner.

Aspiring newcomers have a lot to learn from his attitude but would be better suited to look towards the traditional greats in Qadir and Benaud when it comes to modelling and reconstructing bowling actions.

Originally for Dawn


Run Them Hard- What Hussey can teach the Pakistani Batsmen

Originally for

Why Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq should be be paying attention to this

There has been a lot of debate recently in Pakistan Cricket circles about the efficiency of the current batting line-up. Is the purple patch the batting going through the real deal? Will the batting line-up return to its brittle nature once exposed to better attacks? Are they too defensive to push competitive sides into forcing favorable results? These are all valid questions, but in answering them the fans seem to have taken two very distinct sides when the answer really, as Michael Hussey displayed quite articulately today at the MCG, lies somewhere in the middle.

On one side you get the hard-hitting fans who have become used to the exuberance and flamboyance from the Pakistani sides of the past twenty years. The positive results, the sixty percent win rate (highest for any Test side this year) to them doesn’t matter much if Pakistan are not willing to play the attacking brand of Cricket they have become so used to. On the other side (this is where the majority lies) are the people who have become sick of seeing Pakistan collapse time and time again playing the “attacking” cricket that is exciting  but almost always short lived.

A collapse in Sydney, a gutless breakdown against Herath in Sri Lanka, the continuous self-destruction against England… the list is endless and the more conservative “Azhar Ali camp” to put it more aptly, has a point. Pakistan had not won an ODI series or tasted success in the Test arena for the best part of two years when trying to follow the panache of the nineties. They were a batting unit low on confidence before Misbah took the reigns, trying to emulate the flare and fire of sides both superior in skill and success. To them the dead bat of Azhar, and the snooze fests of Misbah serve as a welcome change. They are fine with the 2.75 run rates and forty percent strike rates as long as it means a zero in the losses column.

The “Afridi fan club” of course begs to differ. Style and aggression to them are the bread and butter of Pakistani batting, and any positive results are not worth the hype if there is no apparent soul on display. This group would be quick to point out that the victories have come against the weaker oppositions or sides on the decline. And in the only significant challenge the Pakistanis faced against S.A, there was about as much intent shown as an Inzamam sprint.

Frankly, the correct approach, as Michael Hussey’s belligerent play showcased today, does not lie in either camps. It wasn’t Mr. Cricket’s exquisitely timed pull shots or the powerful late cuts that really caught the eye in the last two sessions of Day 3 of the Boxing Day Test. As impressive as they might have been, no one who watched the proceedings would debate that it was in fact the “old” guy’s running between the wickets that was most impressive.

His first ball on strike, with Australia reeling after the loss of Clarke and facing a steaming Ishant Sharma, was a deft touch to the leg-side for a quick two. This of course set the pace for the century stand with Ponting, in which Mr. Cricket would just dab the ball on either side and sneak a single or couple every other ball. Pushing his former captain at the other end, and simultaneously putting pressure on the fielders Hussey showed why he is probably one of the most intelligent Cricketer’s playing on the current circuit. At one point the pair, both on the wrong side of thirty, ran a four to take Ponting to a well-deserved fifty.

Running between the wickets is always something that separates the rational Cricketers from the rest. The thinkers of the game are not just fast runners but know the art and importance of placing the ball in the gaps. They realize how a little rotation of the strike can go a long way in disturbing the mindset and comfort levels of the fielding captain; how a sneaky couple results in a misfield or even leads to an entire change in plan that a boundary might not be able to bring. They know that nothing gets under the skin of the opposition captain more or requires more thinking on his part than a constant exchange of the strike.

It is because of this tactical advantage that Team Misbah’s current approach is a bit confounding. A man who looks like he values mind over skill would seem like the perfect candidate to instill this highly important facet of the game into the young guys of the side. Yet, he is still to implement running consistently into his own game. As much as Misbah et al would like to revel in the glory of 2011, they must realize the true challenge is yet to come in the form of England. As Hussey and Ponting admitted themselves today on a pitch that is hard to feel completely settled on, making it count while you are in is of the utmost importance. Even Sehwag, who likes the flashing blade more than any body else remarked in the press conference how both of the important partnerships in the game (Hussey/Ponting &Tendulkar/Dravid) were set up on excellent rotations of the strike.

