This World Cup Taught Us to Appreciate the Slower Ball More


This World Cup Taught Us to Appreciate the Slower Ball More

Illustration: Ahmed Sikander

Up until a few years ago, a fast bowler was defined as the manifest pairing of precisely those two characteristics — “bowler” and “fast”. Some of the greatest seamers in cricket history have been men who plied their trade in the fast lane, the speed racers of yore. Courtney Walsh, Denis Lillee, Shoaib Akhtar — some of the most feared, most effective bowlers in history have been speed merchants, men who plied their trade with back-breaking ferocity. Even line-and-length masters like Glenn McGrath and Wasim Akram were brisk enough to weaponise their pace. But if the 2019 World Cup is any evidence, the manual for fast bowling might be undergoing gradual change. The slow ball, a feature formerly filed under the miscellaneous section, has risen to the kind of prominence that two decades ago, must have seemed unlikely.

Fast bowling is one of the more arduous, one that must be accomplished with the tongue in between the teeth, haunted by the inevitability of shorter careers and lesser reputations as compared to the batsmen. The advent of T20, the concoction of batting-friendly pitches around the world, coupled with smaller distances to the boundary has made modern cricket, by and large, a batsman’s game. Quite intuitively though, the fast bowlers of the world have begun to adapt and navigate frighteningly flat pitches and wood that functions as if it were fed steroids, not water. The slower ball, once a gimmicky duplicate of spin, has now emerged as a newly conceived weapon of choice. Delightfully unnatural and unpredictable, the slow ball has bamboozled more batsmen in this World Cup than perhaps all the others combined.

Afghanistan tormented India with the slow ball, Bangladesh’s Mustafizur Rahman has used the delivery to great effect, and nearly all of India’s fast bowling attack, including the feisty Jasprit Bumrah, has made it a habit to use variation. It is evidence of doing more with less that Hardik Pandya could complete his quota of 10 overs despite having pulled a groin muscle that would have kept the genuine quickies out. All because Pandya doesn’t really push the speed barrier, a gift that one is perhaps born with in his shoulders. Rather than brawn, Pandya and several other bowlers like him, have cultivated the graft of the slow ball, a devious skill that is more narrative than it is instantaneous. Cajole batsmen into thinking it will be service as usual yet introduce the twist, quite literally, at the last. The slow ball is now so ubiquitous, there are variations within variations

The slow ball is now so ubiquitous, there are variations within variations.

The slow ball has been around for a while. It came through the ’80s, picked up by the likes of Wasim Akram and Chris Cairns but utilised on the off. That said, it was never considered a speciality, a skill that warranted admiration, or even attention. The quick yorker and the intimidating bouncer were the chief pyrotechnic flavours of fast bowling alongside the bare minimums of speed and accuracy. The slower ball came in as an anomaly. The introduction of T20 cricket meant fast bowlers became ideal fodder for big-hitting batsmen. The pace was there, all that the batsmen needed to do was provide direction. Like it was reactive, bowlers decided to hold back their fire, an aspect of fast bowling not easy to abandon. Some, like Dwayne Bravo, turned it into a job description. The slow ball quietly became a force, in essence through the absence of some. 

The evolution of the slower delivery has, perhaps, sociological parallels that one can look at as well; the idea that more can be done by doing less. We are raised and groomed on the idea that nothing can be accomplished without strain and stress, but the idea of a slower ball is the antithesis of everything fierce and forceful. At times it makes sense to do less, to do things more delicately, employing artistry over sheer industry. Of course it goes without saying that it takes some doing. The world’s best bowler, Jasprit Bumrah, unsurprisingly, has some delicious variations up his sleeve. But like everything else, it is a skill one has to cultivate and work on. Moreover, it is a skill one needs to gamble with, a throw of the dice that can go either way. 

The effectiveness of the slower delivery doesn’t imply that speed, in the trade of fast bowling, will become redundant. It does, however, suggest a shift in the paradigm. Speed no longer kills like it used to. Bowlers who were spinning woozy, wily yarns of delivery, essayed like stories with blips, jumps, turns, and twists to get by, have now turned their weakness into their strength. The delivery that was born out of circumstance, the intention to protect has now become a part of the bowler’s ammunition that he attacks with. It may not awe us like the yorker or thrill like a steamy, chin-kissing bouncer, but it has certainly evolved to the point where cricketers must consider it with the same veneration as speed and accuracy. And maybe the rest of us can also learn a lesson in how to take it slow along the way.