During Day 2 of the West Indies-Pakistan Test, Rameez Raja and Ian Bishop began an interesting discussion about Wahab Riaz’s action. The specific discovery that triggered the topic — Riaz’s angled wrist position — wasn’t what caught my attention. It was more Raja’s tone. He asked Bishop, his voice conveying genuine bemusement, why it was so hard for a bowler to slightly change the delivery angle of his hand. Surely, this was something relatively easy, no? So why hadn’t it been done? To be fair, Raja later qualified his remarks, but his undercurrent was clear: Are bowlers dumb? Why can’t they do a simple thing like change their action?
When we say cricket is a batsman’s game, we not only mean the rules give them the upper hand, but also that they are the main attraction — the elite of society. By contrast, bowlers are generally depicted as creatures of habit. Like the underclass, they are unappreciated and expected to toil under a hot sun while the batsman lounges in his crease and decides a ball’s fate. (This bias may be encouraged by modern commentary. I haven’t studied this closely enough, but I’ll bet the ratio of batsmen to bowlers in the media box clearly tips to the former.)
Think of the language we use to discuss batsmen — their technique, especially. Raja’s question about Riaz’s wrist implied that, compared to fixing a batsman’s technique, bowlers face relatively easy puzzles. A batsman has to work on his defensive game by learning proper footwork and a level head, but a bowler just needs to make minor adjustments to his action, which they then can repeat endlessly on a loop, for God’s sake. (Ian Bishop gave a meandering reply, but he noted that for many coaches, the toughest thing is to decide what to leave in a player’s arsenal, and what to change. Imagine trying to shift or reform a golfer’s swing — the danger is that if you insist on changing one thing, some other problem will emerge as the athlete adjusts.)
This reminds me of something Wasim Akram once said about batsman-captains. He noted that, during a bad bowling spell, they would often run up to him and offer useless bromides like, “Good line and length, Wasim.” And he would wonder, “Yes, but why am I not hitting a good line and length right now?” A related problem is that we have words and vocabulary to describe a batsman’s failure — he’s out of form, say, or his stance makes him liable to particular balls (short, yorkers, in-swingers, whatever). But for bowlers, we still rely on vague — almost mystical — notions like “rhythm.” Why a bowler does well on one day and badly the next is still largely a mystery to me. Why a bowler suddenly finds swing, and otherwise not (a la Irfan Pathan) — let’s just say I suspect it has more to do than the position of his wrist.