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Thursday, January 27, 2022

Kanpur Test: Old NZ warhorse Southee learns new tricks to keep himself relevant

Pushed on by his super-quick new-ball accomplice Trent Boult, the fastest of the lot, and Mitchell Santner, the second quickest, Southee pushed up speeds.

Written by Sandip G | Kanpur |
Updated: November 27, 2021 7:29:51 am
IND vs NZNew Zealand's Tim Southee prepares to bowl during the day two of their first test cricket match with India in Kanpur, India, Friday, Nov. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)

Three years ago, during a break at his Manawatu Waihora Farm in Whangerei, Tim Southee contemplated his cricketing future. He had just turned 30, the onset of sporting middle-age, and visualised how he would like to see himself five years down the line. “I am not someone who thinks deeply about my game, but then I knew it was time I planned a bit more about my career, so that I continue to be a relevant cricketer,” he told an NZC podcast.

A few hours into his reverie, he zeroed in on two career-elongating must-dos. First was fitness, which has drastically improved after Olympic sprint coach Chris Donaldson had taken over. But he was aware of prospective injuries that lurked in every corner of a fast bowler’s alley. “I have to condition my body in such a way that I keep off injuries that would keep me out of the game for a long time,” Southee said. It meant more conditioning and sprinting, more camps at the base of Mount Manganui in Tauranga. “I wanted to run harder and faster, and I wanted to be at my fittest in my 30s,” he added.

Pushed on by his super-quick new-ball accomplice Trent Boult, the fastest of the lot, and Mitchell Santner, the second quickest, Southee pushed up speeds. The Fartlek test — where the cricketers run 100m, 200m, 300m, 400m with a minute’s rest in between — that Donaldson insisted upon helped too. “He has improved his speed massively from the first time I saw him, and you can see he’s not getting injured as often as he used to in the past. He can keep bowling for a long time without losing steam,” Donaldson once told stuff.co.nz.

As he did in his morning burst in Kanpur, exhibiting 11 overs of consummate seam-bowling artistry, unrelenting in passion, craft and pure energy. Southee needed no cajoling or coaxing from captain Kane Williamson, but each time someone had completed an over from the other end, he would be already standing near the top of the run-up. And he would lope in, hardly betraying any wearying of body or spirit, each ball delivered with wicket-plotting vendetta. It was a feature of him that endeared him to former Kiwi skipper Brendon McCullum. “Tim just thinks about wickets all the time,” he once said.

Means to keep picking wickets was the other important objective Southee derived from the farmhouse reverie. He always had a natural out-swinger, a treat for the eyes, with the ball curling into right-handed batsmen and canting away. He then developed the orthodox in-swinger too, though he was always careful in not over-using it. He struggled to disguise the ball too — the arm-speed is slower and the release is a bit higher than usual. “I obviously don’t have express pace, so you’re looking to skin the cat differently and that’s using subtle variations. Obviously, I rely heavily on my outswing, but I need to add more,” he said.

Learning from others

A lot of the next few months were about putting into practice the theoretical knowledge he had picked from observing and conversing with other fast bowlers. The ambition was to bowl the same in-swinger and out-swinger with different grips. From England bowlers, Southee picked the idea of the three- quarter seam ball for in-swingers, wherein he holds the ball cross-seam, gets his wrist and fingers coming straight down behind the seam, and releases it without breaking his wrist. At release, he runs his wrist nicely behind the ball. The ball lands on the seam and breaks into the right-handed batsman. Unlike his standard in-swinger, there’s hardly any variance in arm-speed, action or release point.

At the bowling camp in Lincoln, he was always bowling three-quarter-seam in-swingers with New Zealand bowling coach Shane Jurgensen. “Lots and lots of them. Every time we had a camp, he was like, ‘coach, you want to see it?’ It was good – it took him a while to get it and then all of a sudden he learned around, possibly turning the ball around the other way and bowling it the exact same way,” Jurgensen said.

None of his five wickets in India’s first innings in Kanpur had the stamp of an in-swinger. But it was his favourite set-up tool. Four of his five wickets were bargained with the away-swinger or the one that moved away a trifle off the seam, but this was after he had softened the batsman up with those that came in. Not just swing or swing movement, Southee has evolved into a fine manipulator of angles and crease. The concoction has quietly made him one of the most all-condition exponents of seam and swing. Since that afternoon in 2018, he has picked 111 wickets in 22 games at an average of 21.51. It has included five wickets in Australia, England, and India, besides averages of 18.2 in Sri Lanka and 24 in UAE. A grossly underestimated bowler in Asia. In 21 Test innings, Southee has nabbed 45 wickets at 23.86. In comparison, James Anderson costs 30 runs for each of his 52 wickets in Asia.

What’s more, he is not showing any signs of diminishing either. Rather, keener on adding more songs to his playlist to make batsmen dance to his tunes.

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