Watching English batsmen struggle against short-pitched deliveries during the last Ashes Test got me thinking about bouncers. Not too long ago, knowing how to negotiate a bouncer was a trait expected only from Test cricketers, often peppered with the short-pitched stuff. But now, you have bowlers trying to psyche and bounce you out in T20s too. India’s batting woes in the World T20 being a case in point.
So how does a batsman read a short-pitched delivery before it arrives?
Well, you can try reading the bowler’s body language, but most bowlers today don’t change a thing in their run up or bowling routine. Still, the bowler has to delay the release of the ball to bowl short and that’s the first indication that a bouncer’s on its way. Watching the release very closely gives the batsman just a fraction of a second more to prepare.
How to handle it defensively?
You have to keep your eye on the ball at all times regardless of how you decide to deal with it. Once the ball bounces above shoulder height it’s very difficult to control a shot. So let it go through to the keeper.
But even the simple act of leaving the ball requires concentration. There are two ways of letting it pass: One, duck underneath (get into a squat) and let it go overhead. The second — watch it carefully all the way through and go either inside or outside the line of the ball. Keeping the wrists down is mandatory in both positions.
How much does the pitch matter?
On tracks where you can trust the bounce, ducking is a good option. All you need to do is to pick the length quickly, get into a squat and hope it bounces as expected. This is pretty safe except when the bounce or pace is uneven, because it’s damn difficult to watch the ball all the way while ducking. And then, you’re in a squat --- which doesn’t allow for much manoeuvrability if the ball stays lower than anticipated.
So on pitches with unreliable bounce and pace, swaying away from the line of the ball is always better. On these, you’ve got to try and play at every short-pitched delivery and only when you figure that it’s bounced high enough to be left alone, should you drop the wrists and let the ball pass.
What else is important, besides watching the ball?
You have got to stay side on. If a batsman gets squared on (where both shoulders face the bowler) he gets into an awkward position and ends up fending at the ball. It’s easier to get inside or outside the line in a side-on position. Standing tall also allows you to play a defensive /attacking stroke if the ball doesn’t bounce as expected.
You have got to be prepared to be hit. There’s a possibility of misjudging the bounce so it’s always better to drop your wrists, ensuring you’re not fending and allow the ball to hit you instead. Steve Waugh exemplified this. The cricket ball can hurt but when you allow it to hit you on purpose, it won’t kill you.
When is it time to get aggressive?
You can get away with leaving the ball in Test cricket (two bouncers are allowed in an over) as time is not a constraint, and even in ODIs (one bouncer per over) to a certain extent, but in T20s — don’t hang around! Even though the bowler is allowed only one an over, it amounts to nearly one per cent of the batting innings. You simply can’t afford to duck or sway a bouncer away.
So how do you choose what to do?
It’s relatively easier to score off balls that bounce around chest high. You can choose to get inside the line and pull or stay outside and play a square cut. But higher than that and strokemaking is risky. The basics of a pull are similar to a square cut — the bat goes over the height of the ball in the back-lift and then comes down on it horizontally. But once the ball bounces above a possible back-lift, you end up playing under and hitting it into the air. That’s why the ‘Hook’ is so difficult.
Both Tendulkar and Sehwag have mastered the art of staying outside the line of the ball and using the bounce to upper-cut. For less adventurous souls, the best option is to go back and across and try to play it under one’s eyes, down to fine-leg for a single.
(Once a fortnight, the author, who has played 10 Tests and over a 100 first-class games, will explain the nuances of cricket to readers. If you have questions on the technical/mental aspects of the game, please write in to email@example.com and we will try and have these questions answered).