The pitches might not offer up the same challenge in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, but the caliber of bowling the Pakistani batsmen will be up against will certainly be from the top drawer. Simply hanging around on the crease without getting a move on will not be an option any more because the likes of Broad, Swann, Tremlett and Anderson will certainly send one down sooner or later that wll inevitably carry the batsman’s name on it. The team, one hopes, does not suffer from the lack of confidence it was facing a year back. Thanks to Misbah’s leadership the green shirts must be feeling upbeat about their chances in the Emirates. Unfortunately this confidence, despite the clean sweep, didn’t show its face in Bangladesh, for with it the fans rightly expect a gradual improvement from the dead bat approach to one of more intent and purpose. Meandering along just won’t work this time round unless Pakistan intend to shut shop from the get go, and we all know how enthralling the Cricket was when that happened against S.A last year.

That approach was understandable when the team was going through such turmoil and turbulence. Not so much now, when the Pakistani fans who are demanding to see some purpose on the crease are actually in the right. What the current batsmen and many of the fans need to realize is that aggression does not necessarily mean a return to the hot-headed approach from two years ago, and that is one valuable lesson Pakistani batsmen can learn from Mr Cricket.

The Upper Cut: When Skill Trumped the Mind

Tendulkar's Signature Down Under

There is just something about Test Cricket, isn’t there? The mind games that took place in the post-tea session on the second day exemplify why the longest form of the game is also the most cherished. Half the game is played in the mind according to most experts, but what that also means of course is that the other half is played on skill and talent. And when that skill and talent is tagged to none other than Sachin Tendulkar, the battle is even more spectacular and normally has only one sure victor.

The post-tea session on Day Two of the Boxing Day Test must have been a treat for all lovers of the Test game. Pattinson had looked quite troubling pre-Tea, bowling a fiery spell to Sehwag. In a memorable two over period he had ripped a few down Sehwag’s throat and hadn’t given the batsman any room to open his arms on the offside. Despite how well the opener had played he had looked suspect against the odd ball seaming onto his pads all day. Pattinson was clever enough to have picked up on this and finally had his man when he jagged one back onto the middle stump.

One would have thought with Pattinson bowling so well, having the support of the home crowd behind him and wanting to be the one to quash every Indian’s dream of a Tendulkar ton, he would have been allowed to carry on. Instead, Clarke going with his style of changing things up even when they seem to be working, handed Siddle the ball from the Member’s End. The first ball was pitched in short and Sachin played an immaculate upper cut for six that had become the signature shot from his last two tours Down Under.  Thinking the shot was too high risk, Clarke let the third slip stay in place. Two overs later, to the frustration of the Australian captain Sachin repeated the magnificent shot for four.

Having seen the master artistically flick, straight drive, and then cover drive the bowlers, Clarke was forced into a different approach. He took the third man back and asked Siddle to pitch it in short. Hoping against hope that Sachin would now time one sweetly into the waiting hands of the boundary rider. The master however just went along in his merry way taking the third-man spoke out of his wagon wheel. The only scoring shot that would come down there from his bat during the period was an edge that flew past the originally occupied third slip. A frustrated Clarke was on his haunches again and decided to change it up once more.

Pattinson was brought back in and something was whispered to Warner at gully who ran down with the message to the young quickie from Victoria. Meanwhile third man ran in the same direction to place himself in a floating slip position. Clarke this time wanted Sachin to attempt the cut but mistime it to the close in fielder, still convinced that it was the upper cut that was going to be the Master’s downfall. Pattinson, having got the message, ran in with a purpose and pitched it in a bit short. With sublime ease, the ball was deposited over the slips yet again.

