Monday, 21 November 2016

There's more than one way to skin a batsman

Adil Rashid has been a fixture in English cricket long enough that the England team should have known not to try to meddle too much with him. They didn’t.

It’s particularly galling, since this had happened before. Rashid previously struggled for several years after England tried to make him bowl quicker. Even as he started to trouble batsmen in limited overs games last year there were reports that Alastair Cook was worried that he bowled too slow for Test cricket.

Cook did have one data point to back up the idea: that of England’s front-line batsman turned spinner Moeen Ali. The Worcestershire all-rounder became England’s first choice spinner at the beginning of the 2014 season after a couple of good years as he took on more spin bowling responsibility for his county. Moeen bowls a good five miles per hour quicker than Rashid on average, and has managed to do that whilst still ripping the ball hard and not sacrificing loop.

It was Ian Bell who laid out the fact that Moeen had to bowl quicker, after his first three Test matches were unproductive with the ball. It was a technical tip from former off-spinner, now umpire, Kumar Dharmasena - to grab his pocket with his lead arm - that allowed Moeen to bowl quicker and not lose his loop.

That specific technical tip wouldn’t extend to Rashid, who has never managed to find a way to bowl quicker without sacrificing flight and turn. Leg-spin is such a difficult art, few players tinker majorly with their techniques through their career, and all of them have something they can’t do. Shane Warne’s side on action gave him beautiful control over his leg-break, but left him unable to bowl the googly without significant discomfort. Imran Tahir’s front on action means he barely turns his leg-break, but can disguise a big turning googly.

It’s therefore a fairly big advantage for Rashid that he can turn both his leg-break and googly significantly, in the manner of an Abdul Qadir or Stuart MacGill. Of course, as with all leg-spinners, that means something else has to give. With MacGill it meant that he didn’t have Warne’s control, and with Rashid it also means that his natural pace is slower than most leg-spinners.

That natural pace is not an impediment to success at Test level, if Rashid accepts it and bowls to his own strengths as he did in Rajkot, he’s got the strengths to be dangerous. Seven wickets in the match represented his best match figures and by far his most consistent bowling performance.

Five of the seven were top order batsmen, including Murali Vijay twice. He may have been fortuitous that Virat Kohli trod on his own stumps, and that Pujara didn’t review an LBW that had pitched outside leg, but he made the ball turn and bounce, hit a line and length, and got his rewards.

Of course because Rashid doesn’t need to up his normal pace, doesn’t mean that being able to change his pace up occasionally when needed wouldn’t be useful. Bowling quicker is sometimes better and Rashid will have to be able to do that occasionally in a match.

Moeen has that ability as a finger-spinner, but anyone who has bowled wrist-spin will attest that changing pace (like most things) is more difficult as a wrist-spinner. Moeen’s pace has allowed him to give batsmen less time to react when the ball is spinning, and meant that he proved the better bowler in Bangladesh when the ball needed to be fired into the pitch. Maybe at Rajkot the optimum pace was a bit slower, but his ability to go up and down in pace continues to develop.

There was some evidence of that sort of development in another encouraging performance by Rashid, in the second Test at Visakhapatnam. His second innings leg-break which slid on to get Wriddhiman Saha LBW was 55mph. He’s always been able to push his pace up when bowling variations but the fact that his leg-breaks stop turning at a higher pace can be used as a variation in and of itself. The wicket of Virat Kohli wicket at 52mph, above his natural pace, still spun. His second innings dismissal of Umesh Yadav - bowled at 48mph - showed how alluring, and dangerous his slower pace can be to

Every series he’s played his economy rate has come down, and while his strike-rate halved from Pakistan to Bangladesh, and remained around the same so far in India, his economy moving from 3.81 to 3.55 between the two series this year is significant and only increases Cook’s trust in him. Nobody’s asking him to hold up an end at under 3 an over, but a run-rate around 3.5 gives his captain trust in him, and it’s starting to become clear that he can do that; at his natural pace.

For all that Moeen is a completely different bowler to Rashid their Test match figures are remarkably similar, only a tenth of a run in economy rate separating them, strike rates virtually identical. It it because Moeen is an off-spinner bowling at ‘international pace’ that he is not thought of as a luxury bowler?

To be fair to Moeen, his bowling in this series has cast him as a master of economy, with run rates under three an over in three innings out of four so far in India. This may have come at the cost of incision. Bowling fast on the pitches of Bangladesh brought him wickets but not enough control, and in India the equation has gone backwards.

It’s the idea of ‘international pace’ for a spinner that brooks more investigation. What is it? One imagines that those who believe in it see it at somewhere between 50 and 55mph, but the faster the better. This is at best a partial truth. The best pace for any spin bowler is the one where they get the most spin, and if they look to flight the ball, the fastest they can still bowl with the ball still going up then dipping on a batsman.

Graeme Swann could manage this at 55mph and even higher, Moeen Ali is at his best a little slower. Rangana Herath (most wickets of any spinner in the last 5 years) bowls at the same pace as Adil Rashid, sometimes even slower, Ravi Jadeja is also a left-arm spinner and bowls 10mph quicker. Ravichandran Ashwin bowls quick, Devendra Bishoo bowls slow. Leg-spinners generally bowl slower than finger-spinners but Anil Kumble bowled fast.

There are many ways to skin a batsman.

Despite this, it’s interesting how much batsmen playing their natural games is defended, and how much bowlers are made to change. Think back to Jimmy Anderson’s natural action being changed because he was supposedly at risk of stress fractures; cue stress fracture with new unnatural action.

