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90 miles, 90 metres: Spot the difference between Neeraj and Shoaib’s stance

Throwing and bowling are rarely used in the same breath without raising eyebrows. But javelin throw and fast bowling are both largely based on getting a lot of lead-up movements into one big release.

Written by Bharat Sundaresan |
Updated: August 4, 2021 6:14:41 pm
Neeraj Chopra and Shoaib AkhtarLike Shoaib Akhtar, Neeraj Chopra builds momentum into his delivery stride to generate speed. (FILE)

Here we use Asian Games gold medalist Neeraj Chopra and former Pakistani fast bowler Shoaib Akhtar to compare and dissect the similarities and subtle differences that exist in the biomechanics of the two dynamic sports activities.

THE RUN-UP

The eventual pace and distance is reliant on the initial acceleration in the run-up. Both Akhtar and Chopra build momentum into their delivery stride and use it to generate speed and distance respectively. Javelin throw and fast bowling are “dynamic and explosive” motions at the end of “accelerating approaches” as experts put it. So the run-up is as crucial as the final act, and the two cannot be divorced. It’s about accelerating into your delivery or release stride and as fast bowlers love to say, “letting it rip”.

What’s different

Chopra’s crossover steps: In javelin throw, the athlete creates the initial momentum with around 6-10 steps in the straight line before taking a few crossover steps—legs crossing over each other—and becoming more side-on in the process preparing his body for the “withdrawal” position.

Akhtar surges forward: A fast bowler continues his run in the forward direction throughout, right into the jump preceding his delivery stride. The only fast bowler who perhaps gets into that javelin throw-like side-on position is West Indian Fidel Edwards.

The load-up

The concept of the loading is the same, where the bowler and the thrower land with their weight on the backfoot in preparation for the delivery or release stride. There are subtle differences though.

What’s different

Chopra’s body leans back: It’s called the “impulse” step and his body is leaning back with his front leg driven more outwards to push him into the throwing motion. The javelin is pulled back as well with its tip kept in line with the eyes.

Akhtar’s body stays erect: In his case, the body stays more erect with the purpose of driving his legs and body over his front leg in the next step, where his body is pulled downwards towards the pitch.

Neeraj Chopra and Shoaib Akhtar In both cases, the most crucial aspect is the braced front knee during the delivery stride. The braced kneed helps produce the catapult-like motion and the locked front leg creates the “braking force” that helps transfer the momentum generated with the run-up, up the body to the ball or javelin. (Illustration: Suvajit Dey)

DELIVERY STRIDE

It’s the delivery step or stride in javelin throw and fast bowling that many sports biomechanics have drawn parallels with. In both cases, the most crucial aspect is the braced front knee, which helps produce the catapult-like motion. The locked front leg is what creates the “braking force” that firstly sets off the transfer of the momentum generated with the run-up up the body to the ball or javelin. It also provides the slingshot effect and carries the object faster and farther. It’s a marriage of techniques that’s been spoken of widely in particular by bowling technique expert Ian Pont. And Pont often explains braking force using the analogy of how the occupants of a car are thrown forward at high velocity in case of a collision. Akhtar and Brett Lee, like Chopra, are perfect examples of those with braced front-knees and the speed they generate as a result.

A “soft” or bent front knee creates vital loss of energy and impacts both speed and distance. The basic transfer of weight goes from your back to front leg in both cases, and up to 8-10 times your body weight too.

Release

It’s here that the equation changes completely for obvious reasons, considering the javelin needs to be given elevation and distance while the cricket ball is going the opposite direction with as much speed as the bowler can generate. This ensures that not only is the angle of release different but also the positioning of the arms. The rotational motion—which Chopra uses—of the bodies in both cases ensures that the right hip comes across and hits the braced left leg. Jeff Thomson, who used to throw a javelin a fair distance, had a similarly rotational action.

What’s different

Chopra’s arm is bent : His elbow is lifted and bent to provide more distance on the throw and the javelin is projected and released at a 32 degree angle. The arm is straight like with Akhtar till the time of release. The wrist action is in the upward direction, and is faster and turns more as he pulls back on the 2.6 metre length of his javelin.

Akhtar’s arm is straight: His elbow is straight and the ball is projected in a -10 degree angle towards the pitch. The wrist-action is downward as the body loads over the front leg. The ball isn’t in his eyeline.

Neeraj Chopra Tokyo: India’s Neeraj Chopra competes in the men’s Javelin throw qualification event at the 2020 Summer Olympics, in Tokyo, Wednesday, August 4, 2021. (PTI Photo/Gurinder Osan) (PTI08_04_2021_000002A)

The non-bowling arm

It’s a clockwork motion in both cases with the left arm initiating and being the leading arm for throwing and bowling. There’s a lock-and-load motion with the non-bowling arm which enables extra speed with bowling as it is driven down by your side, allowing the bowling arm to slam down with even more momentum. It’s the same with javelin throws, just that the throwing arm is hurling the object upwards.

Follow through

Though the fast bowler has to watch out for the popping crease while landing his front-foot, he can follow through as much as he wants to—without stepping on to the danger area—once he’s delivered the ball. A javelin thrower, however, doesn’t have this luxury and has to stop his momentum completely before the foul line.

What’s different:

Chopra has to break momentum: He can only take a few steps post releasing the javelin and slam on the brakes immediately to make it a legal throw. So he has to stay upright and block his forward momentum using his left shoulder. This creates a huge amount of strain on the lower body joints of a thrower.

Akhtar can follow through: Akhtar’s momentum post release is in the opposite direction, with the left shoulder pulling him down, and it doesn’t put too much strain on the lower body. But the downward movement creates a lot more hyperextension of the spine, and is the reason why many fast bowlers end up with stress back fractures.

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