‘If you can't reverse swing, you are not a bowler'

Manoj Prabhakar and Wasim Akram during a training session for bowlers at the Ferozeshah Kotla Ground in New Delhi.-R.V. MOORTHY

“Tracks (for first-class matches in India) may offer help in the first innings, but not in the second, so that doesn't mean you become a zero. Reverse swing is required, it happens in the air, not off the pitch,” says Manoj Prabhakar in a chat with Nandakumar Marar.

Delhi's decision to put Manoj Prabhakar in charge of its Ranji Trophy team appears to be a wise one. Considering his track record with the Indian team, for which he not only opened the bowling but also the batting on a few occasions, his words carry weight.

Prabhakar switched hats with felicity during the indoor nets at the Khanderi Stadium in Rajkot — ahead of Delhi's Ranji match against Saurashtra —demonstrating to batsmen how to leave the ball outside off-stump and then turning to the bowlers to explain the use of the leading arm.

“Technically if you are good, bad patches in your career can be overcome,” he says.

Prabhakar doesn't believe in bowling machines. He is of the view that it is not a trusted training aid. “You don't know how it behaves. I prefer throw-downs at batsmen,” he says.

Talking to Sportstar, Prabhakar shed light on India's fast bowling problems, the need for first-class bowlers to learn the art of reverse swing to achieve results on flat domestic tracks and several other issues.

Excerpts:

Question: Delhi cricketers entering the Indian team come across as bold characters. You were one of them. Now there's Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, even Virat Kohli. Ishant Sharma is an exception; his body language is different. He goes about his job quietly and does not seem to be as aggressive as fast bowlers are supposed to be…

Answer: Unless you are very confident you cannot change your body language. Once the base is strong, your body will reflect the inner confidence. It comes from the amount of work you put into your bowling. A fast bowler's confidence is visible from the way he uses the bouncer. Strangely, I have seen pace bowlers in first-class cricket shy away from bowling two bouncers in a row.

Once a batsman leaves a short ball, he does not expect the next one to be pitched short. So, that is the time to bowl another bouncer to him. At the most it will be no-balled, nothing worse. A combination of mind and heart is needed to rattle a batsman. If a bowler's body language is down, the batsmen will look to intimidate him. Batsmen are cunning now and the game is heavily loaded in their favour. Wickets help the batsmen and the captain doesn't back the bowler once he is warned by the umpires. So what we are seeing is that batsmen are more confident than the bowlers.

When I played for Delhi, I got support from skipper Kirti Azad. He used to tell me to bowl my way and leave the rest to him. Of course, support has to be within limits. Bowlers need the backing of the team management and captain to display positive body language.

Zaheer Khan is the only new ball bowler capable of taking wickets when free from injury. Our search for another fast bowler to partner Zaheer in Test cricket appears to be never-ending?

Something is lacking at the National Cricket Academy, it's time to look into it. It's time for an overhaul of the NCA. You can't just depend on people there to do the job without assessing if they are capable of it. The bowlers we produce are supposed to be world-class. Irfan Pathan, R. P. Singh, even Ishant Sharma are all talented, known to be hard workers. Then why the decline in their ability, why are they not at the same level as before? We have the equipment available at the NCA, especially the analysis department. These players, sent for rehabilitation, are dedicated. Why are their problems not being corrected then and there? This is a problem India's bowling department is going to face.

Irfan Pathan was a match-winner for India once with his swing. Now he is supposed to be low on confidence. How can he come out of it?

I started as a very good bowler, then became an all-rounder and later played as an opening batsman. It doesn't mean I am a world class batsman. I should not avoid working on my ability that took me to the international level. People recognised me as a bowling all-rounder, not as a batting all-rounder. That focus is missing in Pathan. When working on his batting, his bowling became secondary.

How did you manage both — opening the bowling and then the batting?

When I did well in bowling, the confidence boosted my batting. Whenever I batted well, my confidence was huge during bowling. I managed both departments this way and worked like mad. After bowling is over, when you pad up to face the first ball your legs shake. I wanted to prove a few people wrong, so I took it up as a challenge.

Switching from bowling to batting is tough. The mind has to be tuned to face the first ball of the innings, technique has to be correct. My focus was on goading the bowlers to send down bouncers in the first two to three overs, because then I didn't need to use my legs much. Learning to leave the ball at the start became important for me than attacking batting.

Wickets for first-class cricket are lifeless, creating problems for young bowlers to emerge. And the supply-line to India ‘A' and Team India seems to have dried up. What's your view?

Young bowlers should be faster in the air, they should not look for help from the wicket. Tracks may offer help in the first innings, but not in the second, so that doesn't mean you become a zero.

Reverse swing is required, it happens in the air, not off the pitch. If you cannot reverse swing with SG balls, you are not a bowler. If you know how to hit the pads, you are a winner. Batsmen cannot escape when ball strikes the pads, umpires have become strict and so there are more chances of getting leg-before decisions. Bowlers who can't reverse swing have no place in first-class cricket. It is an acquired skill, requires hard work. You need speed in the air and you also need to use the wrist.

I wonder when the administrators will give priority to preparing good wickets. Money is given to associations for building new stadiums and other facilities, but what about the wicket, which is actually cricket's base? Fans don't come to stadiums to admire grand structures, they come to watch and enjoy cricket. If the base (wicket) is not good, then grand stadiums won't help. Unless you hand over the work of preparing wickets to professional curators, you won't have good tracks.

Twenty20 is here to stay, whether we like it or not. How can a youngster build his career without getting lost in the dazzle of T20?

T20 is affecting batting. Youngsters today are playing the reverse sweep in the middle of a good innings. Somebody invented this shot, but there is no need for a batsman to reverse sweep when he is on 80 or 90. Such a casual approach by batsmen, established and up-and-coming, happens in the absence of fear that he will be dropped for the next game. I have made it clear to Delhi players that casual approach will cost them their place in the side. I dropped a batsman for playing across, losing his wicket and costing us a match. The other players got the message that this coach means what he says.

The other side of T20 cricket is the exposure available to a youngster. He gets to play with internationals who are cricket professionals. So up-and-coming players have to keep performing, cut out casual approach and be big-hearted. When balls fly past your face at 140, you need courage to connect. In T20, batsmen have to hit, they cannot defend or leave the ball. You need good technique and a big heart at that level to survive.

Suresh Raina is a great example for youngsters who are all dazzled by T20. His tremendous improvement in technique helped him adapt his batting to different forms of the game. He is now performing well in T20, one-day and Test cricket.

T20 is a death-blow to bowlers. Can bowlers ever hope to make a mark and win matches in this format?

If you look at T20 from the batsman's point of view, shots have been invented which in the 1980s were unimaginable. The paddle sweep for example. You need the guts to stand there and execute the shot to a ball bowled at 140. Bowlers have not given any thought to it, about new ways to take wickets. As of now, bowlers are content to keep it away from batsmen dealing in fours and sixes, by sending down wide yorkers, slow bouncer or a bouncer. With the game loaded in favour of batsmen, I can sense the bowlers' minds failing them in T20.

You were known as an aggressive cricketer. We see many young players crossing the line in an attempt to intimidate opponents with their show of aggression...

Aggression doesn't mean abusing batsmen. You can show aggression through your eyes. You can talk through your eyes.

Abusive language was not permitted even then, but nothing stops you from walking down the track on your follow-through when the batsman is beaten and asking him to make better use of the weapon in his hands.