Throughout this whole exchange Clarke might have thought he was spinning a web for Tendulkar, trying to outsmart the little man into playing to his tune. But there are times in Cricket when skill outshines the cunning of the mind and it is best on such occasions to just stick to the basics. Sachin’s dismissal at the end of the day’s play proved just that, when he fell not to Warner’s long hops, or to the “risky” upper cut but rather to the good old just off-a-length in dipper. Clarke had only to recall his dismissal from yesterday to know that on this pitch that was the right ploy from the start, for in the mood Sachin was in at the G today you are better off playing the game than the master.


It All Comes Down To The G: Previewing India’s Tour to Australia

Originally for

The 75000 at the MCG might witness the decisive Test of the Series

After the damp squib the much talked about England-India series turned out to be one can’t be blamed for being a bit tentative about the quality of Cricket that is in store for the fans this summer down under. However given the various vulnerabilities facing both sides off late it’s safe to assume the contest will be off a more even keel, giving India the best chance to register their first ever series away win against an opposition that has over the past decade become a traditional foe.

The key to the whole series really lies in Melbourne and how the Boxing Day Test unfolds. A couple of weeks back it would have been sufficient for India to be content with just a draw. Like Pakistan, the South Asian giants are fashionably slow starters, finding it easier to ease into a tour instead of hitting the ground hard and seeking to wrest the initiative. However, with the early Christmas present left by the Kiwis and the double body blow of having Watson and Cummins sit out, India needs a revision of plans going into Boxing Day.

Given the financial clout and draw of India, coupled with the eminent threat of Zaheer Khan in the opposition ranks one can expect to see the greenly-tinged surfaces, that provided such refreshing and exciting viewing in the last month, to give way to more benign pastures. India of course also benefit from a very suitable itinerary with tracks in Sydney and Adelaide (if history is any guide to go by) to prove much easier to bat on than what weaker boards (such as N.Z) have to contend with when sending their teams into the jaws of the Gabbatoir or Tasmania. Perth is the only surface that ought to ask serious questions of the batsmen and that challenge doesn’t present itself till the visitors have been allowed to settle nicely into the conditions.

Australia’s focus:

This hospitality bordering on leniency while often frustrating for the neutral observer watching the Indian visits down under is not such a bad ploy for the hosts this time round. For, unlike their great predecessors from the 2000’s, the Baggy Greens have proved extremely brittle in their batting over the past couple of years. One only has to recall what transpired last Boxing Day to realize the Aussies would be much better off focusing on preparing tracks garnered towards bounce than seam. Extravagant seam movement off overly grassy surfaces, as S.A found out to their ruin in Durban last Boxing Day, would work much more in favor of the Indian outfit, who lack the over all consistency and penetration in bowling to skittle out formidable batsmen on less responsive surfaces. The one thing common to all Australian collapses of the recent past has also been the haunted seaming tracks; Sydney (Pak), Headingley (Pak), Melbourne (Eng), Capetown (S.A) all had unusual juice and a tinge of green on the surface on the first morning. So an approach steering away from seam and finding an appropriate balance focusing on bounce is the answer for Australia, whose opposition have time and again struggled to cope with surfaces where the ball has risen off a good length.

The Australians have been very fortunate to find some extremely promising young bowlers in a very short span of time and one has to wonder how lethal their attack is shaping up to be in a couple of years time when the likes of Cummins and Pattinson have had ample time to be groomed. In Pattinson they seem to have a polished article already, who not only puts the ball on a good length a la McGrath and Gillespie, but is also deceptively quick. Along with Siddle, Harris and hopefully Cummins for the last two tests he should prove to be the prickliest of thorns in India’s throat.

Nathan Lyon however remains Australia’s biggest unanswered question. If he is able to bowl the same consistent lengths that one has become accustomed to expect from him, and bog down one end it will make the job that much easier for Clarke and the fast bowlers. It is no easy task though, given the formidable Indian batting and their ruthless deftness at tackling spin bowling. Lyon must prepare and be ready for this challenge, for if he lets the Indians get on top early, the four tests might just end up being the longest grind for Clarke’s team since the Ashes last season.

