Exploring the merits of bowling slower through the air

Every extra fraction of a second that a batsman gets, influences his decision making and is an opportunity to question his own gut.

‘Slower through the air’ is the one big reason that has been presented against playing India’s lead leg spinner. But, this article is not about his selection or non-selection. It is about exploring why bowling slower through the air is not necessarily a bad attribute to have.

The ball takes for eternity to reach the batsman when it is bowled slower through the air. The batsman can keep waiting on the back-foot. The direction of turn can be picked up off the surface rather than from the hand, rendering the variations ineffective. These are cons with bowling slower through the air and they are absolutely ready-made answers at the top of everyone’s mind. But, aren’t there any upsides at all?

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Consider this situation from our real lives. Sometimes, when we as students had exams day in and day out, we would often times say ‘get it done with’. Why ? The exams are occupying our mind so much that we want to be free of them at the cost of bad preparations too sometimes. While the example might be an exaggeration, there are times in our decision making process where we feel lesser time robs us off trying different options but it also simplifies our decision making. How often have you had that extra time while answering your exams and corrected your multiple choice answer during that extra time ? When you find out your first choice was the right option, you would be like,'Oops, I got it right in the first attempt'. Why did I change it?’

Let’s extend this logic to ‘slower through the air’. While, the batsman facing a bowler is nothing like an exam that goes on for 2 hours, it is still an extremely compressed version of what goes on in a batsman’s mind. Every extra fraction of a second that a batsman gets, influences his decision making and is an opportunity to question his own gut. Slower through the air allows the batsman enough time to do funny things like skipping down the track, pushing with harder hands which otherwise wouldn’t happen. The ball might be doing nothing, but the mirage that it is going to do something while waiting for it is a factor that can make decision making cluttered.

We just need to look at Kuldeep’s exploits at the SCG in early 2019 when India toured Australia. SCG is the most sub-continental of the Australian surfaces. Make no mistake, it is still by no means a slow Indian turner. The slowish Kuldeep didn’t need the SCG strip to do any trick, it was all about his pace or rather the lack of it that got him his 5 wickets. It had to come to Kuldeep, because there aren’t many who bowl at that slow pace going around.

Khawaja was sucked into dragging a harmless length ball to the mid wicket, swiping earlier than the ball arrived. It is a ball in the good length around 80 kph, slower than the average spinner. The head position falls away and the balance is out of place, courtesy a slower pace. Travis Head expected the ball to be a higher full toss.

Tim Paine’s classic dismissal had so many reasons why there are merits to bowling slower through the air. The delivery was thrown up high in the air and much fuller negating any slowness that the SCG track had. Paine is teased into an expansive push instead of timing his cover drive like he often does, courtesy the slow loopy fuller ball. That opens up a big gap between his pad and the bat and the ball sneaks through the huge gap. The speed gun clocked 76.5 kph on that dismissal. These are not the typical type of dismissals you see from the faster through the air kind of bowlers.

Both Khawaja’s and Paine’s head positions are falling away to the the off-side mostly due to the slowness through the air. Quick glance at Paine in the above picture and you will notice how he thrusts his head and hands out, which I doubt would have happened against a quicker bowler.

Who else operated in this slowish pace in the recent past? Rangana Herath, the second highest wicket-taker of Sri Lanka in the longest format. He averaged around the late 70s when it came to his pace. It should not have been so hard to play him off the pitch. Watch this clip here (South Africa’s tour of Sri Lanka in 2018) is one of the many instances where he foxed the opposition with his slow pace.

Amla, one of the better players of spin must surely have played this 77.3 kph delivery with fair ease. De Bruyn, who was batting on 101 must have negotiated this slow late 70 kph ball with comfort. They had more than enough time for making a sound decision ? Instead, one shoulders arms and the other goes on the back foot for a relatively fuller delivery, falling for the flatter trajectory. The surface was fairly quick turner, but these 2 dismissal had nothing to do with it. Vettori was another one of the finger spinner who operated at this slow pace and found a lot of success.

With bowling fuller lengths, the slower bowlers can effectively eliminate whatever slowness the pitch has inherent in it. As with bowling quicker, slower through the air has its downside as well. And most of them have to do with what lengths the bowlers operate at. The Usman Khawaja dismissal perfectly sums up how effective and ineffective ‘slower through the air’ can be. If he had sat back and played it off the back-foot it was the most boring delivery. But instead the slowness tempted Khawaja into that swipe, influencing his decision making, turning it into an effective delivery.

While you might view it as common knowledge that a slowish track isn’t always the best ones for slower bowlers or better batsmen will sit all day long in their back-foot, there is still a lot that ‘slower through the air’ offers that is worth at least an A/B test (a concept very popular in marketing, to evaluate an alternative). As with many other things in cricket, it is a double edged sword and not something to be held against a bowler, but rather encouraged, like we encourage all kinds of batting. The list of bowlers who operate at that slowish pace is diminishing, the batsmen are more impatient and it is all the more reason to find out how comfortable a batsman’s decision making is when he gets that fraction of a second more. Faster is not always better, slower is not always bad.

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