Around 2008-09, an enticing rumour started to float on the Indian cricket circuit. It was said that Rajasthan Royals had a bowler called Atul Sharma whose every ball was a 150 kph thunderbolt. YouTube still has interviews of wide-eyed reporters capturing Sharma flexing his rippling muscles in the gym, flipping jumbo tractor wheels, hacking wooden logs with axes and after all that, ending his 30-meter run-up with a javelin-throw like ball release .
He was introduced as a lab-grown speed demon with top bowling coaches, expert biomechanists and track-and-field throws specialists drafted in for the project. The hype was short-lived, Sharma would disappear with no trace within a year or so. India would keep waiting for that genuine quick.
More than a decade later, in IPL 2022, a wiry young boy with a swimmer’s physique would make India dreamy again. A fruit-seller’s son from Jammu, Umran Malik at 22 could bowl 150 kph in every game. He was also accurate, the several clean bowled and lbws in his wicket-tally providing ample proof of that claim. Till a few years back he was a tennis-ball street cricketer like millions around the country.
The other day at the Man of the Match award ceremony, the SunRisers Hyderabad rookie pacer was accompanied by the team’s coach, former India international Hemang Badani. While translating, Badani would chip in: “This boy is a natural, he was a ready-made product.”
So what is the secret of bowling fast? What is it about the untrained Malik that makes him do what a scientifically-groomed Sharma couldn’t? Along with sending the stumps flying, the puny, 5-something boy from Gujjar Nagar in Jammu is also shattering some fast-bowling myths.
Do you need ripped arms to bowl fast?
Actually it is the other way around. Shoaib Akhtar, the well-built Pakistan pacer with an imposing frame, gave the impression that to go 150 kph and beyond one needed to look like a wrestler. It worked for him but that isn’t a mandatory requirement. Most coaches discourage young pacers from spending long hours in the gym. This, they fear, stiffens their bodies and, in some cases the bloated muscles restrict their arm movement at the crease.
The Aussie great Jeff Thomson is credited with bowling the fastest ball recorded in cricket history. His 160 kph scorcher still remains the mark to chase for every member of the fast-bowling club. The world believes that it was his slingy action that gave him speed. But in Australia, they believe it was his flexibility. Watch his action closely and you can see the well-oiled joints of his limbs working as levers and the science of fulcrum propelling the ball like a jet-powered projectile. The Aussie great Allan Border said recently that Jeff “could probably still put his legs over the back of his head”.
Don’t they say pacers are born?
They say the same about great batsmen and spinners too, but it is not the undeniable truth. When legends of the game are called “gifted”, they don’t take the compliment kindly. Fast bowling, like any other sporting pursuit, requires back-breaking hard work. More overs at net sessions prepares the body to be match-fit, programs the muscles to follow a routine.
What is difficult to teach a pace bowler though, is the “wrist position”. Bowlers with the right grip give the extra thrust to the ball and that makes a difference between a 140 kph and a 150 kph bowler. As the great Aussie speedster Brett Lee wrote in his Guardian column: “You’re either born with that natural wrist action or you’re not. I don’t think you can teach it easily, because it’s very precise. They try to teach you growing up but most fast bowlers don’t use their wrist, for instance, when throwing the ball. They generate that whippy power mainly from their elbow. They haven’t come up with a satisfactory technique yet to teach bowlers to use their wrist properly. There are methods to strengthen the wrist, using weights, and that can help a little. Really, though, it’s something you’re born with.”
Do you need a long run-up to bowl fast?
Umran Malik has a long run-up but he doesn’t start from virtually close to the sightscreen like Akhtar or Lee did. The West Indian greats too were known to amble along slowly at the start and gradually catch pace on reaching the crease.
The most-visible evolution of pace bowling is the reduced run-up. Workload management, energy conversion, and fines for slow over rates are reasons for pacers to start from closer to the stumps. Jasprit Bumrah virtually walks to the crease but still manages to touch 150 kph.
Former Pakistan pacer Aaquib Javed explained to The Indian Express: “The basic aspect of his action is the run-up. You need the right momentum when hitting the crease. It’s no use running 40 yards but when you are hitting the crease, your momentum is lost. When Bumrah is about to hit the crease, he is as fast as anyone. He walks, walks, and walks, and suddenly picks up pace, exactly what’s required. His last three steps before hitting the crease are as fast and as strong as anyone. And those three steps are vital.”
Aaquib stressed that what is important is how you end your run-up, and not from where you start it. “When he is about to release the ball, his arm and right shoulder are at 90 degrees. His right arm is parallel to his shoulder and his front arm is tucking into his (left) ribs. Generating pace depends on how well you lock your front arm into your ribs. The radius he uses from loading to delivery release is copybook. Don’t look at how he is approaching the crease. The end product is perfect. Very few fast bowlers use their height so well. Very few transfer weight so smoothly.”
How can bowlers with an easy action bowl fast?
Jofra Archer generates high speed with his relaxed approach to the crease and efficient transfer of energy through his body. His very fast hips create torque that adds to the arm speed. It is said that the energy travels from the ground below all the way to the top from where the ball is released.
Aaquib again: “At the time of releasing the ball, the most important thing is power generation. For a fast bowler, body power is 20 per cent. The rest is ground force. At the point of release, what we look at a bowler is how well his foot is planted, from left heel to toe. If your foot is perfectly planted, you are using the optimum ground force. Your front knee follows, and has to be ramrod straight. This allows the ground force to go into your limbs. If your knee collapses, you are wasting energy.”
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But is it important to know the complex science of bowling to bowl fast?
Not really. If that was the case the Umrans and Shoaibs of the world wouldn’t have emerged from small towns and cricket’s unorganised sectors, without scientific academics.
Two brutally quick Aussie pacers, Len Pascoe and Thomson, who had an emergency wing in the Sydney hospital named after them, have simple, highly implementable advice for the young fast bowlers.
Pascoe talks about the importance of “second effort”. “That’s where the games are won and lost, that’s where the records are broken. When everybody else has given up and your butt is dragging along the ground, it is a hot miserable day and the captain throws you the ball. You need to come in just as hard as you did with the first ball of the day,” he says.
Thomo’s words are simpler. “Don’t listen to what these guys tell you on TV, just train hard. That’s the only way you can get any good. The best ones are the ones who work the hardest and love the game.”