Lyon and Pattinson hold the key for Australia's bowling

India’s Focus:

 The Indian batsman might have woken up from the nightmare that was the English summer, but they, more than anybody else, know the matter is not put to bed after just piling runs from the confines of their back yard. They must take comfort from the relatively inexperienced bowling line-up that awaits them Down Under and target an aggressive approach from the get go. Getting on top of Lyon and the young Pattinson, and playing patiently through the early testing conditions without giving the Aussies a sniff will prove the best strategy for Dhoni’s men. Sehwag and Gambhir (especially the latter) need to step up their game. Most of the memorable Indian victories can be primarily attributed to the strong platform the openers have been able to provide the team prior to the English debacle. Rohit Sharma given his immense talent and rich vein of form must also be given the opportunity from the beginning for it may well end up that the newest star in the lndian line-up outshines all the others.

Dhoni’s Captaincy will be key and constantly under the scanner, for critics might not be as generous as they were last time around if his lack luster approach from England continues. His style of captaincy of letting the bowlers do their job and unwilling to change things up in the field when things aren’t going the team’s way, are the major reasons for the margins of defeat witnessed last summer. Mr. Cool has to take on a more hands on approach when his team is out in the field. While the laid back mentality works wonders in conditions well known to his bowling attack, it has often come back to bite the Indians in foreign environments.

Will India punt on the gifted Rohit Sharma?

The Real Battle:

The actual battle however will throughout remain the Indian bowling against the Australian batsmen. If, and that is a big IF, Zaheer and Ishant are able to cope for the entire leg of the tour, India will fancy this battle. Ishant who earned most of his repute from his skirmishes with Ponting last time round, will be up against his familiar foe once again. With Watson missing, Ponting being in the miserable form that he is in and the Indian pair looking good for the first test at least, the battle becomes a challenging prospect for the hosts. The trial however shouldn’t be any more stressful than the ones Clarke and his men have had to deal with recently, which should give the Australians belief in tackling it amicably. Yadav the third seamer although nippy, has the tendency to spray the ball around quite a bit and one wouldn’t be surprised if India took the two spinner’s route on the flatter tracks on the tour. So it really comes down to the spinners, especially Ashwin and how effective he proves be in Australian conditions. The Indian fans should look no further than the performance of the Tamilian off-spinner when they sit down to dissect this tour in a month and a half’s time for his effectiveness (or lack off) will be the deciding factor in this major battle.


 Mel: Too close to call

Syd: India favorites

Perth: Australia favorites

Adelaide: Draw or whoever has the momentum

2-1 to the side who wins at Melbourne, 1-1 if that is a draw.

The MCG might only be the opener, but the way the series is set up, the 75000 expected to witness the jewel of the Australian Cricket summer can expect something really special. It would also undoubtedly go a long way in deciding the fate awaiting the Indians Down Under. In either case, it should be a cracker!

Originally for 

Let The Star Shine

Originally for Dawn….this is the unedited version.

Clearly Umar has some fixing to do, but is the war raging with in the only problem?

WACK! The ball met the middle of a swivelling blade and deposited itself beyond the empty stands on the mid-wicket fence at the University Oval, Dunedin. The bowler walking back to his mark, shoulders for once drooped in resignation at the audacity of the stroke, was Daniel Vettori. He was witnessing, according to the experts in the commentary box, one of the best young talents to have crossed this side of the Tasman Sea since a similarly curly haired teenager by the name of Sachin Tendulkar dazzled the hosts with his breathtaking array of strokes.

This 19-year old, hailed not from the Mumbai School of Batsmanship, but the bustling streets of Lahore. Umar Akmal then went on to score a rollicking 129 on this first outing in Pakistani whites. Today, a little over two years on from that sunny afternoon, the same Akmal finds himself flung out of the Test squad and the golden debut knock remains the solitary mark in the Test hundreds column.

A lot has been written and said about Umar’s temperament. Mohsin Khan, the current Pakistan cricket team coach has said that “the young batsman has to stop being selfish and learn to play the big innings.” Similarly, former coach Waqar Younis stressed how “Umar’s head was not in the right place” going in line with Basit Ali’s recent comments about how the younger Akmal needs “to work on his mentality, before hoping for a rebirth in the Test side.”

