With the India v Australia series locked at one match apiece, the sides headed to Bengaluru for a match variously described as ‘the epic decider’ and ‘hmm? Is that on tonight?’
Naseem Shah recently began his first spell in Test cricket to one of the most supportive cheers he’s ever likely to hear from an opposition crowd.
Just 16 years of age – a fact suspect to scrutiny – Nassem had earned the respect of an Australian audience ready for the next Pakistani tearaway with hostile spells in the warm-up matches, despite, remarkably, only taking one wicket in two innings.
It was the first game in Perth where Naseem successfully roughed up Marcus Harris and Usman Khawaja, and it was enough to build significant anticipation ahead of his arrival to the Test arena. The key factor: pace. What was in store for someone so young could only be imagined. A bouncy Gabba awaited.
What followed, of course, was one of the most anti-climactic debuts in Test history. Match figures of 1/68 flatter a bowling display that was neither creative or incisive, despite the pace remaining around the mythical 90 miles per hour (145 kilometres per hour) mark.
The key moment was when Naseem bowled a tempter at 147, wide and full, which David Warner edged, unable to get his feet and hands out in time. For the fourth time in his career, he was relieved by the umpire’s judgement that there was an overstep.
Eventually he had his man, but Australia had lost just two wickets with a lead of over a hundred by then. The game was over and Naseem had missed his first chance to win a game for Pakistan.
The notable aspect of Naseem’s spells was his consistency of pace. He never really lost energy at the crease and kept the speed of delivery almost exclusively above 140.
Where did it go wrong, then? How could someone so gifted end up with such bad figures?
In Australia – where so much emphasis is placed on pace – the answer was an inconsistent line and length. A failure with the bread and butter of pace bowling.
Criticising Naseem’s line and length isn’t actually founded in truth, however. He was certainly guilty of the crime committed by generations of quicks playing for the first time in Brisbane – bowling too short. But he wasn’t nearly as inconsistent as his teammate Imran Khan. Rarely too wide, usually too short.
Naseem didn’t bowl smart.
When the battle between bat and ball is at its best, both batsman and bowler feverishly anticipate the next move of their opposite numbers, with small movements and adjustments making all the difference. A bowler might notice a batsman’s tendency to jump on the front foot, or to hang deep in the crease, or to step slightly away to create room. In each of these scenarios, the correct ball is contextual.
Rarely do commentators scour the nuances of particular balls enough to notices these subtleties. When we talk about line and length as the be all and end all of bowling, we fail to realise that bowling itself has no one-size-fits-all solution.
What brings wickets is victory in the battle between bat and ball, not just bowling a good ball.
Bowling smart is only tangentially connected to the pace of a bowler. Australians should remember this, given the master of smart pace bowling plied his trade in very recent memory. Glenn McGrath’s over to Nasser Hussein ought to be compulsory viewing for cricket fans.
Darren Lehmann famously left a top-form Peter Siddle out of the side for a long time, deemed in hindsight to be a mistake after a dominant dead-rubber performance at The Oval in 2015.
What’s noticeable about McGrath’s tendency to draw out false shots from opposing batsmen is the way he used his middling pace to create uncertainty. He dealt in the fine line between instinct and thought – just too fast for the willow-wielder to think twice about their shot, but slow enough that they can’t entirely rely on their drilled instincts. The great man built uncertainty at the other end just as the batsman built an innings – usually unsuccessfully. And 125 kilometres per hour was his sweet spot.
Mohammad Abbas replaced Naseem Shah for the Adelaide Test. A master in seaming conditions, an average of 10.8 against Australia, and a serial mid-120s dweller – the perfect antidote to unrestrained and unsuccessful pace.
Abbas wasn’t poor and was regularly undermined from the other end, especially when leg spinner Yasir Shah was his partner. During his good spells, Warner and co were happy to face out maidens because scoring opportunities awaited from the other end. But the seamer failed to create any uncertainty within his own overs, and went wicketless. He rarely toyed with off stump, which is where he ought to have started.
Abbas has already enjoyed considerable success, mostly away from the eyes of Australian viewers. He’s done well to further reiterate the uselessness of medium-pacers to a speed-loving public despite being the sport’s best.
When New Zealand visit and Colin de Grandhomme first registers on a Perth Stadium radar gun, few will imagine that many wickets will fall at his end. He’s been invaluable in the Black Caps’ campaign against England, and if he’s smart, could prove an asset on unhelpful pitches later this summer.