The challenges of death bowling

Keeping his cool
Vijay Shankar delivered for India at the crunch in the second ODI against Australia at Nagpur. File photo: AFP

One over to go, 11 runs to win and two wickets in hand. A not too uncommon situation in a One-Day International (ODI). The crowd waits with bated breath as the bowler walks to the top of his mark to start his run up. The larger audience across the two participating countries watching the game on television seek the intervention of the Almighty in favour of their side. All attention is on the bowler as he gets into the bowling stride to deliver the ball. The batsman, feeling supremely confident with a half-century under his belt, takes a mighty swing with the intention of sending the ball outside the stadium. But the ball comes through slower and a tad lower than what he anticipated and strikes him on the pads. The loud appeal from the fielding side is upheld as the umpire raises the dreaded finger.

This scenario was enacted during the second ODI of the ongoing series between India and Australia. In this match held at Nagpur, Vijay Shankar, a relative newcomer to the national side, showed nerves of steel when he outfoxed the well set Marcus Stoinis and trapped him in front of the stumps. After conceding two runs off the next delivery, he bowled a superb yorker that went through the defences of last man Adam Zampa and sealed an eight-run win for India. Thus, in the space of three deliveries, Vijay turned the game on its head and snatched a victory, which most people had thought was out of the grasp of the home side. It was as splendid a bowling performance during the last over as one could dream of and Vijay would cherish this feat all his life.

The advent of limited overs cricket brought in its wake two new positions in a side which did not exist earlier. In the longer duration or the traditional version of the game, places in a cricket eleven would be openers followed by the middle order batsmen, a wicketkeeper, an all-rounder, after which would come the bowlers - fast, medium-pace and spin variety. The demands of shorter form of the game saw the emergence of a “finisher”, who specialises in batting at the end overs and a ''death bowler'' who is called upon to turn his arm over when the result of match is evenly poised at the end. Both these slots are crucial ones and one can see that successful sides in international cricket have players who specialise in these slots.

The names of Micheal Bevan of Australia and Mahendra Singh Dhoni of India are the ones that come to mind when one thinks of successful finishers. They both possess the unique ability of taking the game under their control by pacing their innings effectively so that by the time the last two-three overs commence they would be able to play the big shots at will. They are both excellent judges of a single besides being very fast runners between the wickets. Another common trait is the capacity for planning their innings and breaking down the target into smaller goals. These two giants played a major role in shaping the high success rate of their respective countries when they were at their peak.

It could be said, with no disrespect to the enormity of task faced by the finishers, that bowling at the death is certainly more difficult than batting in the end overs. In the first place, the playing conditions in limited overs cricket are overwhelmingly in favour of the batsmen, with restrictions on number of overs that can be bowled by an individual bowler and placement of fielders. Further, cricket bats carry more muscle these days as compared to the past and hence the chances of even mishits clearing the fence are higher. Moreover, the momentum of an innings that has lasted 49 overs is invariably in favour of the batting side, though this is not always the case.

'Iceman' Waugh

It was Steve Waugh, former skipper of Australia, who was the first ever specialist death bowler. During the 1987 World Cup held in the Indian subcontinent, Australia won their first league match against India by the closest of margins and Waugh bowled the last over. Off the fifth ball of this over, with the tension sky high and the 60,000-odd spectators at Chepauk, Chennai, screaming support for the hosts, 'Iceman' clean bowled Maninder Singh to clinch a narrow one-run win for his side. Waugh’s USP was clever change of pace, which he mixed with the other weapons in his armoury, such as off cutters and leg cutters, to confuse and befuddle the batsmen.

Basking in glory
Steve Waugh, bottom second right, played a key role in Australia's triumph in the 1987 World Cup. Photo: Manorama Archives

In the history of Indian cricket, memories of certain instances of bowling at the death stand out vividly. The first one was the over bowled by Sachin Tendulkar in the semifinals of the Hero Cup against South Africa in 1993. Chasing a modest Indian score of 195 at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata, South Africa had collapsed to 145/7, before a 44-run eighth wicket stand between Brian McMillan and Dave Richardson brought them to the doorsteps of victory. South Africa needed six runs off the last over and seemingly had the match in their bag. In desperation, skipper Mohamed Azharuddin turned to Tendulkar to bowl the last over. Judging accurately that the pitch was a slow one and hence ball should not be allowed to rush to the bat, Tendulkar bowled his slower stuff intelligently mixing up leg spin and googlies. The batsmen who faced him, McMillan and Alan Donald, could not get him off the square and he conceded only three runs off his six balls, thus helping India secure a place in the final.

Joginder's glory moment

Another unforgettable instance of bowling at the death by an Indian took place in the final of the inaugural ICC T20 World Cup held in South Africa in 2007. Batting first, India scored 157/5 in their allotted 20 overs. In reply, a superb spell of bowling by Iran Pathan pushed Pakistan on to the back foot and they needed 54 runs with only three wickets in hand when four overs remained. However, Misbah-ul-Haq steadied the innings and carried the fight back to the Indian camp. At the end of 19th over, Pakistan needed 13 runs with one wicket in hand. More importantly Misbah, who was in terrific touch, was on strike. At this juncture captain Dhoni asked Joginder Sharma to bowl, despite the more experienced Harbhajan Singh having one over remaining in his quota. Joginder started with a wide, then bowled a dot ball but Misbah slammed the next delivery for a six over long off, bringing the equation down to six runs off four balls. However, Misbah played a predetermined scoop off the next ball and the resultant catch was held by S Sreesanth at fine leg, thus bringing the Cup to India.

While on the subject, one should not forget the infamous last over bowled by Chetan Sharma in the final of the Australasia Cup at Sharjah in 1986. Pakistan needed 10 runs off the last six balls, which came down to four from the last one. Javed Miandad, who was playing the innings of his life, was on strike when Chetan, who had bowled a tight line till then, ran in to bowl. However, Chetan allowed tension to get the better of him and bowled a full toss which Miandad gleefully deposited in the stands to set up a memorable one-wicket win for his country.

It should be remembered that bowling the final over is not same as bowling at the death. Bowling the last over of an innings is no doubt difficult but it need not always be in a situation where the fate of match hangs in balance as it happens at the death. Ashish Nehra was Dhoni’s preferred bowler during the end overs, but he slipped up during the group match against South Africa in the 2011 World Cup. Vijay Shankar is not Kohli’s regular end overs bowler, but he proved to be effective in a situation where the last over decided the result of the game.

The rare qualities

What are the attributes of a good bowler at the death? It goes without saying that a cool head on shoulders is a necessary prerequisite for anyone undertaking this task. He should be able to bowl different types of deliveries, be adept at mixing them up effectively, while also being capable of varying the pace of the ball without any appreciable change in bowling action. He is also required to be a good student of the game and observe and learn the type of deliveries that the batsmen at the crease are comfortable with and avoid them so as to deny easy scoring opportunities. Finally, he should enjoy the complete trust and confidence of his captain, without which he would not be effective at all.

It is not a job for the meek or weak-hearted and besides all the qualities mentioned above, a bowler would also need pots of good luck to emerge successful at the death.

(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)