Clearly Umar has some fixing to do, but is the war raging within him the only problem? To answer this question think back to an Umar Akmal innings that you can recall off the top of your head. Do you remember his maiden one-day fifty against Sri Lanka where he dispatched the magician Muttiah Muralitharan back over his head, Inzi-style? How about the scintillating first-innings knock at the Boxing Day Test? Or the gutsy 44 from earlier this year that saw Pakistan end Australia’s 34-match World Cup winning streak.

Random innings that have come to signify the one thing common about the majority of Umar Akmal’s stays at the crease — overwhelming and undeniable pressures of having to keep afloat a sinking ship. When he first made his debut the fans rightly thought it was only a matter of time before Umar would get a nod to move up the order. Surely a batsman of his talent and bravado would be better suited to setting up an innings rather than having to constantly chase at its coattails. Who would have known the wait would prove to be endless.

Those who choose to constantly criticise his aggressive play and at times choice of “irresponsible” stroke play don’t realise the sheer burden and mental pressures that go with being a batsman. Rarely does any facet of cricket match up to the sheer concentration and mental grit required in crafting up a solid knock. It is a constant battle, not just against the bowlers, but more significantly with the self, scrutinising every little decision. It is in such testing times that keeping things simple and following one’s instinct become key to survival.

Of course what this also means is that batsmen, like wine, mature with age. Sehwag, the embodiment of simplicity, when modestly referring to his breathtaking knock a few days back agreed: “A batsman will only be able to score a double hundred after crossing the age of 30.” Pinpointing a set age of course is debatable, given the subjectivity of mental toughness gained through experience, but what the statement alludes to is the simple fact that one should not disregard the junior Akmal’s age. At 21 he is still very much part of the learning curve and developing his trade.

What the management, and yes the finger is squarely pointed at Waqar Younis’s time as coach, was supposed to do was give Umar Akmal the freedom to play his natural game. Provide the wonder-kid a license to follow his exuberance and panache, which is not available down at five or six. Surely, steering away from the unnecessary complexities of batting under pressure, and making things as uncluttered as possible for the team’s best batsman is the requirement of the time. Even Umar himself, cottoning on for it wasn’t rocket science, begged for “a promotion in the batting order” that would suit his style of play and accordingly result in him “scoring runs consistently”. His plea however, like the ones’ of so many infuriated fans before him, fell on deaf ears.

Umar unfortunately is not the only such case. Since his arrival over a year ago, Pakistan’s other young batting talent; Asad Shafiq has been obligingly taking hits like the team’s designated punching bag. Having been passed around like the photograph of a prospective groom, Shafiq still hasn’t found his slot in the team. The latest confidence-shattering move, in the development of who surely is a shoo-in number five batsman, is the added responsibility of opening the batting. Why should Shoaib Malik, currently averaging an abysmal four since his return, with three international hundreds opening the innings be asked to put his hand up when the young team scapegoat is there to be taken advantage of.

Pakistan sadly still lives off the Inzamam mentality, which despite it’s immeasurable tenacity to soak up pressure, was never able to sneak out from the comforts of it’s defensive approach. Coming lower down the order, he was always safe from the cheeky tricks of the newish ball and the hypothetical blame that would have come his way as a top order batsman. It is credit to his natural gift that he was able to conjure up the career he managed in the end, but one still has to wonder why Pakistan continues to be behind the eight ball.

The strategy, given Inzamam’s suspect footwork against the moving ball and conservative mental approach, might have made sense but does the young Akmal need to be religiously exposed to the same routine? Sure, Umar’s natural ability coupled with his knack of being able to play under pressure put him in the same bracket as the Prince of Multan, but to limit him to just that is doing the kid a world of injustice. An aggressive mental approach, and willingness to call the shots are qualities that set him apart and need to be properly channeled instead of harnessed.

