Blood, sweat and tears... how a fast bowler is made!

Harry Gurney gives insights on how a fast bowler should operate, the endless hours of practice that he has to put in to be match-ready and more in the fourth episode of Couch Talk.

Brain and brawn: Harry Gurney... a very well organised fast bowler.   -  IPL

Harry Gurney, the left-arm fast bowler from Nottinghamshire, may not have played many international matches, but he has honed his craft relentlessly on the English county circuit.

In the fourth episode of Couch Talk, he gives rare insights on how a fast bowler should operate, the variations he should have at his disposal and the endless hours of practice that he has to put in to be match-ready.

Let’s talk bowling in the short format, especially T20s, and the two deliveries you make a living with, around the world: slowers and yorkers. How many different kinds of slower deliveries do you bowl? Off-cutter, leg-cutter, knuckle-ball, split-finger, back-of-the-hand?

In terms of the way I release it from my hand: two. One out of the back of my hand and the other, the off-cutter. You can vary the lengths and the lines of them. You can also change the angle by coming around the wicket. I’ve always come around the wicket for right-handers a lot but in the last year, I’ve started to come around the wicket for left-handers as well with a fair degree of success. So, within these variations, if you keep changing the angles, and the lengths and the lines you are bowling, it can make you quite unpredictable really, even though they are just two varieties of slower balls.

Harry Gurney, the left-arm fast bowler from Nottinghamshire, may not have played very many international matches, but he has honed his craft relentlessly on the English county circuit.   -  GETTY IMAGES

 

When you choose to add a delivery to your armoury, what is the time between conception and when you employ it in a match? What is that process?

I think it depends on what the skill is. If it is, say, working on a wide slower ball rather than a straight slower ball, which I’ve started to employ more of, that you can do pretty quickly. When I first developed my back-of-the-hand slower ball, that was a long process before I had the balls to bowl it in a game. I’d been working on it in the nets for a while and I had good feedback from the batters I was bowling it at. It was probably around 2008 or 2009, I was playing a One Day game against Kent - I was with Leicestershire then, it was at Grace Road. The game was gone by then, they needed 20 runs and were, I don’t know, two down or something. Darren Stevens was batting and I was thrown the ball. It was one of those spells where I thought I’d experiment because the game was gone anyway. So I bowled this back-of-the-hand slower ball and it came out perfectly; it didn’t get him out but it then gave me the confidence to use it in games going forward. It’s a delivery that has brought me a fair amount of success.

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My first memory of it being really successful was when I picked up a lot of wickets for Leicestershire in 2011, and at the end of the season, went to the Champions League; we played in Hyderabad, playing against [Ruhuna], a Sri Lankan team, and this particular delivery stands out in my memory. It was Sanath Jayasuriya, and he’d just smacked the previous delivery for four, it was in the powerplay and I bowled the back-of-the-hand slower ball. It pitched on middle and hit the top of off. It came out just perfectly. That’s the delivery that sticks out in my mind. It took two or three years to get to that point.

If it’s something completely new and feels risky, wait for a time in a game where there is not a lot on it; it’s not important, which is what that Kent game did for me.

Is the back-of-the-hand slow the hardest slower delivery to master and takes the most courage to bowl as well?

Maybe. It’s certainly harder than the cutter. Every bowler in the world could run in and bowl a cutter. Now, an increasing number of bowlers bowl the back-of-the-hand slower. The knuckle-ball is another of a similar level of difficulty, and now more common in the game around the world.

I am a big fan of the Ben Laughlin slower ball. He is staying at the same hotel, I haven’t had a chance yet but I want to grab him [and learn about it]. It’s almost like a curveball, there is drift on it, which is pretty cool.

There are always things you are looking at; I am currently playing around with the knuckleball at the moment. As I said, the two slower deliveries I have, mixed in with pace-on balls, from various angles, lines and lengths, is quite a lot of variation.

Cranking up the revs: Mustafizur Rahman... a wonderful exponent of the off-cutter.   -  Getty Images

 

You mentioned about the off-cutter being one of the easiest slower deliveries to bowl. At the international level, I am sure batsmen can pick it up very quickly, but still, bowlers bowl it and are successful. What aspects of the off-cutter — the innocuous off-cutter work?

