Teaching the art of bowling fast

Thanks to his stint at the Pace Foundation, Irfan Pathan (in pic with Dennis Lillee) is now bowling with greater pace and swinging the ball into the right-hander.-V. GANESAN Thanks to his stint at the Pace Foundation, Irfan Pathan (in pic with Dennis Lillee) is now bowling with greater pace and swinging the ball into the right-hander.

For 20 years the MRF Pace Foundation has been involved in producing fast bowlers and serving as a fine finishing school. But according to Dennis Lillee, the key man at the Foundation, the journey has just begun, writes S. Dinakar.

It is a hard job bowling fast. Each time a fast bowler lands on his back foot and transfers weight on to front foot, a force measuring eight to 10 times his body weight passes through joints below his waist. A welter of matches and the resultant workload puts additional stress on a paceman’s body. The recovery period from match to match becoming shorter as well, the right technique is essential for survival.

Dennis Lillee knows much about living on. A tearaway when he began his cricketing journey, a crippling back injury threatened to terminate his career. Adopting refined bowling methods, Lillee returned to the Australian side when many had put a full stop after his name.

He bowled at a reduced pace, but his precision and variations meant he was still an attacking bowler. Mentally tough and with a mind that comprehended the nuances of his craft, Lillee, the scalp hunter (he has 355 wickets in 70 Tests at 23.92 and 103 victims in 63 ODIs at an economy rate of 3.58), probed the batsmen relentlessly.

The Jeff Thomson–Dennis Lillee pairing is a legendary combination. Thomson, of the sling-arm release, is arguably the fastest bowler ever. Lillee, of the classical run-up, action and leg-cutter, struck and contained. Together, they conquered the world.

Now, the 57-year-old Lillee shares his knowledge at the MRF Pace Foundation. The Chennai-based school of learning for pacemen has been a key component of the pace revolution that has swept the country. Apart from producing fast bowlers and serving as a fine finishing school, the Foundation, which began in 1987, has put pace bowling in the Indian consciousness.

Says Vinoo Mammen, chairman and managing director, MRF, “In the early to mid-1970s, I used to see Sunil Gavaskar opening the bowling for India. And the fielders used to rub the new ball into the ground to get rid of the shine, so that the spinners could be introduced early. It was an insult to our pacemen. We decided to do something about it.”

While Kapil Dev surfaced in the late 1970s to spearhead India’s pace bowling, the country did not quite possess the depth in this department. It is here that the Pace Foundation entered the frame, churning out pacemen with a future.

Bowling actions of bowlers such as Munaf Patel (above), Sreesanth (below), Zaheer Khan (bottom) were corrected at the MRF Pace Foundation.-V. GANESAN

The Indian pace attack, these days, can hurt. In the recent 2-1 Future Cup ODI series win against South Africa, the Indian pacemen swung the ball and seamed it around in conditions conducive to their bowling. Three of the pacemen in the squad for Ireland — Zaheer Khan, Rudra Pratap Singh and S. Sreesanth — have trained extensively at the Pace Foundation.

Venkatesh Prasad, the Indian team’s pace bowling coach, was a full-time trainee at the Foundation and represented the country with appreciable success. He was, indeed, Lillee’s favourite disciple at that point of time. Prasad could bowl a potent leg-cutter.

Interestingly, Lillee does not have a written contract with the MRF, but this has been a relationship that has lasted 20 years. As the Western Australian puts it, “trust and faith have been the cornerstone of our relationship.”

Turning down lucrative offers of television contracts, Lillee is driven by a passion for coaching. Says the highly rated pace bowling coach of the Australian team Troy Cooley, “Dennis is my mentor. He is the pioneer in fast bowling coaching in my era. He has a feel for the job. He himself bowled with a re-modelled action.”

Injury prevention — the pacemen are encouraged to bowl with an action that suits their body — which would only come with the right technique, injury rehabilitation, and imbibing the skills and the variations of fast bowling are the three segments of equal importance at the Foundation. All are linked.

The Pace Foundation, located at the Madras Christian College School ground where Mr. Mammen studied, has sporting pitches, a state-of-the-art gym and a swimming pool. Apart from bowling, a paceman can work out in the gym, recover in the pool.

Says Cooley: “Fast bowling has evolved greatly through research, with the realisation that the individual can be coached in different ways, other than the side-on action. We have adopted a holistic approach to the development of a paceman. The fitness drills have to be bowler specific. We take inputs from fitness trainers, physios and biomechanists.”

In the side-on technique, a paceman’s run-up is one of gradual acceleration. An optimum speed is maintained in the last few strides. The load-up, in front, is in line with the bowling arm and shoulder, while the bowler jumps into a rock-back position with his back-foot. Hip and shoulder are aligned and the non-bowling arm is in line with the face.