One doesn’t even have to look outside Pakistan to find a suitable example. The great Javed Minadad, widely regarded as the county’s greatest batting product, with a similar hands on approach to batting, played his best when in charge of the innings from the start. Scoring at a staggering average of 55 and 60 (Tests and ODI respectively) his performance in at three was significantly better than any other position he played in. Most successful top order batsmen, the legendary Sir Vivian Richards included, had been promoted to their regular top order batting slots a year and a half into their careers. No such luck has come the way of Umar Akmal as optimists keep citing his young age and time remaining as valid excuses.

If Pakistan is to harbour any plans of building a competitive unit, worthy of contending in all conditions, fluency in their batting and lack of ability to set the pace remain the biggest chinks in the armour. The correct utilisation of Umar’s talent is key to fixing this major flaw and set Pakistan rolling on the right path. It is the laid-back approach that has plagued Pakistani batting over the years, even managing to diminish the glow of the exuberant 19-year old who took guard in Dunedin two winters ago. Let’s hope, for Pakistan cricket’s sake, the star within hasn’t completely burnt out.

Originally for Dawn 

The Silent Performer: Kyle Mills

Kyle Mills was the top ODI performer in the world in 2009

I bring to you the fourth and final installment of the Black Cap interviews. Kyle Mills was kind enough to spare some time and talk to me at the HRV media event in mid-Novemeber. This interview is prior to the Australian series of course

 You were for quite a considerable period of time ranked consistently as the number one ODI bowler in the world. Any particular reason for success in the limited overs format specifically?

I guess the main reason was the exposure that I got early in ODI Cricket. I had been given a chance to play at the International level much before I got to wear a Test Cap and that experience I think has boosted my performance in the ODI format. Some thing like that also becomes a goal, that you start striving for once you have had a taste of it, and you want to keep the honor for as long as possible. So I was really content when I got there and was able to remain high in the rankings for the amount of time that I did.

What’s your take on the much more frequent nature of injuries that fast bowlers are exposed to in current Cricket?

 Look, I think in my mind the amount of Cricket being played these days is just so much that there is not any respite for fast bowlers. It is one of the most un-natural things to do   –fast bowling, and especially when you are at the international level where it is so competitive and excruciating it definitely takes it’s toll on the body. I think a balance will have to be struck somewhere. You already see players leaving the longer formats to just play One Day and T20, or doing the reverse in the form of players like Clarke and Johnston who want to concentrate on just Tests.

In the end it’s a personal choice for players on what they see as a better fit for them. Remember this is also their livelihood, so I won’t judge them on what they choose. I also think that we will start seeing rotation being applied a lot more than it is being currently where players start getting rested from tours, it has started already but we will see much more of it in the future if the amount of Cricket remains the same.

What do you prefer personally?

Test Cricket is definitely the hardest form of the game and at the same time also the most rewarding. I think deep down every Cricketer would want to excel at the Test Level and prove their mantle in the longest format.

Tour against Australia coming up, how does it feel to be missing out due to injury?

I am desperate to get back into the Test fold, unfortunately an abductor tear in the Zimbabwe ODI series has sidelined me from Tests. I will be playing domestic Cricket here in N.Z but of course missing out on an Australian tour is a big blow. I don’t think it gets bigger for a N.Z Cricketer and I would have loved to be out there

Especially now when Australia have seen the departure of greats like Warne, McGrath and Gilchrist and come back to the pack a bit. No respect to the current side but this teams looks much more beatable and I think our boys will give them a very tough time in their back yard.

Whoe was your favorite Cricketer growing up wanting to be a fast bowler?

That’s a very simple question to answer, I think most Cricketers from this country have grown up watching Sir Richard Hadlee or watching video of him. He is by far the best Cricketer we have ever produced in my mind and is definitely the guy I looked up to most when growing up.

You have played a lot of Limited Overs Cricket and we have seen a massive shift towards giving the edge to batting in the format, your thoughts on that as a batter?

I agree conditions and pitches are pretty much becoming flatter and easier for batsman across the board, especially in ODI Cricket. It’s not easy being a fast bowler in these conditions and the biggest difference I see is the lack of bounce in pitches these days. But I do think that bowlers and fast bowlers in particular will adapt as a group and you will see them coming up with different techniques and ploys to wrest the initiative away from batsmen. Cricket is a constantly evolving game and the batsman may be having their time now but I see the bowlers fighting back to balance things out in the near future.