You are right. I think on any pitch where there is a little bit of purchase for the spinners, the seamers are going to get some purchase for their off-cutters. There are varying degrees of off-cutters, as well, aren’t there? I’ve studied Mustafizur (Rahman) because his off-cutter is probably the best in the world. I’ve watched him. I’ve started to bowl (my off-cutter) cross-seam instead of seam up because it’s more likely to hit the seam and have more success. I have used it more on pitches here in the Caribbean than anywhere else in the world. It’s a case of adapting to the playing surface as well.

Talking of the Fizz, what makes his off-cutter that much difficult to play?

I think it’s the amount of purchase he gets and the number of revs he puts on it. He’s got freakish wrists and he can put huge amounts of revs on it and therefore can get that much deviation off the pitch than your average off-cutter.

So then, on commentary Shane Warne when talking about spin bowling says about when putting more revs on the ball, you get dip as well, does that add to the challenge, that it is not coming at the length that the batsman is expecting it to be?

Yeah, sometimes you get that dip, and as I said about Laughlin, sometimes you get the drift. Any deviation off the pitch is difficult for the batsman to deal with, more difficult than handling swing bowling, because the movement is later.

At any given moment in a match, when you want to bowl a slower delivery, what gives you the confidence that it would be successful?

I think, having the correct field set for that delivery and experience of past successes.

There is so much analysis. When you set the field, there is another phrase from commentary, “Oh, he’s telegraphed the delivery.” It’s an open secret what’s coming next. So then, how do you ensure you are successful?

One of my main philosophies — and I started working on this a long time ago — is that to any field I set in a game, in the death I am talking about here, I need to be able to bowl at least two (types of) deliveries to it. So, if I set the field with fine leg, third man and point up and cover up, and everyone else on the boundary front of square, I can bowl a yorker and a slower ball to that. You can actually get away with a slower ball bouncer, if the line is right because it’s going to get pulled in front of square.

As my career has gone on and I have become more successful, actually what I’ve realised is that I can bowl far more than two variations to that field and also, what’s becoming increasingly popular in T20 cricket at the moment is bluffing. So, a lot of the bowlers, what they will do is, will bring fine leg and third man up, and still bowl a bouncer because they are playing mind games with the batsman. So, in addition to me being able to bowl three or four deliveries to the same field, actually, if you could throw in a couple of bluffs as well, you pretty much are bowling to the same field in the death regardless of what deliveries you are bowling. Some captains might not like that. I wouldn’t run in and bowl a lot of short balls with third man and fine leg up, but an odd one thrown into the mix to keep the batsman on his toes.

Even though you as a player are focussed on the processes, you are judged on the results — sometimes harshly. There is no window to the outside world what thoughts are going on in your mind and the preparations you’ve done. If you had the field up and bowled a short ball, the narrative becomes that “he is not a good bowler, he’s not a clever bowler, he doesn’t bowl to his fields.” You are a veteran, but someone starting new may not be so adventurous. So how does one handle such situations?

Firstly, I don’t bluff often. I wouldn’t recommend bluffing often, but to throw the odd one into the mix without changing the field and telegraphing it, is not necessarily a bad thing. If you aren’t bluffing often, you are not going to be criticised for not bowling to your fields often. I think the key is execution; preparing well and executing your deliveries.

The other night against (Brandon) King, I had long on and long off back, I had the correct field set. I stood at the end of my mark and thought I’m going to bowl a yorker, which wasn’t an incorrect decision. I failed to execute it and the ball landed in Tobago. So, ultimately, whatever field you have set, whatever plan you’ve got, whoever you are bowling at, once you’ve decided what ball you are going to bowl, it is all about execution. All you can do about that is to go through the processes that you touch on in practice. Practice, Practice, Practice. It is so important. I spend a lot of time practising my yorkers. I practice my yorkers a lot more than my slowers because I know that, in the heat of the moment, if you execute it correctly with the right field set, then, over a long period, you are going to get more success than failure.

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Is there a library of experience that you build upon, keep feeding in to, that allows you to be more confident when you are standing on the top of your mark and thinking of bowling a certain type of delivery?

