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The off side trap

That’s how old man Cutter (Michael Caine) explains the workings of a great magic trick in Christopher Nolan’s classic,The Prestige (2006). Dissecting the art of deceiving into three basic components...

Written by G.S. Vivek |
August 23, 2010 1:03:35 am

Time and again Indian batsmen have been blamed for being susceptible to the bouncer. But just as Team India were trying to put the awe of the rising ball behind them,quick bowlers around the world have resorted to an age-old trick. Aditya Iyer and GS Vivek find out more.

“Now you’re looking for the secret. But you won’t find it because you’re not really looking. You want to be fooled.”

That’s how old man Cutter (Michael Caine) explains the workings of a great magic trick in Christopher Nolan’s classic,The Prestige (2006). Dissecting the art of deceiving into three basic components,Cutter demonstrates his sleight of hand with a bird (the first part is known as the Pledge) to a gullible little girl,by making it disappear (the Turn,or the second act). But a trick isn’t truly great,according to the character,until the magician makes it reappear (the Prestige,aka the final step). Four years after the release of the film,the scene’s cricketing version has been put on display.

Replace the wide-eyed little girl with the group of India’s young batsmen and substitute Caine’s character with genuinely quick bowlers. The result? India’s batting woes in the year 2010,especially during the on-going tour of Sri Lanka.

During the tri-series,the Lankan and the Kiwi quicks have made the cricket ball ‘vanish’,whizzing it tunefully past the ears of India’s next generation of cricketers,before delivering — literally — the final act. Soon after cementing the batsman firmly on his backfoot with a few fiery bouncers,the bowlers make the ball ‘reappear’ by giving the prey a full view of the ball. Slipping it further and wider up the pitch,an out-of-position-prod at the leather results in the batsman’s soft dismissal.

When Virat Kohli — India’s baton-bearer with two centuries and eight fifties in ODIs — walked out to bat in the third ODI of the tri-series against Sri Lanka,the only confident motion during his innings was his stride to the middle. Flapped at the sleeve,the tattooed left arm nudged without conviction,before swaying away altogether at the sight of a climber. Planted on his back heel for the next ball,Kohli’s eyes lit up at the sight of a fuller length delivery,but his body position deceived him into probing at his bread-and-butter cover drive,edging the 5 1/2 ounce sphere to the jubilant wicket-keeper. Four balls later,Rohit Sharma was out in similar fashion,both of whom returned to the pavilion with scores of zero.

Short + full = wicket

Time and again,Team India has been blamed for being susceptible to the bouncer,forcing them to take evasive action. But just when the awe of the rising ball was behind them,bowlers around the world have resorted to an age old trick,a fomula that reads: short + full = wicket.

“It’s about getting forward until getting pushed back,because bowlers in the past have come at us hard and bowl a lot of short deliveries and put pressure on us that way,” Ross Taylor said,prior to the Test series against Australia earlier this year. While he watched in disbelief as his team mates imploded at the first sign of short pitched stuff,Taylor was convinced that it wasn’t the ball directed at the throat that made the difference,but the ones that followed. “Quite often you play the short ball okay,but it’s what actually comes after the short ball,so we’ve got to be ready,” Taylor muttered at a press conference,almost willing himself to implement it in the future.

Standing in as skipper for Daniel Vettori in Sri Lanka,Taylor made sure that the side put his observations into action against the Indians. Massacring MS Dhoni & Co by 200 runs in the opener,Taylor’s game-plan revolved around bowling a few short ones,followed quickly by a full-length delivery. With players like Rohit falling into the trap,the scheme worked to perfection.

Shane Jurgensen,New Zealand bowling coach,agrees. “That (Monday) night,we had Daryl Tuffey and Kyle Mills who were really effective and we had good support from Andy (McKay) and Jacob Oram. That finished the Indians off. We had all bowlers firing; it was a night of perfect bowling,” he says. Jurgensen believes that the trick lies in keeping the batsman constantly guessing. “The key to a good bouncer is making sure it is well directed,but also keeping the batsmen thinking. Following the short stuff,it is all about being unpredictable.