Something I have noticed personally is that you are able to comeback well in matches. You might get hit around early but are able to come back. Bowlers around the world, Umar Gul jumps to mind, find it very difficult to bounce back in the same match, do you have any suggestions?

I think as a bowler you have to concentrate on the ball that you are about to bowl. What ever has happened before doesn’t matter and the only thing you can change and effect is how you bowl the balls coming up especially the one you are just about to bowl. Concentrating on that particular delivery helps. It takes a bit of mental toughness though and is not easy. It also depends on the personality of the bowler and if he lets himself get carried away when the batsman is on top. Going off the field for a couple of minutes and getting your head straight is not a bad option in such times.

The best batsman you have had the “pleasure” of bowling to?

Without a doubt Sachin Tendulkar, I guess his record speaks for himself but he was the toughest I have bowled to as well. Really hard to figure out, as a bowler where to bowl to him, when he is on song.

Any stories you can tell of playing Pakistan?

I really enjoy playing the Pakistani boys. They are a very nice bunch to play against and definitely one or two of them are real characters. I don’t have stories particularly but Saeed Ajmal is a great character. I am always trying to predict when he would bowl the Doosra to me. I have many a conversation with him off the park as well and I enjoy playing him. There are a number of guys who are great to play against but a side that is very hard to predict. Sometimes they are absolutely unbeatable and on other occasions they just tend to roll over almost, but all in all a quality side.

World Cup 2015 at home, what do you reckon…. will be playing by the time it rolls around?

I would definitely love to play in it for sure, but it all depends on how the body copes I guess. I tend to re-assess things after every season and that is only how far I plan to look out for now. But it would be a great honor to represent your home side in front of your home crowd. I remember the 92 World Cup when the team did extremely well until Pakistan knocked us out…. Inzamam completely smashed us I remember. Was a young guy then and it was certainly a great inspiration for me as a Cricketer. Lets see how things go, fingers crossed I guess.

Originally for

Spin Begins Reign In Land of Pace

Originally for The Sight Screen

The Pakistani spinners turn the heat on just when the bowling threatened to go cold

Spin has rarely been given the importance it deserves in Pakistan Cricket. From the time when that most wily of operators, Sarfraz Nawaz, discovered the “dark art” of reverse swing, fast bowling has ruled the roost in this speed-obsessed part of the world. Everyone from the determined club cricketer to the eight-year old just starting to fall obsessively in love with the game wants to do one thing and one thing alone…bowl FAST!

Imran’s rise as the brand ambassador of the Pakistan School of Pace coupled with the advent of the two W’s, meant that spin always played second fiddle to the dazzling powers of pace. It was not as though Pakistan suffered from a dearth of spinners; this, after all, is the land that gave birth to Abdul Qadir, mentor to none other than the great Shane Warne. It is home to Mushtaq Ahmed, a World Cup winning leggie and Wisden Cricketer of the year at a time when both Murali and Warne were in their prime, and who can leave out the creative genius of Saqlain Mushtaq, the man who revolutionized off-spin with a simple flick of his wrist. These are all masters of their trade, yet don’t get nearly the same amount of mention as some of their fast-bowling compatriots. The reasons are many and open for debate, but what is certain is the rapidity of the turning tide in favor of oft-forgotten spin. Gone are the days when spin was looked on as only a second resort, for off late it has proven to be the most potent weapon in the Pakistani bowling arsenal.

Mohammad Hafeez became the first spinner in the history of Pakistan Test Cricket to open the bowling earlier this year, capping off what has been a remarkable year for Pakistani spinners. Three of them- Ajmal, Afridi and Hafeez- find themselves in the top ten ODI bowlers’ list, with Ajmal also leading the Test wicket-takers’ tally in 2011. Nobody expected such a massive turnaround after the Lords 2010 debacle, when in the form of Mohammads Asif and Amir, Pakistan lost the core of its bowling unit. In the aftermath of that loss, many would have understandably assumed the bowling unit to be devoid of a strike force. However, to do so would have been to ignore the sheer resilience and guile buttressing the ranks of Pakistan’s spin department.