Yeah, I think so. For me, I know that my practice is good. I practise hard and I practise the right things. I know I put myself under pressure in training. So, all those boxes are ticked. The biggest thing that annoys me more than anything is when I make a poor decision on the pitch. Still now, after all these years, after most T20s even on a night when I have had a good night, there are often one or two deliveries that you look back on and think, “I probably made the wrong decision there. Chose the wrong delivery.” You’ve just got to try and learn from that. You are always learning and as your career goes on, you make fewer and fewer mistakes, but you still make them. That’s the thing I focus most on, now: what is the correct delivery to bowl at this moment?

After a match, as you review your decision-making process, and the level of execution, what is that review process? Is it just you with a laptop with the analyst or you are just playing back the deliveries in your head?

Playing it back in my head, to be honest. For example, the Guyana game the other night, I sat in the change room after the game - I don’t need a laptop or the analyst - I went back through the game in my head and worked out which ones were poor execution and cast them aside, and which ones were poor decisions. King, he seemed to be able to handle me well coming from around the wicket than from over the wicket. So, looking back, “should I have identified that sooner? Maybe.” “Will I bowl more from over the wicket to him in the final, if we qualify? Yeah, probably.” That was my assessment from that game. I did not bowl particularly as well as I can but I did come off it with some positives.

I remember Ricky Ponting saying that he would write things down on the eve of a match, his visualizations. Do you have any techniques like that or you go by the feel of it?

No, not really. I am increasingly going by the feel of it. I think as you progress through the game, you often come up against people that you’ve played against several times before anyway. You don’t need to do too much analysis of them. It’s important to get a rough idea of what people’s strong areas are. That’s all I ask the bowling coach here in Barbados for players that I am not familiar with, and when they are looking to break the shackles, where are they looking to go? More often than not, it’s the same answer: mid-wicket and long on. I just try to focus on myself. I do spend a lot of time thinking about the game, and thinking about my performances afterwards, and once I put them to bed, I think about my upcoming performances. Writing down is not something I do but I can see why it would work.

I want to talk about the two deliveries that you bowled in IPL 2019 in a match against Rajasthan Royals, to Jos Buttler. He hit you for a six, it was a slower delivery. Next delivery, you bowled another slower ball. It was caught at deep long-on, right on the boundary; the fielder had to stretch out to catch it. You were just hit for a six off a slower delivery, what gave you the confidence to try the slower delivery again? Was there bluffing involved that he might be thinking that you won’t try it again?

There are a couple of things. One is, pretty much every time I am walking back to my mark, whatever has happened in the previous delivery, I am trying to work out in my head, “what is the last thing the batsman is expecting me to bowl?” and what gives me the confidence to do it? It’s the acceptance that you are going to go for boundaries in T20s, particularly against people like Jos Buttler. I pride myself on being calm on the pitch and being level headed. I tend not to react much differently whether I’ve knocked someone’s middle stump off the ground or I’ve been hit out of the stadium, it’s all part of T20 cricket. I don’t get too high if I take a wicket and I don’t get too down if I get hit for a boundary. That’s what gives you the confidence to bowl whatever delivery you want to bowl the next ball.

To batsmen like Jos and AB de Villiers, players that open up the field 360 degrees, what good is setting the field? Do you see that as an occupational hazard and move on? How does one handle that situation, as a bowler?

You have to accept that there are going to be days when they are going to win. It might sound defeatist but they are very good players. That isn’t to say, you try and minimize the number of those days. I can’t speak for every fast bowler, but for me, this 360 degrees thing, it is slightly less of an issue. If they were to go across the stumps and try to paddle me, and if it is a back-of-the-hand slower ball, it is a slightly riskier option. Those kinds of batsmen - I have not bowled a lot to AB, certainly not at death - they don’t tend to flick and paddle me as much as they would a bowler who bowls predominantly yorkers with pace on.

There was a video of you I saw. You were in nets at Nottinghamshire. This was two-and-a-half months before that particular season was starting and you were practising your slowers. As you were walking back after a delivery, you noted to the coach, “it’s the length that matters, not the line so much.” Could you expand on that?

My back-of-the-hand slower ball, if bowled short, it sits up and gets dealt with. If I bowl it too full, the batsman can always readjust and deal with it, but if I bowl that perfect length, that is when it dips on to that length, the batsman can’t quite come forward to reach and can’t quite go back. The dip and the lack of pace deceive them. It doesn’t matter if it is just inside the wide line or at the heel [of the batsman] almost, whereas the length certainly does matter. There are certain batsmen I would err on the wide side because if you bowl at the stumps, they hit you over your head, but certainly, the length of my back-of-the-hand slower ball and my off-cutter is far more important than their line.

