The knuckleball reached the batsman on the third bounce. Or was it on the fourth? Or did it reach at all? Charl Langeveldt’s first knuckleball-attempt, at the back-end a boring nets session on the eve of a domestic match, was a howler. All he remembers is a collective peel of laughter, even some ridicule and scorn, flung at him from different corners. But the stocky seamer didn’t repress his experimental urge, as he kept practising, and then perfecting, the knuckler in spare time, unbeknownst that one day it could evolve into a vaunted short-form trick.
That was in the early aughts, his international career still fledgling and when he was over-consciousnesses of not jeopardising his prospects by appearing to do something frivolous. It took him another five-six years to muster the courage to introduce one of his knucklers to international cricket. Of course, it was his more daring Royal Challengers Bangalore teammate Zaheer Khan who familiarised the cricket fraternity with the knucklers in the 2011 World Cup. Even Zaheer took time to refine this rare variation, which is why Langeveldt is surprised that Bhuvneshwar Kumar learned, or rather mastered, it so rapidly. “Perfecting any delivery is difficult, but the knuckleball even more so, as the bowler is doing something that’s contrary to what the coaches and manuals teach him,” he says.
By contrary he means that a bowler is devising a totally different grip, and thus debunking the primary basic of a bowler. “Any coach starts coaching by teaching the bowler how to grip, to wrap young fingers over the seam, to hold the seam upright or whatever. You have been bowling like that for your entire life, and then you start gripping the ball with the tip of your fingers. It’s incredibly difficult, which is a reason there are so few exponents of knuckleball,” he says.
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Bhuvneshwar, who has a copybook grip, wrist position and release when bowling his conventional variations, took a little under two months to comprehend the ways of bowling knuckeballs. The story goes that during the Australia series last year, when he was mostly warming the benches, he was seized by the sudden urge to add something more novel to his bag of tricks. Maybe, the Indian Premier League that was just a couple of months away, necessitated an addition. By that time, he already had in his kit a yorker, skiddy bouncer, leg-cutter and slower ball, besides revving up his pace. “But batsmen are quick to size you up and hence you need to keep evolving and reinventing oneself,” Bhuvneshwar had reasoned.
He didn’t try it at the nets during the series, maybe because Test matches are a graver preoccupation. But during breaks, when the reserve bowlers are asked to bowl on practice pitches so that they remained grooved-in, Bhuvneshwar would try his knucklers from a shorter run-up, much to the bemusement of the support staff. The success he bred in the IPL, obviously, lifted his confidence to slip in the knuckleballs more regularly, though he’s careful not to over-use it, lest it loses its novelty.
A peculiar method
Like with almost every other delivery, every bowler has a peculiar method. For instance, some deliver the slower ones from the back of the hand. Some others just roll their wrists over. Some others tweak it like an off-spinner, or the split-finger variant. Likewise, different exponents of knuckeball embrace different methods. Zaheer crooked his forefinger behind the ball and flicks it out as it leaves his hand. Australia’s Andrew Tye uses cross-seam, so that he gets a better grip and control. He sometimes cocks his wrists at release so that he gets some “tweak”. Bhuvneshwar, on the other hand, bowls with an upright seam and bends the knuckles of the forefinger and middle finger to hold the seam with the fingertips. The thumb acts like a backrest.
It’s an awkward grip, to say the least. “You can’t keep the fingers tight, for the ball wouldn’t travel. You can’t keep it too loose either. The fingers should be extremely relaxed. You should make the ball float, not like a spinner would flight the ball, in the air. To do that you need to have extremely supple wrists and fingers,” observes Langeveldt. There also should not be too much pressure on the ball, for it defeats the whole purpose of the ball floating in the air.
Consequently, what the ball does after pitching also varies. Zaheer’s used to dip precipitously. Bhuvneshwar’s wobbles and then stops at the batsmen, before it slightly deviates away from the right-hander. South Africa’s opener Jon-Jon Smuts was undone by one such delivery. Judging the direction of the ball, he premeditated a flick. The ball, as he had anticipated landed on middle and off, but bounced a little more than the good-lengths balls and stopped at him. Smuts was already committed into the shot, and he ended up skying it to the square-leg fielder.
For a more classical Bhuvneshwar-knuckleball deception, you can examine the one than nailed Colin Munro during an ODI in Pune. This one was pitched on middle stump, but the dry surface meant that the ball gripped and bounced more than it does normally. It was also considerably slower than Munro had expected. The southpaw goes with the on-the-rise drive through the line, but only manages an inside edge to the leg-stump.
The length that Bhuvneshwar chooses seduces most batsman to drive on the up, which is fatal since the ball is not only slower but also stops at him. Not to discount the unpredictable bounce — not steep but more tennis-ball like — as Munro experienced. What makes his knuckleballs deadlier is his conventional, back-of-the-hand slower ones, which fooled Chris Morris and JP Duminy. The latter preempted a hideous swipe across the stumps, and as he belatedly realised, was early into the stroke. Near identical was Morris’s exit too.
He was also immensely worldly-wise, a trait that has shone through his career. A reason, in the first place, he bowled too many slower ones, was the nature of the pitch, a typically fast Wanderers strip with good pace and bounce. “It was a part of our strategy on this wicket, to do away with pace and make it difficult for the batsmen to score. Apart from line and length, it’s important to understand how you want to mix your deliveries. Today it was about bowling slower, not giving the batsmen the pace to work with,” he said.
Whatever means he adopts, it’s clearly though-out and measured, a reason behind his impeccable accuracy. “Whatever little I have seen of him, he comes across as a level-headed and composed youngster, which is what differentiates a good bowler from a great one, and which is a reason why he can pull off such difficult deliveries so accurately and effectively,” says Langeveldt.
But little did the South African ever imagine that one of his experimental whims would manifest into a serious weapon in shorter formats. But he doesn’t cry for the bragging rights. Rather, he is happy that the legacy of the delivery he practised has not only lived on, but now elevated into an art form, in the twisted knuckles of Zaheer and Bhuvneshwar.