Thursday, 28 July 2016

Flight, guile and Santner

Mitchell Santner ran in to bowl in his typically graceful manner. He bowled slightly short of a good length, and the ball skidded off the pitch. Hamilton Masakadza diffused it comfortably, playing it out into the off side.

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In his reply to David Hume’s argument about miracles, CS Lewis added in a chapter titled “A Chapter Not Strictly Necessary.” The idea was that it was a chapter that wasn’t really needed for his argument, but it gave him pleasure to write it, and so he added it into his book. His chapter was about the aesthetic beauty of nature.

Mitchell Santner is a very good bower. The fact that he makes what he does look good is a bonus, it’s not really necessary. If he took ugly wickets, it would look the same in the scorebook.


Almost every cricket club has the older gentleman who has well-worn whites and rolls his arm over with a bit of finger-spin. He’s normally in his early 40’s, is slightly overweight and has to be hidden in the field. He normally plays the game hard, putting pressure on the umpires, and is the one most likely to threaten the batsman at the non-strikers end with a Mankad. Mitchell Santner is the complete opposite to this player.

He’s lithe and athletic. He is na├»ve enough that when he walked out to bat on his test debut, he told the Australian fielders that he was really nervous. He looks more like a greyhound than a St Bernard.

He really doesn’t have any business bowling left-arm spin. He looks more like a batsman who fields at slip. But when he approaches the crease he is pure poetry. His run up is more like a high jumper approaching the bar than the typical club spinner’s shuffle to the wicket. His action is fluid: he almost floats through the crease.

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The second delivery in the over was full on middle stump. It drew Masakadza forward and he pushed it tentatively into the off side. Masakadza is not generally a tentative batsman, he favours bold movements, but this ball was a little fuller than he was anticipating and he picked it up a little later than he would have liked.

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A few years ago, I contributed a few jingles to Testmatchsofa and Guerilla Cricket. Most of them were not very good. Some were appallingly bad. The two that I was most proud of were one about Kane Williamson’s bowling and one that never ended up getting played, as Daniel Vettori had retired before it was able to be used.

The Vettori jingle (to the tune of “Thine Be the Glory”) included the line “when the batsman face him/they expect some spin/but when it goes straight on/it bamboozles them.” That was Vettori’s skill in his latter years, he made the batsmen think that the ball was spinning when it generally didn’t.

There’s a (possibly apocryphal) story told that a young Vettori spun a ball hugely, and completely beat a batsman. Adam Parore, who was the keeper at the time, walked down the wicket to him and said “that was a great TV ball, now turn it less and get him out.” If that was true, then that piece of advice really summed up Vettori’s career.

The best example of Vettori doing that was a pair of deliveries that he bowled to Mahela Jayewardene in the Champions Trophy 2009. The first ball pitched on off stump and turned sharply. Jayawardene adjusted for the turn, and played it to the fielder on the off side.

The next ball looked identical. It had the same trajectory, it looked the same out of the hand, it flew through the air the same. It just didn’t turn. Jayawardene was not expecting it to not turn. He had seen enough in the previous delivery that he felt he knew what this one was going to do. He swng through the line of where he expected the ball to end up, only to lose his off stump.

That was typical Vettori. He took a wicket with a ball that didn’t turn. But he actually took a wicket with a ball that looked like one thing, but was actually something else. The subtlety of Vettori was the reason why he got a lot of very good players out, without seeming to have any weapons.

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Santner’s third ball of the over was thrown up a little more. It almost looked like a full toss, until it dropped onto a yorker length. Masakadza dug it out as though it was a Waqar Younis thunderbolt.

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I really enjoy coaching young bowlers. I’ve only been coaching for a short while, but it can be really rewarding watching players’ skills improve. In my first season as a coach, I had the pleasure of coaching three young spin bowlers who were really quite capable.

One of them went on to play for New Zealand under-19, and is possibly going to have a big future in the game. I was working with him one day on the art of using flight. The aim was to get the batsman playing shots off the wrong foot. To get him to play forward to one that was too short, or to get him to play back to one that was too full. The way that I got him to do it was to practice bowling two basic trajectories. One that would be just on the full side of a good length if he bowled it quite quickly, and one that would be just short of a good length if he bowled it slowly. Once he had the trajectory sorted, the next aim was to try varying his pace without changing the initial trajectory. That way the batsman was expecting the ball to be full, but it was actually short, and vice-versa.

This young bowler took about 30 minutes before he really got the idea, but he soon had all the batsmen in knots. They could not figure out where the ball was going to land, and so had no idea what to do with their feet.

This was testament in part to a good plan, but mostly to the extreme level of skill of this young bowler. To beat a batsman in the air is a much harder skill than it looks.

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Santner’s fourth ball of the over had the same trajectory as the third ball. It curved a bit, and looked like it was going to end up on a yorker length. But this ball was a little bit slower, and had a little bit more overspin. As a result it dipped earlier, and Masakadza, in trying to dig out the yorker, spooned up a return catch to Santner.

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“Hamilton Masakadza, what have you done? You’ve thrown your wicket away.”

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