Talking about cloud cover, moisture in the air and gentle breeze, while enduring a typically muggy late summer evening in Delhi, can take the mind away from the heat around. For pacer Praveen Kumar, it is doubly comforting. It doesn’t just take his mind away from the rising mercury but it reminds him of England 2011, the swinging ball, play-and-misses of batsmen, his five-wickets at Lord’s and a tour where the locals saw him as someone who was keeping the fading art of swing bowling alive.
While dealing with the depressing thoughts of the recent IPL auction snub, the resultant frustration, weight gain and the long hard comeback trail ahead; the rush of happy memories clears his head. Having lost 6 kgs over the past one month, Praveen is trimmer from what he was during the IPL where he came in as a late replacement. Though, it is apparent that he can’t bowl like he did three years back, he still knows the secret of getting wickets in England.
Praveen starts by busting the myth about England being bowling-friendly. The conditions are too unpredictable to be trusted, he says. “Mostly the atmosphere is heavy. The ball moves around and even dips nicely. But as soon as you think you have figured out the conditions, they change. When the sun comes out the pitch improves, suddenly it’s a true track where nothing happens. There can also be rain and you have to be careful about your footing.”
He points to a couple of things a team should get right while in England. “The bowlers should pitch the ball up and he should have a perfect understanding with the captain.” By now Praveen’s eyes have lit up, his mind now wanders to Lord’s where, during the first Test, he planned Kevin Pietersen’s dismissal with captain MS Dhoni and almost pulled it off. He talks about how he wanted to exploit Pietersen’s tendency to ‘walking towards the bowler and working the ball off the legs’ in the early part of the innings.
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“So I started with a series of balls that moved away from the off stump and this was followed by an in-coming effort ball on the legs. And all through the plan Dhoni had placed Rahulbhai (Rahul Dravid) as the leg-slip. Pietersen fell for the plan. After being starved of his favourite shot, he flicked the faster in-coming ball,” he says before revealing the anti-climax end.
“The ball fell just short of Rahulbhai. Had it travelled a bit more we could have got a big wicket.” Pietersen, on 49 at that point, went on to score a double hundred.
England, struggling to put a big score in the first innings of the opening Test at that point, went on to win the series 4-0.
Praveen doesn’t spend too much time discussing the missed opportunity as he quickly switches to talking about the importance of testing the batsmen early and making them play all the time. “When a new batsman comes to the crease I would mostly start by bowling in-swingers. By bowling that line I can get a batsman out in three ways — lbw, bowled and caught behind. If one starts with the out-swinger and misses the target slightly, the batsmen tend to leave the balls.”
Before you ask him if that would make him predictable, the wily pacer reads your mind. “After a point the batsmen start reading you, they come to the crease thinking that Praveen always bowls the in-swinger at the start. So I would bowl, maybe three or four or even 5 balls away.” A sly smile escapes him when he says, “Ab aaya, ab aaya… they think. This keeps them guessing.”
Praveen uses the word ‘chalaki’ very often in the conversation and that’s mostly when he wants to convey how one needs to be ‘cunning’ to get wickets in England. He certifies his city mate from Meerut and fellow swing bowler Bhuvneshwar Kumar as ‘chalak’ and explains how the use of crease can fool the batsmen.
“I would go closer to the stumps and the batsmen would think that I am bowling the out-swinger but I would bring the ball in. I can swing the ball both ways from anywhere in the crease and that helped me lot.” And with nothing in his action revealing if the ball would go in or out, the English batsmen found Praveen tough to read.
Thinking on the feet too is vital as set plans don’t always work in England. “Sometimes the batsmen start standing outside the crease. That is how they would cut the swing and also rule out the lbw as the ball would hit them at a height. So you can pull the ball a shade back or even surprise them with a bouncer. One has to test the batsmen all the time. If things don’t work the plan needs to be changed.”
Praveen is hopeful that India’s bowling department has the potential to do well in England and he will be keeping a close eye on them. “I would watch them on television. I would tell my family, see I used to bowl from that end,” he says without hiding his wish to be in England with the boys and enjoy the swing and the cool breeze.