In celebration of left-arm fast bowling | Cricket - Hindustan Times
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In celebration of left-arm fast bowling

By, Mumbai
Oct 30, 2021 08:38 PM IST

Afridi, Starc and Trumpelmann revive memories of Akram, Amir and more.

At their best, there is no better sight than a high-quality left-arm pacer. The tribe is making its presence felt at the Twenty20 World Cup. With their scary, freakish ability to move the ball at pace even on the flattest of surfaces, Shaheen Shah Afridi against India and Mitchell Starc against Sri Lanka have made an impact. Then there are those who thrive on swinging the ball as Namibia’s Ruben Trumpelmann whose magic fetched three Scotland wickets in his first over.

In celebration of left-arm fast bowling(HT COLLAGE) PREMIUM
In celebration of left-arm fast bowling(HT COLLAGE)

These performances have brought to the fore the thrill of left-arm pace bowling. While it’s easy to say they stand out because it’s a sport dominated by right-arm bowlers, ask right-hand batters —they are the majority in most teams—and they will tell you how difficult these bowlers are to negotiate. The angle of delivery when the ball pitches around the off-stump and snakes in or is full and swinging often causes right-hand batters a lot of grief.

In an opening burst that evoked shock and awe last Sunday, Afridi produced two such beauties to get Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul. On Thursday evening at Abu Dhabi, Starc turned on the heat with a searing yorker clocked at 144 kmph to Kusal Perera. He followed it up with the wicket of Wanindu Hasaranga, caught behind by a delivery angling away.

Earlier in the week, Trumpelmann knocked over George Munsey, Calum MacLeod and Richie Berrington leaving Scotland reeling at 2/3. The Namibia bowler kept the batters guessing by moving the ball both ways. Munsey played on, MacLeod was caught behind to a ball angling away and Berrington was leg-before first ball to a delivery moving in.

Right-hand batters need to change stance to have a clear view of a left-arm bowler running in from around the wicket. “That angle when a left-arm bowler comes from around the wicket makes all the difference. The batsman has to open his stance to see him,” said former India left-arm paver Karsan Ghavri. But even if you stand with your toe and shoulder open, it may not be good enough if he lands the ball right, like Afridi did against Sharma and Rahul. The full and swinging ball gave the Mumbai batsman no chance to react and Rahul was done in by the classical nip backer from the length.

When India won the inaugural T20 World Cup in 2007, they had two exponents of left-arm swing, Irfan Pathan and RP Singh. During the triumphant 2011 World Cup campaign, the attack was led by Zaheer Khan (21 wickets). During India’s run to the final in the 2003 World Cup, Khan had 18 wickets and Ashish Nehra 15, including the six for 23 against England at Kingsmead.

India have a lethal pace attack now. But for balance they would love to have a left-arm option. Khaleel Ahmed was tried but he is yet to measure up. T Natarajan is good with his yorkers but needs to crank up on speed. Pakistan have Afridi, Australia Starc, Bangladesh Mustafizur Rahman and New Zealand Trent Boult.

Afridi has shown pace, control and the ability to strike early. The batter knows what’s coming but is still left feeling helpless. It’s the kind of effect Netherland’s winger Arjen Robben had at his peak to defenders. Everyone knew he would dribble only way—to the left—but Robben would still leave his marker for dead.

 

So what makes Afridi so dangerous? He has pace, can move the ball at speed, is accurate and generates bounce because he is six foot six. But what makes him lethal is the last-minute flick of the wrist. It is what Jasprit Bumrah does too. That’s the secret to the sharp, late movement. The result is the dismissal of Sharma; the full length uprooted his balance, sent his feet in different directions and had the head falling over the body.

Afridi is not someone who really bothers about bowling the T20 variations, except in the slog overs. “To be honest, I just work on the in-swinging yorker. It’s not my aim to bowl in and out. I want to bowl it full and hit the toe,” he told Cricbuzz last year.

The Rahul delivery was just as special. It pitched just short of good length and moved in sharply. On that slow pitch, the opener would have seen the ball well but still couldn’t get his bat to cover the movement.

Most bowlers take time to find their rhythm. Afridi comes in all warmed up. “He had come prepared. From the first ball he was on the spot. He was very accurate, along with accuracy generating that kind of speed, 140 plus, made him lethal. His opening spell was brilliant,” said Ghavri.

Comparison with Akram

Comparisons with Wasim Akram, the greatest exponent of the art, are inevitable. “Shaheen (as compared to Wasim) has more tricks up his sleeves because of the time he has spent with various coaches at different levels. Where Wasim had burst on the scene and gone straight into the Pakistan team, Shaheen has had formal training before that which Wasim didn't.” former Pakistan all-rounder Mudassar Nazar, who coached Afridi, had told Cricbuzz.

 

Before Afridi, Mohammad Amir was a sensational left-arm talent from Pakistan. His opening burst in the 2017 Champions Trophy final prized out India’s top three: Sharma, Kohli and Shikhar Dhawan. The game ended as a contest and India, reduced to 33/3, were all out for 158 in 30.3 overs to lose by 180 runs.

 

But Pakistan didn’t get enough out of Amir as his career went astray. The way Afridi has developed, maybe he can fulfill that vacuum. When he went to England for the Test series, Afridi looked a bit raw. The rough edges have been smoothed now.

Remembrance of things fast

Afridi and Starc reminded of other moments of brilliance from the left-arm club. Such as the mind-numbing display of brutal pace of Mitchell Johnson during the 2013-14 Ashes series, Akram’s wizardry in the 1992 World Cup final and Starc’s opening over in the 2015 50-overs World Cup final.

