No shrinkin' violets

Irfan Pathan... problems aplenty.-RAJEEV BHATT

One of a captain or coach's best gifts for the players is a pro-active show of CONFIDENCE in them.

The former England fast bowler, "Ferocious and Fiery" Fred Trueman, had it all: a long, fast-flowing, rhythmical and gradated approach which culminated in a perfectly poised, side-on delivery stride and the unfolding of the arms and shoulders which resembled the wings of an eagle about to pounce on its prey. He was a master of swing and cut, unrivalled by few of his fast-bowling contemporary peers. He was the unique paceman of his era and the world is poorer for his death recently.

But Fred would have been a great bowler even if God had been less generous with his natural gifts. For "Ferocious" never doubted that he was destined for fame and greatness. He was endowed with an almost irrational confidence, which in other sportsmen would have been equated to arrogance. The Yorkshireman was governed by a passion which raised him, at least in his own estimation, to the heights of being the Superman of fast bowling — physically stronger, faster, better and more effective than any other. He personified quick bowling hubris, but there was no offence in him. It is alleged that once, quizzed about having bowled bad deliveries, he took a longer pull on his pipe than usual and then replied, "I don't think I ever bowled one! Hold on! Yes I did! A slow full toss. It knocked Martin Horton's (the Worcestershire opening bat) middle stump out of the ground!"

"Fiery" was Test cricket's equivalent of "Dizzie" Gillespie, the St. Louis Cardinal's and baseball's champion pitcher. When asked about his flagrant boastfulness, the all-American pitcher replied, "If you can do it, it ain't braggin'. It's a matter of self con-feedence. I got where I did because I wasn't no shrinkin' violet!" Such an inflated evaluation of one's capabilities is often exaggerated and attracts the accusation of big-headedness. For a fast bowler, however, it is better to have too much egotistical self-appreciation than too little. If a quick bowler is low on self-esteem, how can he expect his opponents to respect and even fear him? The paceman who demeans his own ability — and the coach who undermines rather than supports it — is subverting the mental foundations of the player's self-assurance.

In this context, it is worth remembering that self-confidence is a fragile flower. The mere mention of a lack of self-belief may be enough to cause the bloom to die and wither on the vine. A paceman's implicit trust in his own talents is built up, brick by brick of intrinsic confidence, over years of youthful development. It cannot be switched on and off at the turn of a tap. Moreover, it is a fickle jade and the extrinsic influences which dam the enthusiasm to bowl quick for just a nanosecond, may be enough to stopper motivation permanently.

This, I fear, has often been the fate of many Indian fast bowlers, whose motivation is smothered by slow, low bouncing pitches, which make speed almost inconsequential in terms of winning or losing a match. I know how they feel for I have "been there and done that." In 1954/55 I returned from a successful tour of Australia and New Zealand with a bag of 28 Test wickets and the reputation of being the fastest bowler in the world. Yet within a few months of my Australasian triumphs I was condemned to six years of bowling on a Northamptonshire pitch, notorious for its lack of pace and bounce. Our resident humorous all-rounder Albert Lightfoot observed that the Wantage Road Ground lacked only several camels and a couple of mahouts for it to be classified as a desert! My contributory quota of overs to a home game was about four and I served only as an entree to the main course of three top-class spinners: Tribe, Manning and Allen. Later that season my England skipper, Len Hutton, advised me that if I did not leave the Northampton wicket behind me, I would be out of the England side within a couple of seasons.

That comment was enough to sow doubt in my mind about my fast bowling fallibility — a self-questioning which had never before arisen. Those doubts were exacerbated by the external factors of the slow pitch and injury: extrinsic elements beyond my control. These are the same handicaps, which inhibit the effectiveness of Indian bowlers such as Irfan Pathan from reaching the speed of Mach 1 proportions. Such conditions quickly bring fast bowlers to the realisation that it is pointless to pound the ball at full pace into a featherbed surface which simply absorbs its impetus and reduces the bowler to an ineffective and less than terrifying medium-pace. Thus frustrated by his inability to get the ball past the batsman's defences by pace alone, the bowler compromises with his previously greatest ally of speed. He falls back on an optimum swinging speed of 110 kph, cut, accuracy of length and line to augment his sideways movement off the pitch and beat the bat. Regretfully Pathan and his Indian colleagues in pace — Sreesanth, Zaheer Khan, R. P. Singh and Agarkar — accept that judgment. In so doing they abandon any aspirations they might entertain of being a genuine pace bowler; they forget that the Lillees of this world need the passion to bowl as fast as is humanly possible. They lose sight of the fact that speed cannot be turned on and off at the faucet: that once the desire to bowl flat out has been staunched, it may have gone for ever; that there is no compromising with out and out pace; and that once fast bowling becomes predominantly a cerebral rather than an emotive function, it loses that fine edge which distinguishes the average pace bowler from the genuine, ferocious fast man.

The most successful phase of my fast bowling career was when I was teamed with Lancashire's Brian Statham and we were nursed through the 1954/55 Australasian tour. Our skipper, Len Hutton, employed us in short five-over bursts, rested us from minor matches and never bowled us as stock bowlers. It was not unusual for Hutton to interrupt one of my overs, walk from his position at first slip to where I was about to begin my run 50 metres away, ask me if I was "alright"; and having received the necessary reassurance, he would pat me on the back and walk slowly back to his position. Many of Hutton's Australian detractors accused him of employing negative tactics and slowing down the over-rate to 12 per hour. There was nothing negative about the ploy. His stroll from slip screamed "positive reinforcement." It was a deliberate affirmation of his faith in my ability to take wickets by bowling even faster — but at a slower tempo. The England team was of the same mind — describing my bowling of faster deliveries as a "Ding Bat." Not a whisper of that demeaning phrase "a lack of confidence." One of a captain or coach's best gifts for the players is a pro-active show of confidence in them. A pessimistic mind-set has no place in the aggressive crucible of a Test field — especially on an Indian Test field where performances are usually stamped by a culturally passive approach.

One final thought. Former Australian captain, Lindsay Hassett and his pre-WW2 colleague, leg-spinner, Bill O'Reilly, often shared the broadcasting box with me and used to taunt me with the challenge that when I was bowling at my fastest I would never have dismissed "the Don" in his prime. I argued that I would. A reality check would probably have vindicated O'Reilly and Hassett's viewpoint. But I would never acknowledge the correctness of their opinion. After all, if I ever picked up a ball to bowl to "Braddles", what was the point of my going on to the field if I did not expect that I could get him out? That should be the attitude of all bowlers! Remember "Dizzie" Gillespie who wasn't: — " no shrinkin' violet!"