This immensely complex and cunning facet of that greatest of games, Cricket
, is much under-appreciated by everyone with the exception of cricketers themselves. At their best, bowlers inspire terror in their opponents, joy in their supporters and grudging admiration from everyone in between. At their worst, their staunchest allies become exasperated
, and poor bowling is gleefully
leapt upon and even more brutally exploited to maximum benefit by other teams. The presence of a bowler on lightning
form can lift a team's spirits and performance as no batsman or fielder can, yet on bowlers rest huge responsibilities.
The art of bowling in cricket was originally an under-arm one; the players ran up and tossed the ball down the wicket at the batsman. Apparently some achieved considerable pace by this means, one account saying a ball 'missed the batsman, bounced to boundary, passed through a spectator's coat and killed his dog.' The great W.G.Grace would have faced this kind of bowling for one season only.
The type of overarm bowling in currency today was first used by ladies idly partaking in the magnificent game. They could not bowl underarm as the massive dresses in fashion at the time simply wouldn't allow it. Other sources, (Bill Frindall) have the first experiments with overarm bowling by Thomas Walker of Hambledon, of whom I have never heard but in whom I am quite willing to believe. Overarm bowling was not legal, but very gradually it came to be accepted, bowlers sneaking a couple in here and there, and umpires turning a blind eye. In 1835 the laws were revised such that the ball could be released under shoulder height, instead of under elbow height as had previously been the case. Finally, in 1864, an umpire called no ball (illegal delivery) on an overarm ball, and then proceeded to penalise Edgar Willsher, playing for England against Surrey, a further five times for something that was widely accepted. His team left the field in disgust and there followed a stand-off, when the umpire stood by his decision. Eventually he was forced to accept the legality of the balls, and overarm bowling was legitimised.
Since then overarm bowling has become the style used to the exclusion of all alternatives. There was an underarm ball bowled in the last 20 years at Test level, (you're still allowed to do so if you inform the umpire) but it was in a situation where the batsmen required six to win, and the bowler responsible was fined for unsporting behaviour. The regulations require that the ball is released with a straight arm from behind the edge of the crease. Recent controversy has centred around Sri Lankan spinner Muttiah Muralitharan, whose arm is deformed such that he cannot straighten it. The furore has been so great because Muralitharan is one of the most successful spinners of today, who believes that 600 Test wickets is 'possible' for him. To put this into context, West Indians Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose, widely considered the best bowling partnership of the last 15 years- took 888 wickets between them. He bowled in nets for several hours on video for the ICC (International Cricket Council - similar in capacity to FIFA and UCI) to convince them that his claims were genuine. If he was straightening his arm at the moment of release, it would impart more spin to the ball. His action has now been officially cleared, although he does release the ball in a way that is not conventional. There are a couple of umpires like Steve Bucknor who like to play God by calling him but they get bollocked.
Bowling comes in several varieties. Some of the best fast bowlers of today are Darren Gough and Allen Donald and Shoaib Aktar -the fastest bowler in the world at 97.5 mph. Quicks -fast bowlers- can pitch the ball short to great effect. This gives the ball bounce and can have it up around his face. Alternatively, they can york the batsman and hit him on the toes, or they can swing it either way to confuse the batsman, or to make him miss the ball or edge it to the slips of keeper. Slower balls are also a feature, as a well disguised slower ball is undetectable and so the batsman will play the shot earlier than he ought, expecting more pace. This leads to the ball getting scooped into the air and caught (or dropped) by the fielders. Quicks can cut the ball either into or away from the batsman in sudden and unexpected ways, with similar results to swing. Fast bowling should never be dismissed as something requiring brute strength and height only. It is just as much an art as any other sphere of cricket.
Spin bowling, then, is broadly the other sphere of bowling. Spinners deliver the ball more slowly than quicks, averaging 45 mph instead of 85 mph. A spinner's aim is to make the ball move dramatically in a unexpected way after its bounce. A top spinner makes the ball 'come on' to the batsman; i.e. to accelerate after the bounce to surprise him into playing a rash stroke. The opposite ball can be bowled, to make the ball 'sit up' in a way that invites an early stroke and thus a catch. Whereas fast bowling is a young man's game, spinners can get quite aged and keep improving. John Emburey played for England aged 40. Spinners just get wilier. A top-class spinner can single-handedly turn a game around. Spinners are more varied in their deliveries than quicks, and are more exciting to watch because the psychological game is both different than with fast bowlers, and in some ways more evident. More of this later. There is more variation in spin bowling, more of the unexpected. Witness young unknown Shane Warne, bowling respected batsman Mike Gatting with his first ever ball in Test cricket. So crazy was the ball he bowled that any cricket fan can tell you all about the Ball from Hell.
The psychology of bowling and the battles between batsman and bowler are part of what makes cricket such an interesting game. Typically, those with uninformed prejudices dub cricket a dull game because it can last 5 days, nay, a whole summer and still be a draw. The combination of tactics and strategy make it a more varied game than many others. The field setting, and its intensity, the type of balls being delivered to one batsman and how it differs from the treatment the other receives how the batsmen treat the bowlers, too. The list of opportunities for psychological intimidation is nigh-endless. Fast bowlers seek to convince batsmen they'd rather be at home with mummy, whilst spinners that the batsmen are there on the bowler's indulgence only. The batsmen's role in this is less proactive: all they can do to retaliate is to smack the ball around. Bowlers, however, are highly strung enough to take grave offence.
Bowling has developed a great deal over the past two hundred years to reach the highly aggressive physical and mental art it is today. Guile and self-confidence in equal measure are required to withstand the pummelling you'll inevitably receive at someone's hands. Bowling only as rewarding as you make it, and sometimes not even that. There are, however, few better feelings than taking wickets for your team.
With many thanks to Professor Pi, Albert Herring, Teiresias and Gorgonzola for suggestions and pointing out my screaming typos.