In the front-on action, the back foot looks down the pitch. The front foot is either in line or slightly outside the back foot. Hip and shoulders face the batsman. The use of the front arm is snappy in this method. The paceman runs in fast with short strides, and goes through the crease. Unlike in the side-on technique, there is no rock-back here.

The semi-open technique was created by the Australians. The Aussie legend, Glenn McGrath, honed this technique during his visit to the Foundation in 1993. In the semi-open technique, the back foot faces fine-leg and the front foot is in line with the back-foot. The hip and the shoulder are at a 45-degree angle. There is a slight rock back and pulling through. The run-up resembles that of a side-on bowler.

In the mixed action, which causes serious injuries, including stress fracture of the back, groin and side strain, the bottom half is side-on while the top half is front-on or vice versa. There is a twisting of the body and the bowler is likely to break down.

Lillee, Cooley and MRF Pace Foundation head coach T. A. Sekar focus on individual technique and the workload issue, which assume significance in the present day context. “Every bowler is genetically put together in a certain manner so he should have an action best suited to his body,” says Cooley.

Adds Lillee: “Unless it is grossly wrong or injury prone, I do not change a bowling action. If needed, we refine or hone it with slight modifications.”

He maintains that in the current scenario, “a bowler’s workload will have to be managed effectively. He should know how much is too much and this can differ.”

Cricket Australia, which puts together the world’s leading side, has a MoU with the MRF Pace Foundation. Established Aussie pacemen come for a stint under Lillee. This time Cooley has brought with him to Chennai the mercurial left-arm swing bowler Mitchell Johnson.

Lillee calls Johnson, a left-armer with pace and swing, “a once in a generation bowler.” Johnson is now working on bringing the ball into the right-hander, or taking it away from a left-hander consistently. Along with Johnson in Chennai is the tall Grant Sullivan — he is 6’8”. Lillee and Cooley are seeking to make Sullivan’s run-up more upright and shorten his delivery stride so that he can deliver with a higher arm.

Sri Lanka too has benefited immensely from the Pace Foundation. The crafty left-arm seamer Chaminda Vaas — both Lillee and Sekar laud his work ethics and attitude — has spent months together at the Pace Foundation.

Vaas, years back, sent a letter to Lillee in which he wrote, “I owe much to you. I don’t know how I am going to repay you.” Lillee says he was moved by Vaas’ words. These are the moments that reward Lillee’s commitment under the scorching sun.

Bandula Warnapura, Chairman, Cricket Operations, Sri Lanka Cricket, says the Lankan pacemen have gained immensely from Lillee and Sekar at the Pace Foundation. “Vaas, Dilhara Fernando, who recovered from a serious back injury, and a few other promising pacemen have worked at the Foundation. To top it all, they do not charge us anything.”

Leading pacemen from South Africa — Makhaya Ntini has trained at MRF — England, West Indies, New Zealand, Pakistan, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh have undergone stints at the Foundation. The talented Pakistan bowler, Mohammad Asif, publicly acknowledged Lillee’s assistance in making his action more efficient. England’s Ryan Sidebottom travelled to the Foundation and returned home a much better bowler. Reveals Lillee: “His action was refined. He was pushing the ball across rather than swinging it.” The left-armer has made a successful comeback into the England side with increased pace and control. The BCCI does not have a formal agreement with the MRF. Budding pacemen from the National Cricket Academy and its zonal centres trained at the Pace Foundation because of an informal understanding. Even that has stopped now. On the other hand, the Asian Cricket Council (ACC) has sent its coaches and pacemen from the various emerging countries to the Pace Foundation.

While the rest of the cricketing world sees the Pace Foundation as a great centre for learning, Mr. Mammen says (see interview) there could be greater formal coordination between the BCCI and the MRF.

The Indian cricketers have imbibed much at the Pace Foundation. Javagal Srinath, among India’s foremost all-time pacemen, talks about the period when he first trained with the other bowlers at the Foundation. “It gave me an idea of where I stood among the other bowlers. It increased my self belief.” Former Sri Lankan paceman and coach Rumesh Ratnayake says the Pace Foundation’s role in helping the young Lankan pacemen is immeasurable. “Dennis is Dennis, he tells you the truth and it helps,” he notes.

Lillee believes that most of the problems for a paceman stem from a faulty run-up. “Bad angle, the swaying of shoulders, and wandering all over the place are detrimental,” he says. A faulty run-up causes the paceman to jump in and jump out, and then twist or fall away as he loses momentum and attempts to make up. Interestingly, the video analyst of the Indian team, S. Ramakrishnan, says that, of the 76 bowlers who trained at the Pace Foundation in 2006, the run-up of 55 trainees had to be corrected.