Adil Rashid - on making his Test debut last winter - had nearly ten years First-class experience behind him. Enough to know your own game, and it’s strengths and weaknesses, you’d think. Enough for the coaches and pundits to know? It seems not.

After that near-decade of First-class bowling, tossing it up slowly and flighted, but ripping it hard at that pace, the coaches and the pundits decided that his pace was not quick enough to prosper at international level. If they truly believed that they should never have picked him. If they didn’t, they should have resisted the urge to tinker.

Saqlain Mushtaq has to be given credit for his work with both Rashid and Moeen. Just like David Saker used to with the seam bowlers, he knows that technical changes to a bowler are best taken with care, and are worse than useless in the middle of a series.

Instead, he’s worked on tactics, how to bowl to specific batsmen, and focused on raising both bowlers’ confidence, making sure they know their strengths, and how they can succeed.

That’s the real truth it comes down to in spin bowling. Slower pace has its strengths and weaknesses, as does bowling faster.

Bowling slow leaves batsmen more time to get to the pitch. Bowling fast makes it more difficult to beat the batsmen on flat pitches

Bowling slow makes looping the ball easier. Bowling fast gives batsmen less chance to react on spinning pitches

Bowling slow requires more guile. Bowling fast requires more rip on the ball.

If you’re good enough as a spinner to pick the best pace for the pitch, the batsman, the ball you’re going to let go; congratulations, you may be Shane Warne. For the rest of us mortals, it’s all trade offs and compromises. When it comes time to pick your poison, maybe your natural way is best.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Mature Mehedi Hasan keeps things simple

It’d be easy for Mehedi Hasan Miraz to get carried away. The Prime Minister has ordered a house be built for him; he’s already the second highest ranked Bangladesh bowler in the ICC rankings at 33; praise is coming from all corners of the cricketing world. Also apropos of nothing, his off-spinning heroes are Graeme Swann and… Ramesh Powar.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that a twice Under-19 World Cup captain is mature enough to handle this; mature beyond his years. Simplicity and maturity are not the usual buzzwords for a 19 year old spin sensation, but they are with him.

Rip the ball. Land it on the right spot. Some will turn. Some will not. That’s the extent of Mehedi Hasan’s bowling tactics. On pitches the like of which Chittagong and Dhaka have served up, that’s pretty much all he’s needed to do.

Of course, that’s a bit reductive. Across his two tests, Mehedi has had the control to keep landing it on that spot, the control of his seam position to get that spin, and natural variation. He’s started to vary his pace like a man older than his nineteen years, the wicket of Alastair Cook based on a ball slowed down significantly to get Cook, pressing in front of his body, caught off the face of the bat at silly mid-on.

As for maturity, the depth of thought that he has showed was exemplified in an interview he gave to Wisden India. Talking about an age group tour to West Bengal he said, “I am so young; I didn’t know Hindus don’t have beef. I realised when I went to play in West Bengal. It was so different. I don’t know much about Partition, I found out when I went to Kolkata.” The tone seems self-deprecating but it’s clear that he’s a thinker, and not just about cricket.

That maturity showed in his debut, and in the second Test when in England’s second innings, Mehedi had to deal with Test batsman attacking him for the first time. Ben Duckett swept, reverse swept, dabbed, hit over the top, pulled and (yes, really) reverse drove.

But all it took was the lunch break, and a ball that kept low, and consistent, calm, mature, nineteen year old Mehedi Hasan was in the game. The wicket of Duckett opened things up. Cook was triggered then saved on review, Ballance pulled a long hop up in the air (“The harder I work, the luckier I get”), then four balls was all it took for an off-break that went on to thud into Moeen Ali’s front pad.

Bangladesh swarmed over England. Shuvagata Hom was pulled along in Mehdi’s wake, his unexceptional off-spin tinged with menace, balls sliding into Cook’s pads and spinning past his outside edge.

But this was Mehdi’s show. Bowling over and over again in the mid-50s mph, he had more luck, but no more than his performance deserved. Cook, unsettled by the wickets falling around him, pressed forward and only managed to prod the ball into the midriff of silly point Mominul Haque.

Bairstow followed, and after Shakib joined in, running through the lower order, it was time for Mehedi to get his champagne moment, turning one onto the big pads of Steven Finn. There was no doubt. Mehedi Hasan was a matchwinner, and the hottest new name in cricket.

Given what he’s managed in his first two Tests, it’s astonishing that he’s described as a batting all-rounder on his Cricinfo page. If you take first class averages (at the age of 19) of 35 with the bat, and 22 with the ball into account, he could well be the next Shakib al Hasan, a second genuine all-rounder in the Bangladesh team.

The first time I saw Mehedi Hasan bowl was in an Under-19 game against West Indies in 2013. Admittedly this is based just on the poor quality live stream that the WICB had provided, he looked tidy, but little more than that. The leg-spinner Jubair Hossain looked the better prospect, and indeed made his Test debut first.

But had I looked closer, I would have noticed that Mehedi Hasan - captaining the side - was doing so shortly before his 16th birthday. I’d have also noticed that although he only average 18.14 across the seven ODIs with the bat, he took 13 wickets at 13.07 with the ball, comparable figures to the leg-spinner two years his senior.

Despite getting his Test debut two years ago, Hossain has receded, dropped for his club side’s last First-class game, and Miraz (as his team-mates call him) has taken his place for Bangladesh. With this sudden success has come worldwide attention - in the world of cricket that is - and he’s shown his maturity there.

His love for the game can’t be disputed. The boy who was beaten by his father for playing cricket, but then continued to play, isn’t one with either a lack of commitment or love.

Mehedi Hasan has risen this far, and greater challenges lie ahead. I have a feeling he might be up for them.