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Is that true for all the fast bowlers that their variation - slower ball - it is critical that they need to hit that absolute length they want to hit more than the line?

Depends on the format, I think. I can remember one of my fast bowling coaches, as a kid, being adamant - this is pre-T20 days almost - that line is the most important thing because if you run in and bowl the red ball at about off stump all day, you are not going to get hurt as much as you hanging it outside off stump or bowling short and wide, that kind of stuff. It could also vary from bowler to bowler. My philosophy - particularly with my slower balls - is that the length is the most important thing. With pace on, you have to bowl straight. If I don’t bowl within the width of the stumps with pace on, the ball is going to disappear.

Is there something called “being found out” in the international game especially for quicker bowlers with a lot of variations? I want to specifically bring up a name - Jade Dernbach. He had the pace, he had the variations, all kinds of tricks but his highs were quite high and his lows were very low. For a player with that kind of talent, he only played three years for England.

I think it exists in the game but I wouldn’t say Jade is an example of that. I think he is one of the best death bowlers in England and should have played a lot more international cricket than he ended up playing.

Yeah, some cricketers come along who find it harder in their second or third season because everyone sort of gets used to them. That’s something you’ve got to be wary of as a cricketer and keep developing and keep adding another string to your bow. That is important but for me, Jade gets more criticism than he deserves. I still think he is a very high-class bowler, particularly with the white ball.

Let’s switch to the other delivery I want to talk to you about — yorkers. I remember listening to Jasprit Bumrah in a TV interview — he was saying about how people expect him to bowl a yorker on command, and bowl an over of yorkers etc., but bowling yorkers takes a lot out of one’s body. Could you explain what he means by that?

I think it’s a bit of an effort ball; You are striving to bowl fuller as well. There is a bit more delay in your bowling action to get it fuller. I would agree with Bumrah that it is harder on your body than bowling any other delivery. I would also agree with him that building a reputation for one particular delivery isn’t a bad thing because everyone expects you to run in and bowl that delivery and you sometimes can play off of that.

There is a notion that if you have a slingy action, it is more suited to bowl yorkers. Once again, going back to Bumrah, he’s got a ramrod straight arm, coming over the top. You are an exponent of yorkers… what does it take to bowl an effective yorker, consistently?

The number one thing is practice. Regardless of what your action is. I practise yorkers more than anything else, even though I may only bowl three or four in a game because it is such an essential ball for me in T20s to have in your armoury. So, practice. That is the number one consideration. After that, it is about finding your way - experimenting. Some people find that a lower arm, a slingy arm helps them. Some people find that lifting the chin during the run-up helps them. Some find that holding their breath on delivery helps them. Some find that focussing on the top of the stumps rather than the base of the stumps helps them. So there are many different ways you can play around and find the method that works for you. Just through hours of practice, you work out what method works and you become good at it.

Telling variation: Jasprit Bumrah traps Shaun Marsh leg before with a deceptive slower yorker in the first innings of the Melbourne Test last year. A crucial wicket it was in the last over before lunch.   -  AP

 

It is an extremely difficult delivery to bowl and not many people realize how hard it is to bowl (a yorker). To give you an idea, from the point where you release the ball, if you were to draw two lines a meter apart on either side of the crease, i.e. a meter length which would be sufficient for the yorker, probably generous. Let’s say we did that. The angle between your release point and the front line and the backline where you potentially pitch the yorker, is narrower than the bullseye on a dartboard, because of the distance from where you bowl and distance you throw the dart from. So you think how many times Phil “The Bull” Taylor hits the bullseye out of a 100? The best in the world ever! That gives an idea of the margin for error as a bowler bowling a yorker. So, if you expect to sit in a bowler’s meeting and the analyst tells you to bowl yorker to a bloke and without having done hundreds of hours of practice, you go out and try to bowl a yorker, you are going to be disappointed more often than not.

I have a boundary cushion, boundary board we use in the UK with a sponsor’s name on it, I nicked one of that. I put it down on the crease and every practice session, I go over my variations, and in the end, I have to hit that target 10 times before I finish. Sometimes, it takes four or five overs, sometimes it takes me 14 balls.

