Going hell for leather

Delhi Daredevils' Kevin Pietersen and Mahela Jayawardne celebrate after beating Chennai Super Kings in IPL 5. Pietersen has been in smashing form.-PTI

Bowling can be the most stressful of all vocations indeed when faced with batting demons like Kevin Pietersen or Chris Gayle, writes Vijay Lokapally.

Game changer in a changing game! A new character adorns the game now. Cricket has been experiencing innovations on all fronts. Batsmen have been looking to play exotic strokes, the switch hit, the scoop, the reverse sweep, and the bowlers have been experimenting with line and length, pace and turn; intriguing for some and predictable for others, but certainly interesting for most.

It is not that cricket did not have big hitters in the past. Viv Richards could ‘murder' the bowlers. Our own C. K. Nayudu, Mushtaq Ali and Polly Umrigar were known for their capacity to hit the ball hard and long. Kapil Dev was uniquely blessed with a wide range of shots and could destroy the bowling. On his day, K. Srikkanth was a joy to watch, lofting the fast bowlers straight.

Modern cricket has held different challenges for the bowlers and the batsmen too. With much emphasis on the entertainment factor, there is pressure on the bowlers too to safeguard their reputation. But what do you do when faced with the likes of Kevin Pietersen, Chris Gayle, Kieron Pollard, Shahid Afridi and Virender Sehwag? They have the bat and they have the will to bat. If the bowlers suffer, so be it. After all, cricket has always been a batsman's game.

Some names also come up from the past; names that sent shivers down the spine of the best bowlers; names that attracted thousands to the ground. Every era has had these entertainers and game changers. Only this term has come to assume importance in these times of glorified exposure worldwide.

Garry Sobers, Clive Lloyd, Richards, Kapil, Lance Cairns and Sandeep Patil were feared hitters of the ball. They could smash even a good delivery. Just as Pietersen and Gayle are doing now. They were known to change the game. Just as Pietersen and Gayle. But they did not always have the privilege of batting on placid pitches. They also did not have the advantage of a superior quality of bats and the luxury of shorter boundaries.

It is said that Lloyd hit so hard that the fielders would dread putting a hand to the ball. Sobers slaughtered the great Dennis Lillee at his fastest in Melbourne in a breathtaking assault. This is not to take away any credit from Pietersen and Gayle, the modern icons of destructive batting, but it would have been a fascinating contest if Sobers, Lloyd, Kapil, Richards, Patil and Cairns were to figure in these Twenty20 matches.

Pietersen and Gayle, however, are in a different league. Pietersen is clinical. Gayle is brutal. Both fearsome, lording over the crease menacingly. When they are on song, even the umpires have to be alert. Donning a helmet is a must when fielding close to these two. It would not be surprising if someday the umpires too think of this protective measure, for Pietersen and Gayle also strike the ball straight back with frightening ferocity.

“We have no choice but bowl to them. We make a living by bowling,” gushes Pune Warriors seamer Ashish Nehra, who has had mixed experience against them both. Pietersen and Gayle have stormed the bowlers in the third week of the Indian Premier league (IPL). They are unsparing when it comes to punishing even the good bowlers and deliveries.

As Mumbai Indians captain Harbhajan Singh observed, “In Twenty20 you can only aim to get the batsman out.” In fact, as Murali Kartik, playing for Pune Warriors, once remarked, “it is one format where you bowl and pray in the same motion.” When bowling to Pietersen and Gayle, or even Pollard sometimes, the idea is to escape punishment. The thought of taking a wicket would be a distant dream.

Many a bowler has gone through this ordeal. Bowl and follow the course of the ball as it disappears into the spectators' galleries. It can be a shattering experience. “You feel bad sometimes when a good ball is dismissed like a bad ball,” confessed Nehra.

Pietersen and Gayle are obviously the most dangerous strokeplayers on the circuit. The contempt they hold for the bowlers makes them an unending threat at the crease. For Deccan Chargers leg-spinner Amit Mishra, the job of a bowler is tough. It becomes a nightmare when Gayle or Pietersen come on strike.

“With Gayle you still have a chance because he stands still and goes through the shot even as you innovate. You have to only try and get him out. You can't keep him calm. But Pietersen is foxy. He has a good reach and hits the ball late. This wait and hit policy helps Pietersen play the kind of shot he wants to. But Gayle is very attacking and difficult to contain,” explained Mishra.

Chris Gayle of Royal Challengers Bangalore won the Maximum Sixes and Man of the Match awards in the IPL match against Kings XI Punjab. Gayle has become synonymous with massive hitting.-AKHILESH KUMAR

The other night Pietersen swung the game Delhi Daredevils' way with some astounding strokeplay. He loves to keep his bat straight even in the shortest version of the game and his awesome form at the Kotla meant more work for the bowlers.

Are they really the game changers? Yes. The bowlers agree in a chorus. “They have lots of things in their favour. Form, short boundaries, flat pitches,” bemoans Mishra. True to a large extent! A 10-ball 25 is valued greater than two wickets for 20. “It has always been like this,” adds Harbhajan.

Pietersen looks to dominate in all forms of the game. Kartik says, “They are both dangerous. Pietersen is more organised. He wants to show he is the boss. Gayle is balanced and harder to bowl to because of his sheer power. When there is nothing in the pitch, it is all the more difficult. Even Gayle's mis-hits go for six. Plus he is always calm. Nothing perturbs him.”

Gayle, being a left-hander, relishes hitting hard and high. Pietersen does not mind exploring the various gaps but Gayle must take the aerial route. “He is very good at it. The other night, he did not even connect and yet the ball sailed into the crowd,” Nehra said with a laugh. The West Indian is a ferocious belter of the ball and there is a method to his madness. He picks his bowlers most astutely. “Not many can pick the bad ball so early,” lamented Nehra.

The advantage of having such batsmen is they can be utilised in any position; any situation; against any opposition. They don't need time to settle. The format does not grant that freedom. Gayle comes prepared from the dressing room. Pietersen can be choosy initially but makes up in style as the innings progresses.

“They are not mere sloggers,” praises Mishra. They love to dominate. Which means a bowler cannot be defensive against Pietersen and Gayle. “You have to attack them. There is no other way,” agrees Kartik.

With Pietersen it is about power and timing. Gayle is not different. It is timing and power for him too. The bowlers must heave a sigh they don't play for the same team. They would have emerged the most destructive batting pair on the planet. It is, of course, a joy to watch them in action, creating amazing scoring opportunities in all forms of the game.

Bowling can be the most stressful of all vocations indeed when faced with batting demons like Pietersen or Gayle.