Ramakrishnan has been the video analyst at the Foundation for the past seven years. He reveals how Sreesanth’s action was set right during the tour of the West Indies in 2006: “Sreesanth did not start the Test series well and I got a call from Sekar who was following the match back home on television. He said Sreesanth was rushing in, in his run-up. There was a change in his back foot landing because of this mistake. Here was a side-on bowler, delivering with a semi-open or a front-on action. The information was passed on to the bowler and the problem was discussed. He began to accelerate gradually in his run-up and the other elements fell in place. There was a dramatic change in his pace and accuracy. He bowled much better as the series progressed, picked up crucial wickets.”

When Brett Lee’s career ran into a roadblock, he journeyed to the MRF Pace Foundation, where Lillee focussed on the bowler’s strides. A shorter delivery stride enables a paceman to deliver with a higher action. A longer stride forces him to release from a lesser height. Lee’s strides were shortened which meant he was delivering from a high-arm action.

Says Lillee: “Small things could result in big changes.”

Lillee points out that Sreesanth’s great wrist position — this is a major factor in the paceman swinging the ball appreciably — is due to his load-up.

Indeed, apart from the run-up, Lillee stresses load-up.

AP

What is load-up? It is the pre-delivery stride where the bowler prepares to get into the right position. Ideally, a bowler has to get his bowling arm in line with his bowling shoulder. A glitch here and the paceman could run into serious problems in his delivery stride.

Sekar provides details of how the bowling actions of some prominent Indian pacemen were corrected at the Foundation. Lillee and Sekar are confident that Pathan has turned the corner as far as his technique is concerned. “He is bowling much better now,” insists Lillee.

Adds Sekar: “Pathan was loading up early, his bowling arm was behind his right ear. His delivery stride was long. As a result, he was jumping out and losing balance. He was not using his front arm, was round-armish in his action.”

The answer lay in fixing his run-up. “His shoulders were swaying in his run-up and he was twisting to get into a side-on position. Instead of the front shoulder and the foot pointing towards the batsman, they were facing second slip.”

A left-arm bowler had to load up on his right leg, but Pathan was doing so on his left. Sekar says Pathan’s load-up was shifted to his right leg, which enabled him use his front arm to pull the body through. This combined with a run-up of gradual acceleration meant he is now bowling with greater pace and swinging the ball into the right-hander.

Zaheer, a rhythm bowler, tended to jump too high when he could not get into his groove. “He was not getting the timing right in his load-up, and he was attempting to compensate for this by jumping too high,” says Lillee.

The left-armer’s leap, almost two feet high, was putting enormous strain on his knee and groin. A paceman’s jump should blend seamlessly with his action. Sekar says, two of the greatest pacemen ever, Glenn McGrath and Fred Trueman, jumped little. Zaheer was asked to reduce his leap, be conscious about this aspect of his bowling at all times. He was better off for it.

Left-armer Rudra Pratap Singh has a deceptive action and pace, achieves bounce since he releases from a high-arm action. However, as Sekar says, R. P. Singh was not bringing the ball into the right-hander since, he, on occasions, was falling away and, consequently, pushing the ball towards slip. His front arm was not strong enough to hold his action. Sekar zeroed in on this shortcoming.

Mitchell Johnson with Lillee. The legendary paceman calls Johnson “a once in a generation bowler.”-V. GANESAN

The use of the non-bowling arm as a lever is another critical element from Lillee’s coaching manual. If used well, the front arm can help generate more pace, lend greater balance in action and provide more accuracy. The manner in which McGrath pulls his front arm down at delivery stride is exemplary.

Like McGrath, Munaf Patel has a semi-open action. However, his non-bowling arm needed to be strengthened. Lillee says Munaf is the first genuine fast bowler the Pace Foundation has unearthed. “He is another full-time product from here. And he can bowl fast. Munaf should let go and not bowl medium pace. If you have the pace, use it.”

When it comes to illegal actions, the angle of run-up (toe pointing out), un-wanted hand movements, bowling arm going across the body, the front part of the hip opening out early, the front foot opening out and a long delivery stride can be factors contributing to a flawed release. West Indian paceman Jermaine Lawson’s action was corrected at the Pace Foundation and he is among the wickets in the English county circuit.

The importance of the follow-through cannot be overstated. It is here that a paceman can get into a mess by running on to the danger area. A jerk or a twist in his action can send the paceman the wrong way. The run-up and the delivery stride are key components to prevent a bowler from bowling no-balls.

Lillee says the awareness of the pace bowling techniques and the specific fitness programmes have increased from the time he first visited the Foundation. He says the Indian pacemen are also showing the right attitude. “You do not have to overtly display your aggression,” he adds. Twenty years is a long time. Ask Lillee, though, and he will tell you the journey has just begun.