It took just nine balls into his first spell for Liam Plunkett to slip in his first cross-seam delivery. It immediately made Kane Williamson re-adjust his stroke. The New Zealand skipper was shaping to drive a fullish ball on off-stump down the ground, but as late as he plays the ball, he gauged the ball was skidding on with a hint of inward movement. So he closed the face of the bat at the last moment, so that he could negotiate the inward movement and could avert an lbw. The late adjustment saved him, as he managed a thick edge that flew through square-leg. He gasped and then smiled back at Plunkett, as if conveying to the bowler that he knew what he was up to.
It doesn’t take much soothsaying gifts to understand that Plunkett would bowl a lot of these cross-seamers. It has been more or less his stock ball this World Cup.
There, of course, is a certain amount of mastery, but as the master of cross-seamers Stuart Broad would admit, not even the bowler himself could convincingly predict how a cross-seamer would behave off the pitch. If it lands on the shiny leather (the first Williamson ball), it tends to skid through quicker and lower. If it lands on the raised ridge of seam, it grips the surface and tends to sit up (the Neesham dismissal).
As it happened a few times, it tends to wobble as well.
Much of the unpredictability is down to the grip. Bowling cross-seam involves holding the ball with the seam at right angles to the bowler’s fingers rather than parallel. This removes the possibility of swing or lateral movement, for which the ball has to be released seam-up. But as the white Kookaburra balls have a flatish seam and rarely swing, the disadvantage is non-existent. The intriguing beauty of the landing is that not even its finest exponent, or the batsmen who face them, can control or predict how the ball will land. He’s also a master of disguise, as he holds the ball like a normal seam-up ball.
Why cross-seam balls are potent
The fundamental principle behind bowling cross-seam is to hold the ball with the seam at right angles to the bowler’s fingers rather than parallel. It means the bowler has little control on how the ball will land. If it lands on the shiny leather, it tends to skid through quicker and lower. If it lands on the raised ridge of seam, it grips the surface and tends to sit up. As it happened a few times, it tends to wobble as well. As the ball is released, it grips the surface and decelerates. Resultantly, it holds up and comes slower off the surface. So not only does cross-seam deliveries creates variation in pace, but also causes irregular bounce. It was the reason when Plunkett was bowling, the pitch seemed to have invariable bounce.
Naturally, the different landing means different bounce too, and irregular bounce can be just as effective as sideways movement in disrupting a batsman’s flow on a good pitch. It was the precise reason, Plunkett’s bowling conceded the impression that the surface was two-paced with inconsistent bounce. It wasn’t quite as exaggerated as it seemed. Though the cross-seamer in an age-old ally of the dibbly-dobbler types in the county circuit, remember Mark Ealham, who was a fine exponent of the cross-seamers, it took a bit of an accident for the English think tank to realise the virtues of it. In ODIs, it’s used generally as an ambush tactic—but in this World Cup it has gone mainstream. During a Test match in Australia, to scuff up the ball and extract reverse swing, Broad began bowling cross-seam and he nabbed a couple of wickets with it.
Encouraged, he then began using it more frequently in the limited-over versions and bargained success. Then bowling consultant Azhar Mahmood realised it was the way forward.
It was around the time that Plunkett was making another comeback and he went to the England management and asked what he needed to do to be regularly selected. He was told that he should do more with the ball. He thus began working on different grips and clever changes of pace. He began as a tearaway, likened to the injury-raved Ashes hero Simon Jones, but to prolong his career, he recalibrated himself. And with terrific results. It was an understated aspect of England’s one-day resurgence. While their batting bravado garnered all the attention, the bowlers were quietly plugging away to add more skills and craft to their bowling. They knew mere pace, swing and seam would win games, they needed more new-age, cutting edge weapons.
In their pursuit of versatility, Plunkett was not alone. Chris Woakes worked on off-cutters, Mark Wood, to go with blinding pace, side-of-the-hand slower ball.
Jofra Archer made them all the more lethal a firm, not only with his pace and yorkers but with his oeuvre of bouncers. In the first spell, the question on the batsman’s mind will be whether the bouncer would be fast or faster.
READ | Drama at the death
At the death, he brings into play a slower, loopy bouncer, which sits up like a tennis ball. The question then will be, slow or slower. He bowls it like an off-cutter, ripping the fingers down the back of the ball. He bowled half a dozen of them at the death, which the Kiwi lower-order couldn’t muster.
So as much their aggressive batting—the image they had carefully nurtured—it was their crafty bowling that played a big role in their World Cup triumph. Sit back and rewind some of Plunkett’s cross-seam deliveries, the mastery and subtlety. You will get the drift.