How important was the slower ball at the T20 World Cup?
- This edition of the tournament saw more slower balls being bowled than ever before. In T20s, it’s not just about surprising the batter into a mishit, but taking the pace off so the ball can’t be hit.
“In my days,” and this can sound really prehistoric considering the evolution of cricket in the last two decades, “I just had to deal with a yorker or an odd slower delivery,” Lance Klusener reminisced about his playing days at the turn of the century. “When it’s done, it’s done. Slower balls weren’t even fashionable back in the day.”
Slower balls have been around for a long time, but in T20 cricket it has found a platform like never before. With the boundaries shortening and bats getting thicker, bowlers needed more options to keep the batters at bay. This made the slower ball one of the most sought after deliveries. How quickly has the landscape changed for slower deliveries? The T20 World Cup is a good example. In the inaugural 2007 edition, slower balls accounted for 19.8% of all the balls bowled according to data from Cricviz. It dipped in the next two editions (19.4% in 2009 and 14.7% in 2010) before picking up from 2012 (16.2%) to grow (22.4% in 2014 and 22.7% in 2016) and reach its highest usage in this edition—23.2%.
The numbers however will tell you that slower balls don't necessarily translate to more success for bowlers. Of all the semi-finalists, only New Zealand (17.6%) and Australia (16%) average just over one slower ball per over from a pacer. On the other hand, the likes of Chris Woakes and Anrich Nortje have often proven that decent pace works well even on the most unresponsive pitches.
That said, this T20 World Cup has witnessed a wide range of slower balls. You have seen the good old back-of-the-hand version, the easiest to pick by batters since he is seeing the back of the bowler’s palm instead of a seam-up or scrambled seam position. The ball generally rolls out slowly and tends to become a full toss if the follow-through isn’t complete so a fair bit of mastery is needed. Dwayne Bravo (or Venkatesh Prasad in the 90s, depending when you started watching cricket) tried it a lot but also clubbed it with other types of variation—the cutters and the yorkers and the scrambled seam deliveries. The split-finger slower ball, not too prevalent now, was once the go-to delivery for the likes of Dilhara Fernando and Glenn McGrath but its straight trajectory makes it ideal to clear the park if spotted early. The cutter (off and leg versions) is widely used but no one weaponised it like Mustafizur Rahman who scythed through India’s batting during his debut in 2015. This cutter was different from the other versions because Rahman bowled it like an arm ball of a left-arm spinner, only quicker. Simpler versions of the cutter were seen in Josh Hazlewood’s last over in Sunday’s final, when he lured Kane Williamson into miscuing a leg-cutter out of the side of his hand after Glenn Phillips couldn’t read a knuckleball—essentially a slowed down delivery with a knuckle release without any change of arm speed. The fingers-rolled-across-the-ball delivery that dies on batters while cutting across him is a very effective variation that can be modified into a slower bouncer by changing the length. Both deliveries have been in the works for years now but no one did it better than Lasith Malinga in his heydays.
Slower deliveries weren’t in vogue for the bulk of cricket’s existence because for many years uncovered pitches did the job of making the cricket ball a very unpredictable foe. Wisden Almanack, however, chronicles a certain Bill Lockwood as one of cricket’s “first great fast bowlers”, who utilised a slower ball “of almost sinful deceit” to devastating effect at the turn of the 19th and 20th century.
They grew in prominence after limited-overs cricket became a part of England’s major and minor county leagues. Franklyn Stephenson—the Bajan who never played Tests due to a ban after touring South Africa during the apartheid—is widely credited for conceiving the slower delivery in its modern form after he joined Nottinghamshire in 1988. According to the July 1993 edition of The Cricketer, two pages were devoted to describing Stephenson’s slower ball, finishing off with a question to Stephenson if he was giving away his secret.
Over the years, many fast bowlers—most notably from the subcontinent—have come up with their versions of the slower ball. Test cricket too has had a few unsuspecting batters falling to slower deliveries—Jasprit Bumrah announced his arrival by trapping Shaun Marsh leg-before with a slower yorker during the third Test of the 2018 tour of Australia. In the longest format, the slower ball is most often used as a wicket-taking delivery, meant to deceive the batter into playing a false shot. In T20s, it's used both to take wickets as well as to stop batters from hitting. Taking the pace off the ball makes it that much harder to thwack.
How effective has it been? It’s complicated because bowling lengths are more important for efficacy than speed. Not every bowler can exercise that level of control. Going by Economy and dot balls, South Africa's pace attack used it with maximum efficiency (7.6 Econ and 34.8% dot balls). Pakistan, however, have drawn the highest false shot percentage (31%) in the Super 12s while England (8.4) and Australia (7.7) have the highest slower balls per boundary ratio. Neither Australia nor New Zealand, the two finalists, enjoyed great success with the slower ball. But the one disconcerting trend to have emerged from this T20 World Cup is how most subcontinent nations—once the finest exponents of bowling deception—have conceded more runs off slower balls than the rest. India (8.87 econ), maybe even Pakistan (9.24), are barely hanging in there but the same can’t be said about Sri Lanka (10.55) or Bangladesh (14.32).