Johnson’s performance in that series is rated as one of the most fearsome feats of bowling. He terrorised the England batters by targeting limbs, rib cage and helmets on way to a series-dominating 37 wickets. He was lightning fast in the first Test at Gabba, setting the tone for the series with a nine-wicket match haul.

Starc’s spell against Sri Lanka last week revived memories of his delivery that shattered Brendon McCullum’s off-stump in the first over of the 2015 World Cup final. It killed the contest. New Zealand had reached the final on the back of their captain’s no-holds barred batting approach. In their league clash, McCullum’s 24-ball 50 was the difference between victory and defeat. Starc had got a six-for in the game, but not McCullum. It was not just the wicket; it was the manner of dismissal–full, swinging in, at such searing speed that the Kiwi star’s bat was late in coming down.

Sultan of reverse swing

Akram’s bowling in the 1992 final was an exhibition in the art of reverse swing. In the interview “Talking Cricket with Charles Colvile: Wasim and Waqar”, Akram relived the over he bowled when Pakistan were drifting as Allan Lamb and Neil Fairbrother built a fifth-wicket partnership of 72 runs. “There was a drinks break, it was the 33rd or 34th over (35th), we had a little meeting, the game was played with two balls (separate from both ends), (captain) Imran Khan said: “I think the ball from the Pavilion End might reverse a bit, why don’t you come from that end, we need a wicket”.

“Neil Fairbrother was at the non-striker’s end, we had played together for two-three seasons prior to the World Cup, he went up to Lamb and I think warned him… “be careful this guy is going to come around the wicket, with the angle the ball is going to come in and then it is going to go across you”. Lamb didn’t play reverse swing much and I bowled the perfect delivery,” said Akram.

In the same interview, Lamb said: “I thought he was going to come over the wicket, he came round the wicket and I thought it will be easy, “I can work down the leg-side”. It started coming in at me and then the next moment it hit the deck and went the other way. Too good for me.”

 

About Chris Lewis’ dismissal, Akram said: “Then walked in Lewis and Imran and I were discussing. I said, outswing yorker? He said: “not at all”. He will be expecting that delivery. So it was decided it will be an inswinger. We will set the field, we will get an extra man in the slips. Make him think that will be another out-swinger. Even though Lewis had covered the line of the ball by stretching forward, he got an inside edge on to the stumps.”

With two wickets in two balls, from 141 for four, England slumped to 141 for six and never recovered.

Akram is remembered by those two most famous reversing deliveries at the Melbourne Cricket Ground 29 years ago, but there are numerous videos where in one over he has batters searching for the ball seaming away, followed by the in-dipper and then desperately digging out a yorker before fending off one from his rib-cage.

There’s an exhibition of this kind of variety in one spell against India during the 1999-2000 tri-series game at WACA, Perth. India found it too tough to handle and were bowled out for 157. Even Sachin Tendulkar never let his guard down when up against Akram.

Sameer Dighe, who was one of the victims along with Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman during his spell of 7-4-10-3, said: “He was very difficult to face. Akram could move the ball both ways with the same action; a very clever bowler. He had everything, he had variations, yorkers; no batsman could take it easy against him. He had the wicket-taking knack. With a short run-up also the ball would come at the same pace as with a long run-up.”

Akram was arguably the greatest left-arm pacer but Pakistan has had a rich history of talented left-arm bowlers who are remembered for impactful performances. There was Junaid Khan’s 2012 spell in the first ODI at Chennai. In his four-wicket haul, he bowled Virender Sehwag, Virat Kohli and Yuvraj Singh and had Sharma caught. Pakistan won the first two ODIs and took the series 2-1.

Wahab Riaz’s sensational spell to Australia’s Shane Watson in the quarter-final at the Adelaide Oval is rated as one of the defining passages of the 2015 World Cup. Though Riaz had figures of two for 54 from nine overs, his bowling to Watson, whose unbeaten 64 took Australia to victory, lit up the contest. Fired up after being sledged by Watson while batting, Riaz had him ducking and weaving and had a catch dropped in the deep. “Riaz went absolutely crazy, bouncing the living daylights out of me, he bowled super accurate…,” is how Watson described the encounter.

And there was Amir. He hit the scene in the 2009 T20 World Cup. Through an impressive run in the tournament, one over stood out—the opening over in the final when he dismissed Sri Lanka’s tournament top-scorer Tillakaratne Dilshan for a five-ball duck, having him caught at short-fine leg after softening him with sharp, rising deliveries.

Seeing the tribe of left-armers tribe grow would have pleased Australia’s Alan Davidson, who died on Saturday aged 92. Till Akram came along, Davidson was considered the ultimate left-arm pace bowler. With a beautiful action, he was identified with grace more than speed, though he could bowl at frightening pace. Playing from 1953 to 1963, his record was stunning–189 wickets off a mere 44 Tests at an average of 20.53 and strike rate of 62.2. “Some have compared his bowling to the great Pakistani left-arm bowler Wasim Akram. Davo was just as good, and he made greater use of his lead arm than Wasim, and also got the ball to swing late to the right-handers,” wrote former Australia spinner Ashley Mallett, who died on Friday, in Espncricinfo.

After Afridi, India await another test by a cunning left-armer this Sunday: Boult. Being his captain at Mumbai Indians, Sharma knows what to expect. The Kiwi doesn’t have Afridi’s pace but is equally good in exploiting that angle by getting the ball in from outside off. In the three innings in T20Is, he has got Sharma twice, once cheaply.

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