At this point, I want to tell the readers to look up on Youtube of your practising that. I was going to ask you about your yorker training technique. There is the Malinga technique of aiming at shoes placed on the crease…

It was Malinga’s technique that sort of inspired that.

However, batsmen are moving forward or going deep into the crease to combat the yorker menace, someone like Kieron Pollard or Hardik Pandya... so what do you do as a bowler to stay a step ahead?

In practice, I don’t change. I practice for the line. What I am trying to get out the practice is the confidence that I can land the ball on target and I put myself under pressure to achieve that in as few balls as possible. In the game, you find that you naturally adjust.

Fascinating that you say T20 is the most tactical form of the game but when you listen to how the game is talked about by the layman, the punters and even the ex-cricketers on radio or TV, you don’t see that appreciation of the format.

I think there is a massive traditionalist fraternity within our game that shuns T20, full stop. You are never going to hear them credit T20 as the more tactical form of the game. I read an interview with Ricky Ponting where he said T20 is the most tactical format of the game. He also said that Test cricket is the most difficult format of the game, which I agree with. Despite having not played Tests, I’d say first-class cricket is the most difficult to be successful at. When it comes to the heat of the battle, the pressure cooker and the tactics, it is T20, hands down. It is starting to get more and more credit for that.

A wizard with the ball: Mumbai Indians’ Lasith Malinga is being chaired by Kieron Pollard after getting Shardul Thakur of Chennai Super Kings leg before off the last ball of the IPL 2019 final. CSK needed two runs off the last ball to win and ultimately lost by one run. Gurney dubs Malinga as the best death bowler ever!   -  PTI

 

We talked about slowers and yorkers… I want to marry those two things and talk about slower yorkers. I want to talk about two deliveries. One that Mumbai Indians’ Malinga bowled in the IPL 2019 final against CSK and the other that Bumrah bowled to Shaun Marsh in the Melbourne Test last year. Would you like to break down those two deliveries for us?

Yeah! Bumrah is around the wicket and it hits Shaun Marsh full, on the middle of the shin. It is 70 mph, rather than probably 85 or 90 mph which Jasprit would normally bowl. You would have to ask him if he intended it to be that full. I would say that it is unlikely that he intended for it to be that full. What you are always consciously aware of as a bowler, I have personally spoken to Dwayne Bravo about it, and he would agree, you’d rather be on the fuller side than the shorter side with a slower ball. If you bowl a slower ball short - unless it’s an intentional slower ball bouncer, it is more likely to sit up and get hurt. If you go full with it, you might get a little bit of dip and you’ve got a bigger margin for error from that length.

Okay. What did you think of Malinga’s final delivery of IPL 2019?

Unbelievable match. Unbelievable. The biggest stage in T20 cricket. Lasith is a genius, the best death bowler ever. All I can say is that, no matter how nervous you think he would have been as he stood at the end of his mark there, he would have been 10 times less nervous than we would be sat watching it. You’d rather be on the pitch with the ball in your hand. I can speak from my personal experience and I have heard others say it too, you aren’t nervous in that situation on the pitch but all your friends and family in the stands are beside themselves.

He has run in and bowled his off-cutter, it’s on the full side. What an incredible moment. It’s just once in a lifetime.

Those two deliveries — Shaun Marsh is playing for lunch and so he is intent on defence, whereas in the IPL game the batsman needs two runs off one ball to win the game and so he is intent on attack, and both the bowlers beat the batters quite convincingly. What is it that you are seeing that allowed them to beat the batsman whether on attack or defence?

It is difficult to say out of context because Lasith would have known on that night as to what kind of deliveries would be most effective on that pitch. He would have known, having bowled to those batsmen before, what their strong areas were and where they would be looking to hit you. And the other thing with this is the stifling pressure of the situation. In some ways, CSK needing two runs off the last ball was better than if they had needed a four or a six. Because, as the bowler, no one is going to vilify you if they get those two runs but if you stop them from getting it — as Lasith did — you are the hero. Whereas if they need five or six off the last ball, and you get hit out of the ground for a six, potentially you are more of a villain. So, yeah.

But God, what an amazing game of cricket, what an amazing climax to what is an amazing competition!