The return of the bouncer and his ‘white orb’

On Sunday even as the Proteas batsmen kept looking for opportunities to play the big shots, bowlers like Mehidy Hassan kept it low, slow and around the legs, making it impossible for the opponent to score anything other than ones and twos. PTI photo

Ahead of the 2000 Wimbledon, Anna Kournikova advertised a sports bra with the tagline, “only the ball should bounce…”

Two decades later, just ahead of the Wimbledon season, on pitches a few miles from the world’s most famous tennis lawns, the ball is indeed bouncing—but in the cricket World Cup.

Bowling conditions in England were traditionally so different that they made even trundlers make balls behave like black mambas. Part timers like Mohinder Amarnath—think 1983—would gently jog towards the bowling crease, roll their arm in slow-mo and the next moment you’d see the ball fly with a lot of venom towards the batsman.

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One of the famous riffs about cricket is attributed to Vivian Richards, who once asked why a “spinner” like Madan Lal had such a long run up? Well, Maddi Pa was a medium pacer who would be supremely ineffective on India’s paata (flat and slow) pitches. But hand him the ball on an English pitch, and oh boy, he could be really lethal on his day. That was, thus, the power of English conditions, where an overcast sky and a strong wind made the ball dart wildly in deference to Bernoulli’s Principle.

This world cup, to the traditional swing add some swag—the kind personified by Andre Russell’s burst against the Pakistanis. Two days ago, Russell bowled at the Pakistanis like Dr Strange– instead of the white orb, he threw rings of fire aimed at their chests.

The Pakistani team, led, as Shoiab Akhtar says, by a rotund overweight captain whose only claim to fame so far has been the daredevilry to attend the Queen’s invite in a pyjama, hopped, skipped, jumped and ducked for three overs of pure 90mph mayhem by Russell. With his fiery spell, he unlocked a portal that allowed the Pakistanis to quickly walk back to the pavilion.

Since then, bowlers have been bending it like Russell, bowling short and fast. In the first three days alone, 23 out of the 54 wickets fell to short balls—and that’s when all the sides batting second, except South Africa, didn’t have to bother batting for more than a few overs to hunt down paltry targets. According to Espncricinfo data, in the first three days, fast bowlers have kept it short 454 times.

This is indeed turning out to be a world cup with the Anna Kournikova tagline—only the ball is bouncing.

There have, of course, been exceptions. On Sunday, Bangladesh choked South Africa—who else!—with a masterful display of slow bowling. Chasing 331, the Proteas kept looking for opportunities to play the big shots. But Shakib Al and Mehidy Hassan kept it low, slow and around the legs, making it impossible for the batsman to score anything other than ones and twos. In between, Mustafizur Rahman bowled his cutters and slow bouncers to crack open their batting order. But, that’s understandable about a team that relies on its tweakers and trundlers.

Also, India are yet to play their first game. They have gone to England with two wrist spinners, a couple of pie-chuckers—as Kevin Peterson once derided Yuvraj Singh—and Jasprit Bumrah, who loves to crunch toes more with his Yorkers than skulls. So, it would be interesting to see if they’d treat the opposition with chin music or spin magic.

Nevertheless, the return of the bouncer has added a new angle to the world cup. Now the ball doesn’t come at the batsman with ‘hit me’ written all over it. With one of the world’s greatest batsman Hashim Amla taking it on the helmet in the game against England, ‘hit me’ has a different connotation.

And that’s excellent news for cricket. It implies that with bowlers hitting the deck hard, making the ball jump at the batsman’s throat, not everyone with a bat in hand can plant their front foot on the crease, close their eyes and swing and swish it, like they were in the IPL. On England’s pitches, with the ball prone to swing, and with the bowler ready to target the cranium, the batsmen will be forced to show what a bowler expects—respect. With the balance between the bowler and the batsman restored, we will get to see some engrossing battles.

For cricket is all about the drama of seeing a bowler attack and the batsman find ways to counter it. When this happens, the pitch starts resembling a minefield and the audience gets riveted to the batsman’s footwork and survival instincts, like the unforgettable montage of Shane Watson trying to survive a fiery Wahab Riaz in the 2015 world cup.

When the ball is hurled like a grenade, every ball comes with danger emblazoned on it. It becomes a harbinger of various possibilities, a test of the batsman’s skills as the quarry and the bowler as the hunter. And then, when this murderous battle unfolds, the image of a batsman counterattacking, hooking bouncers, swatting short balls, making the ball fly faster than it is bowled, becomes the defining moment of the day.

More power to Kournikova’s prophesy then.

Also Read: Team play, power-hitting help Bangladesh deliver Proteas their 2nd WC loss

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