The numbers make for some startling reading: In the 24 ODI games where the trio of Hafeez, Afridi and Ajmal have taken the field together, Pakistan has come out on top 15 times. Over the same period, the spinners have taken over 70% of the scalps and bowled nearly 60% of the overs. More importantly, they have achieved all this at a click under 4.0 RPO, with Hafeez bowling at a miserly 3.46.

Moving from colors to whites and replacing Afridi with Rehman, the numbers continue to be striking. Pakistan has only lost one out of the six tests when all three spinners have played. Even in that solitary loss, the spinners averaged an eye-catching 13. Overall in these battles, the slower bowlers have shared nearly 80% of the spoils and collectively averaged around the 23 mark. Contrast this with Umar Gul’s unenviable average of 42 in the same games, and it puts Pakistan’s reliance on spin into even harsher perspective.

Of course, playing predominantly on slow surfaces during this time frame has meant less assistance to the seamers, but that should not detract from the achievements of the spinners. The beauty of the current Pakistani spin set lies in its effectiveness regardless of conditions.

In Ajmal, Pakistan possesses quite simply the best spinner in the world. With his unrelenting variation and ability to befuddle even the likes of India, there are few that could disagree with that tag. Mohammad Hafeez is a cunning campaigner, whose deadly drift into the left-handers, accuracy in drying up the runs, and versatility to both open and close the bowling, make him an invaluable part of the side. It should surprise no one that since his return to Pakistan colors, in games where he has been allowed to bowl out his full quota of 10, the team has won a mind boggling 12 out of 14 ODIs.

Then there is of course, Shahid Afridi, consistently Pakistan’s best-limited overs bowler over the past three years. His ascent as a bowler after spending some fruitful time in the tutelage of Qadir in early 2008 has been meteoric. A spinner reborn, he has since bowled with a confidence befitting his magnetic personality. With Afridi’s rise and star-spangled celebration has come a fan following never witnessed by a Pakistani spinner. He was, to put it in celebrity terms, “big” before, but pundits would have been justified in questioning whether his performance merited the fanfare. No such questions can be raised now, as Afridi deploys his skiddy sliders and fast leg-breaks to repeatedly bamboozle his opponents into cutting and chopping themselves to their own demise.

In some ways, the duo of Younis Khan and Intikhab Alam (the latter a pretty handy orthodox spinner himself) are to be thanked for this resurgence in spin. It was under their management that the seeds were first sown for the spin-strangulation strategy that we see applied so efficiently by the team today. The triumph at the T20 World Cup in England should have been followed by a successful run, were it not for some crucial dropped chances at the Champions Trophy; it did, however, see the Pakistani spinners come into their own.

The recent powerplay rule change and a switch to using two new-balls, have both played their part as well. With extra fielders inside the inner ring, and a newish ball that suits both Hafeez and Afridi’s styles of bowling, the Pakistani spinners have been allowed to exert a stranglehold on opposition batsmen. Ones and twos, easily available previously due to a lack of a captain making aggressive field placements, have been converted to valuable dots. This in turn has led to pressure building up, with the subsequent poor shot selection, delivering those crucial breakthroughs that have become the hallmark of Pakistan’s limited-overs game. No longer is the middle period just a transition between the wearing new ball and the onslaught at the death. The Pakistani slow bowlers have transformed it into an action-packed segment of the match, where the contest is either tantalizingly set-up or most often just finished off.

The fact that current Pakistani supporters would much rather lick their lips at the prospect of an Ajmal or Afridi spell, compared to say an opening burst by Gul, is evidence enough of how the spinners have captured the fans’ fancy. Given the aggressive nature of the spin trifecta, the sheer aura of Afridi and the weaving magic of Ajmal, it wouldn’t be surprising if that eight-year old were to pick up a ball today and give it a real rip for a change.


Originally for The Sight Screen