After his sensational T20 debut against Pakistan, Bhuvaneshwar Kumar set tongues wagging in the commentary box. Sanjay Manjrekar was gushing about the prodigious movement that Kumar impressed on the ball and all the other commentators chimed in… “What shape on the ball!”, “the way he set the batsman up, moving the ball one way and then the other… stunning”… But they are commentators who had played the game. They knew that one swallow does not a summer make. Was this performance enough to prove that Kumar was here to stay? Is his ability to swing the ball enough to help him leave a mark on less helpful (the Bangalore T20 game was played in conditions tailor-made for a swing bowler) pitches? Rameez Raja, though highly appreciative of the young bowler’s performance, raised a pertinent point. Pakistan’s new ball bowlers, he said, wouldn’t even be considered for the national team if they can’t deliver the ball consistently at least 140 kmph.
True enough, the other debutant in the game, Pakistan’s gigantic fast bowler, the 7’1” Mohammed Irfan, dropped the ball down from the greatest height ever in a cricket game, and consistently at speeds approaching 90 mph. Umar Gul, the spearhead, and new find Junaid Khan too would consistently bowl at that pace. On the other hand, India’s new ball attack struggled to get the ball to climb beyond 135 kmph on the speed gun.
And did the extra yards in pace make a difference? Well, Pakistan’s attack blitzed through the Indian line up while the Indians struggled to get past the broad blade of Nasir Jamshed on most occasions. But having said that, Bhuvaneshwar Kumar gave a pretty decent account of himself in most of the games. Nothing as sensational as his debut performance but he usually managed a breakthrough in almost every game. So does that imply that Kumar was here to stay? Would his talent for swinging the ball both ways allow him wickets and longevity in the game? Or would his sub 135 kmph pace relegate him to the level of a fair weather bowler who could only find success in conditions that suited his bowling style.
Before we gaze into the crystal ball and see if it would swing Kumar’s way, let’s go back to what Manjrekar had to say about Bhuvaneshwar’s lack of pace. He seemed apologetic, praising Kumar for his swing and his sharp use of his talents, while acknowledging that Kumar might not be able to do much in unhelpful conditions without working on his pace. But he also cautioned that by pushing Kumar to bowl quicker, one might render him virtually toothless. He would lose his swing without ever acquiring the pace that could make him lethal. “Remember Irfan Pathan,” he cautioned. Maybe it was better to keep him like a secret weapon who would be unleashed on the opposition in helpful conditions only where his romantic old world swing would prove lethal.
Now you must remember that Sanjay Manjrekar was India’s greatest batting hope in the late 1980s. He had scored hundreds against the express pace battery from the West Indies and the swing sultans Imran Khan, Waseem Akram and the super quick Waqar Younis. It is time to remind him of his own words, words he had spoken long ago while he was still playing the game he loves so much and understands so well. Sportstar, a sports magazine I grew up with, had published an interview with Manjrekar where he had been asked who was the best bowler he had ever faced? In the same interview he had mentioned that Ian Bishop and Waseem Akram were the two quickest bowlers he had ever faced. But when it came to picking the best, he went for a man in his 40s, who had been nippy once but in the days when Manjrekar played against him and went into the record books as his 400th victim, was merely medium pace, but with excellent control over line, length, seam and swing – the redoubtable Sir Richard Hadlee. Manjrekar had said that it was almost impossible to face Hadlee, with his excellent line and length in that corridor of uncertainty with each delivery moving a little this way or that, without making an error of judgment.
And Manjrekar wasn’t alone. In an earlier issue of the same magazine, Desmond Haynes, the premier opening batsman of his time who held the record for the most number of ODI centuries for a while, and had learnt his trade in Barbados playing against the viciously quick Malcolm Marshall and Joel Garner, also mentioned Hadlee as his greatest nemesis, echoing the same qualities that Manjrekar had spoken about.
So though Manjrekar might not have remembered it at the time, he had already given the answer to Ramiz Raja’s question… pace is welcome but isn’t all there is to bowling with a new ball. Those who have heard me rant about the joy of watching the ball spit fire and venom at speeds that could kill will know that I am all for red hot pace. But to think that with every team having a pair or more of new ball bowlers who can bowl at 90 miles an hour, and hitting the deck hard, the old world art of swinging the ball should have gone out of fashion is a little unfair and premature.
Yes the swing bowler needs to understand the elements better than the guy who hits the pitch to extract movement. Yes he has to have greater faith in his skills than the bowler who hurls the ball with all his might. Yes, he needs to worry more than any other bowler, whether fast or slow, about the angle of his shoulder, the snap of his wrist and the steadiness of his head. Yes, where the fast bowler is a force of unbridled nature who demolishes, the spinner a magician who lures and deceives, the swing bowler is an artiste who is primarily concerned with the art of moving the ball in the air. The batsmen, the wickets, even the fielders are mere spectators when a ball, following a perfect release, lands in line with the leg stump and then, as if carried on the back of a breeze, moves away to hit the top of off stump.
When the ball is dancing like that, swing bowling becomes a spectacular and unplayable phenomenon. But can swing bowling survive in an era where pitches are prepared with little grass and no time? Does the accurate medium pacer who relies on subtlety more than brute force still have a role to play in an era when bats are bludgeons and bowlers mere cannon fodder? Ramiz Raja and his fellow commentators might say, “umm… without the extra pace, maybe not…..”
But Bhuvaneshwar Kumar shouldn’t listen to them. Instead he should listen to the crowd that roars every time another young man touches the ball. This young man is an oddity just like Bhuvaneshwar. For a long time he couldn’t break into the team because he just doesn’t have the pace. The other new ball bowlers in his team bowl at speeds approaching 150-160 kmph and yet, once he broke through, his performances have put his quicker, more experienced team mates in the shade. This young man’s name is South African Vernon Philander and he just raced to 50 Test wickets in record time. Like Kumar, Philander lacks pace but makes up for that with his ability to swing the ball both ways with tremendous control and a probing consistent line in that ‘corridor of uncertainty’, just like Sir Richard Hadlee.
Swing bowlers are a rare breed, indeed an endangered species, for the craft demands skill and fortitude that stretches far beyond the capacity of most cricketers. Unlike other bowlers who seek to control the fate of every ball they bowl, swing bowlers need to release the ball a little sooner, sacrificing an element of control, in body and mind, so that the ball gets the opportunity to dance to a rhythm of its own choosing. And the ball will dance only if the rhythm of the bowler as he ran up was in tune with the rhythm of the winds that carried the ball through to the other end. On some days or at least some spells, the two rhythms just don’t match. On such days the swing bowler needs to persist with finding his rhythm or the wind’s. If he gets frustrated and tries to exert greater control, he will only end up losing his ability to swing the ball, like what happened to Irfan Pathan. Swing bowling, in that sense is a bit like falling in love with a beautiful and independent woman. You need to have faith in your own self and let go, without any desire to keep complete control. Things won’t always be the way you want them to be, but it would always be wonderfully exciting, and in the long run, rather rewarding.
So keep the faith and keep swinging it, Bhuvaneshwar, and help us fall in love with the moving art of swing bowling all over again…