“The next ball after the bouncer should be a great delivery,usually one that can dismiss a batsman or entice him into playing a rash stroke. Batters do not have their feet in position for the delivery after the short one,and bowlers are now making full use of this indecision,” Jurgensen says.

Building enormous pressure before bowling the rank half-volley has become top priority,and the only corridor of uncertainty — in the last few months — has become the area between the eardrums of India’s generation next.

Batsmen are most vulnerable when they start fishing outside the off-stump feels Eric Simmons,India’s bowling coach. Echoing the sentiments of his Kiwi counterpart,Simmons says: “The key to good bowling is to bowl the delivery that the batsman is not expecting. The basic deliveries are still the same,but it’s the permutation and mixing up of the deliveries that will define a different set piece and keep the batsman guessing.”

The pitch theory

To chisel and refine the guessing skills of a batsman that Simmons feels should be targeted,Peter Kirsten — brother of India head coach Gary — came up with a unique method,to say the least. According to Kirsten’s theory,the space over the cricket pitch is divided into three equal parts. Top class batsmen around the world tend to pick the line and length of the ball as soon as it is released from the bowler’s grip,while the mediocre cricketers manage to sight the destination of the ball only after it crosses the second section of the pitch area. The 1/3rd area near the batsman,therefore,is too late to pick the trajectory of the ball. Experts suggest that batsmen who tend to struggle with the short ball manage to read where its heading only in the second part of the pitch map,and thereby fail to make adequate adjustments to their stroke.

Demonstrating the sharpness levels of a batsman in his coaching video,Kirsten switches off the power supply to the indoor academy in sync with the bowler’s release,forcing his wards to judge the line and length of the tennis ball in the first 1/3rd,and make the instinctive changes in complete darkness.

Unlike his brother’s techniques,Gary Kirsten is forced to play it safe during Team India’s training sessions. While it may be foolish to switch off the power supply while India’s senior pros are having a knock,the comfort levels at the nets — for both batsmen and bowlers — is proving to be a setback.

Backfoot lock

“Coaches discourage bowlers from bowling the bouncer in the nets. They prefer to ask quicks to save their best for the match. This system also works in protecting the batsman from injuries and a bruised ego. The lack of training soon becomes evident on the field. The process causes more damage to a batsman in the long run,” a senior coach says,who does not wish to be named.

The lack of training ends up forcing players to take evasive action after being peppered,completely nullifying their frontfoot play. According to Manoj Prabhakar,the initial movement of a batsman is the best indicator to judge whether he is equipped enough to contend with the delivery.

“When Greg Chappell was coach,he had told the players to keep anticipating a delivery by shifting all the weight onto the backfoot. But this technique only works on bouncy wickets,like those in Australia,where the player is constantly either cutting or pulling the delivery. I noticed this during a domestic game,where Rohit Sharma was putting it to practice,so I asked my fast bowler,Pradeep Sangwan,to bang a couple of balls short and then bowl a full-length delivery. Like clockwork,his stumps were shattered. Rohit’s entire weight was on his back leg and his leading shoulder was looking upwards. An international bowler can read that chink in his armour very quickly,” Prabhakar says.

The full weight of a batsman’s body,according to the coaching manual,has to be on the front leg. The inverse of weight transfer though,does not hold true as a full delivery cannot be dealt with effectively,from a stationary position.

Back to the basics

So what really is the remedy? Former India opener Chetan Chauhan suggests that the players should resort to the building blocks of batting when in trouble. “The best way to sort out this dilemma is to play each ball on its merit. If the batsman tries to play with a predetermined mindset,he will always shift onto his backfoot in fear of the bouncer. The most important thing is to keep your balance,remain side-on and play with a straight bat,” Chauhan says.

Prabhakar is more baffled about the discrepancy than his yesteryear colleague: “The best way to counter this age old trick is by throwing your frontfoot forward when the ball is released. I don’t understand why our cricketers prefer to wait on the backfoot? They have become sitting ducks and are easily getting fooled.” As old man Cutter would say,they aren’t really looking for the secret. Or the ball.

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