On the money!

Richard Hadlee...an encyclopaedia of pace bowling.-R.V. MOORTHY.

“There’s no skill in bowling halfway down the pitch and bouncing it over the batsman’s head. The skill of bowling is doing something in the air, doing it off the pitch, the variations that you use, getting closer to the wicket or wider, quicker or slower ball and the consistency. And beating the batsman off a length,” the legendary pace bowler Richard Hadlee tells Priyansh.

“The fast bowler has the glamour role in the game. It’s like the striker or the goalkeeper in football. One to win the game; the other to save the game. The pace bowler is the one to watch. It can be very exciting.”

To have one of the most meaningful conversations of your life, you need to talk fast bowling with Richard Hadlee. The clarity of thought will leave you gasping, much like the batsmen who faced him over his 18-year career. Hadlee has so many interesting things to say, it’s almost impossible to reproduce everything here.

Yet, the effort must be made to store these ideas for posterity. Mnemonic reproduction alone won’t do.

Thankfully, though, Hadlee’s memory still retains its sharpness. Sample this tale, described by the Kiwi as an example of classic fast bowling.

“The greatest sight I’ve seen as a fast bowler is Dennis Lillee running in to bowl at the Mt. Smart Stadium in Auckland during World Series Cricket. Australia was playing the Rest of the World. The pavilion was side-on. Lillee ran 30 metres, bowled at 90 miles an hour to Dennis Amiss on a green top and (Rodney) Marsh took the ball up there (raises his hand above his shoulders). I’ve never forgotten that particular sight.”

Nowadays, such sights are rare. And it’s not down to skill, according to Hadlee. In fact, the 62-year-old believes that present-day bowlers have become more skilful. The problems lie elsewhere.

The stunning increase in the number of matches over the past decade means that “a fast bowler would be lucky to be playing in 10 years’ time.” With lesser recovery time, the risk of getting injured is pretty high.

Hadlee also feels that bowlers don’t bowl enough in the nets.

“Every ball by a bowler is monitored these days. If they are in nets or a training session, they might be allowed to bowl only 36 deliveries. What happens if you have got to bowl 136 balls several days later?

“I hardly used a gym to train. My training regime was about running, sprinting, stretching, exercising and bowling. Bowling in the nets, practice games and real matches. Your body takes shape through bowling. You can go to a gym and do all the muscle and weight stuff and you come out tight at the muscles. There is no elasticity in your muscles and around your groin. This does not give you rhythm. You’re fighting against your body. The hallmark of my longevity was that I had rhythm, time, coordination and a good technique through repetition.

“Today, a lot of bowlers are muscle and strength bowlers. Instead of bowling the ball, they run front-on and power the ball. Something will go wrong with your body.”

Coming from a masterful exponent of swing bowling, these views shouldn’t come as a surprise. Hadlee’s distaste for the obsession to bowl quicker is obvious.

“There’s no skill in bowling halfway down the pitch and bouncing it over the batsman’s head. The skill of bowling is doing something in the air, doing it off the pitch, the variations that you use, getting closer to the wicket or wider, quicker or slower ball and the consistency. And beating the batsman off a length.

“So, if a batsman is on the crease and his feet aren’t moving, no point bowling short,” adds Hadlee. His argument, though, is unfinished.

“I see the presence of a speed gun as negative, although people will see it as a positive. Clearly the bowlers look at the board and think they can bowl faster. The danger, of course, is that they hurt themselves. There’s an expectation from the crowd. There are the oohs and aahs. Naturally, the bowler will respond and put extra pressure on the body. While there’s a positive that it might strike fear into the batsman, it’s a gimmick.” Strong words, certainly.

Frank Tyson once remarked, “Richard Hadlee was the perfect example of someone who perfected mental techniques to improve his game. He used to turn around and just say ‘Paddles’. He recalled all his concentration with that one word.”

KIWI PACE ACE RICHARD HADLEE HAS GREAT REGARD FOR AUSTRALIAN PACE BOWLING SUPREMO DENNIS LILLEE. Here Lillee (right) offers a bottle of champagne to Hadlee in anticipation of the latter's world record (for the most number of Test wickets) on November 11, 1988. Hadlee, level with Ian Botham then on 373 Test wickets, was gunning for the 374th in the series against India that got under way in Bangalore on November 12, 1988. Hadlee got to his target too when he had Arun Lal caught in the slips by Chris Kuggeleijn.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Indeed, as he grew older, Hadlee acknowledged the need for an increased mental preparation.

“In the early days, I was like any young, tearaway fast bowler. I just wanted to run and bowl as fast as I could. There wasn’t a lot of psychology to that. But you learn that there’s more to bowling. I did plan a lot later.”

Planning and preparation came to define Hadlee. He invoked those attributes when asked to reflect upon the present trend of fewer bowlers being able to deliver yorkers, especially in limited-overs cricket. You can only get better with repetition, says Hadlee.

“With yorkers being hit for boundaries now, the margin for error is so small. Batsmen are expecting to face yorkers at a certain stage of the innings. So, perhaps, bowlers are looking to do something different. The yorker is a hard ball to bowl. (Lasith) Malinga is probably the most consistent in getting it right.

“A lot of bowlers miss but you still got to give it a go. If you get hit for a boundary, you say, ‘Well played, batsman.’

But if you give them width or too much length, I think it’s bad bowling. Because you’re giving the batsman a free hit. You’re not doing so with a yorker. The batsmen move a lot around now, too.”

It seems that the accuracy of Hadlee’s bowling has been imported to his arguments. There’s no room for ambiguity and the characteristic incisiveness remains. So it should, for Hadlee is a cricketing treasure.