Imagine the situation. It is the last over of the Champions Trophy final. You have 14 runs to defend, six balls to bowl. Land six balls in the right place and you will be be a hero.
At the other end is Jos Buttler. You know he hits 30.59 percent of deliveries in the last 10 overs for a boundary because the team statistician has told you so. In fact – with a strike rate of 199.5 – no other batsman in the world is so effective at the end of a one-day international.
So what to do? Length is a no-no. You know those balls disappear into the night sky. Do you bowl yorkers? Wide yorkers? Slower balls, or slower ball bouncers?
This is what makes the art of ‘death’ bowling cricket’s ultimate examination of character and nerve. Ben Stokes failed his test in in the World Twenty20 final when he had 18 runs to defend but was clobbered for four sixes by Carlos Braithwaite. “It was like the whole world had come down on me,” he said. Over the next week in England’s one-day series against South Africa, and then in June’s Champions Trophy, other bowlers will feel that same choking pressure, where their skills will be subjected to the most forensic examination. Some will be heroes, others failures.
Sports psychologist Steve Sylvester, who works with Middlesex and football managers, compares the job to taking a penalty in football. He knows an England international, who was at the top of his game, who could never take a penalty despite his talent. “He knew his emotional world could not tolerate missing a penalty even though he knew he was a world class player,” he explained.
There will be bowlers who are the same. But Sylvester, and people like him, are paid to try and help them overcome those emotional obstacles so they can perform under the most stressful of circumstances.
“I try and understand a player’s tolerance to negativity from the crowd, the media and other cricketers,” he said. “I make them understand the context. You say it is pantomime. It is not you personally, it is the role you are fulfilling. You can either be a hero or a villain. Either way if you are being cheered or booed you have to accept you are there to fulfil a role. One day it could be great and you are a hero. Another you could be a booed and be the villain. That is why you have to have a special character to cope with either of those roles because eventually if you do you job long enough you will end up experiencing both those roles.”
The death overs of course are about more than the final six balls. The last 10 overs of an innings these days are when a total can rocket into the stratosphere with captains allowed only five fielders outside the 30-yard inner circle. When England made their world record 444-3 against Pakistan at Trent Bridge last summer they were 289 for three at the start of the 40th over.
Since the last World Cup in 2015, when England were an embarrassment, they have been reborn and it is in the final stages of an innings they are so dangerous, hitting more boundaries and at a better strike rate than any other team in the world.
Sylvester believes the death bowlers, those who can stop the likes of Stokes and Buttler, will be the superstars of the future. He thinks they will be the “Hazards or Ronaldos” of cricket – in other words, those players most wanted by franchise owners.
Malinga is the master, training his muscles by bowling at a boot placed on the length he is aiming for. England’s bowling coach Ottis Gibson lays out three different coloured cones as targets for his bowlers: a red one wide of off stump, a yellow one aiming at the stumps, and a green one down the leg side. As the bowler enters his delivery stride Gibson calls out a colour. It is designed to replicate a batsman moving around his crease and makes his bowlers learn to think and change their plan at the last moment.
Another drill is to place a bar on two bricks and get the bowlers to try and send the ball underneath it to learn the right length to bowl.
Unorthodox bowlers like Malinga and Bumrah have a natural advantage. Malinga’s release point is about 11 o’clock, so if he is short with his length the ball does not bounce so high, leaving the batsmen with little elevation to use to his advantage. If a bowler has an upright arm like Chris Woakes and bowls short by a couple of inches, the batsman can get underneath the ball.
Australia are the best team in the world at bowling yorkers, according to the numbers. Hastings is part of their Champions Trophy squad and recently produced a death bowling performance in the Big Bash that Kevin Pietersen described as the best he had ever seen.
“If you are nailing a really good yorker not many batsmen around the world, possibly only three or four, can hit it. Nine out of ten times the batsman will only get one run or a dot off it. A dot ball is almost as important as a wicket,” Hastings said.
“Bowling a yorker is a massive effort ball. It has to be the fastest ball you bowl because if you do miss your length and it becomes a low full toss instead the pace will mean the batsmen is not ready to hit it. When I was younger I spent a lot of time working on it. If I am going into a white ball tournament I will do a lot of work on it.
“You need to be able to know your skills in training and have confidence in them. When you are under pressure at the end a lot of different things run through your mind, you need to slow down. You have a think about what is going on.”
Stokes was criticised for sticking to his gameplan and bowling leg stump yorkers, but when the stakes are so high, is it not inevitable a bowler will fall back on what he does best? “Good death bowlers for me are like world class chess players,” says Sylvester. “They are working out exactly what the batsman is doing and they are making a plan to disrupt what the batsman thinks they are going to receive.
“He needs to plan for contingency. If the yorker is going out of the ground in the non-emotional world it is easy. You just change the delivery. But when you get the adrenaline rush and the pressure that is when the work needs to be done to get him to pause and consider what to do. Slow the over down.”
Of course coaches do not want the same drama as the rest of us. They want their team to have done the job before the death overs. “Everyone talks about death bowling but no team has mastered the art of death bowling, most teams are travelling at the back end so if you can pick up wickets and up front, your death bowling is always going to be good,” said Russell Domingo, the South Africa coach. “If the opposition is only two or three down with eight overs to go, your death bowling is always going to be poor. So picking up wickets in the middle overs is crucial.”
Domingo stands and falls by winning matches – and is currently having to reapply for his job – but the rest of us want entertainment. We want close finishes. We want to see bowlers like Adam Milne of New Zealand having the balance of the match in their, probably sweaty, palm as they bowl the last six balls of a final.
Milne has the lowest economy rate in the final 10 overs since the last World Cup but modestly points out that is an anomaly caused by missing matches through injury. But he has played all around the world in the IPL and for New Zealand, and been captained by two of the best batsmen around, Kane Williamson and De Villiers. Communication is key.
“I try and tell myself to just put a smile on people’s faces, get to the top of your mark and be confident about what you do. AB De Villiers at mid-off would say to me: ‘Decide what you bowl and be confident’. If you have any doubts that is when it might go wrong. If I stand at the top of my mark and decide on a yorker then I back myself 100 percent.
“It can be hard when a batsman is moving around and getting into different positions. But you have to be calm and make sure you have a ball in your mind. Most of the time when you change your mind at the last second of delivery it can go wrong. Sometimes you can change the direction but not the style of ball. If you are going to bowl a yorker and the batsman steps away you can follow him. That is a lot easier to change than switching to a totally different delivery.”
“We are not talking cricket skills,’ added Sylvester. “My view would be how can you blend your emotional world into your ability to execute the skills that are well honed at the death. The work to be done with death bowlers is when it is not going right and drilling down into their mindset. Normally they close off when it goes wrong. The consequences of not speaking about it are huge. You want them to say ‘it does not stop me as I have a big role to play as a death bowler.’”
Possibly the biggest role of all over the next few weeks.
Article by Nick Hoult of The Telegraph