Decoding lengths, tactics and India in England, with Bharat Arun

The Bharat Arun Way: 'I like to empower the bowlers'
The Bharat Arun Way: 'I like to empower the bowlers' ©Getty

From their disappointing tours of 2011 and 2014, India have come a long way in England. In 2018, they went down by a deceptive scoreline of 1-4 against an evenly matched side but more than made up for it in 2021, when they enjoyed an upper hand for most of the series. The victories at Lord's and Oval last year earned them a 2-1 lead and set them up for a fascinating fifth and final Test at Edgbaston a year later. India unfortunately lost that against an in-form England side but still had plenty of positives to take away from the drawn series.

Bharat Arun, India's bowling coach between 2014-2016 and 2017-2021, spoke to Cricbuzz about each of the fast bowlers, the turnaround in England and the preparation that went behind it, how he tried to "empower" the bowlers in the nets, how "judicious use of technology" works and more.


What's the first thing you told the bowlers about bowling in England?

That it's a country where there is some help from the pitch and also in the air, depending on the conditions, of course. Ideally, for the ball to move, you have to give it more air time and bowl it slightly up. Even a half-volley can be a good ball at times, so don't be afraid to bowl full.

The lengths in England will be different from what you bowl in Australia or India. More percentage of balls should be hitting the stumps, that's the ideal length in England.

So deciding what lengths to bowl is the absolute key in England. How did the bowlers go on and prepare for it?

Each bowler has to figure out the length that is ideal for him. And for me as a coach, I would just give them the right feedback so that they get the length that suits their kind of bowling. It's just a difference of a foot in the lengths you bowl in India and England, but the bowler has to try and still find it. It's a trial and error method. You figure out what suits you. Sometimes what you try in the nets might not necessarily be helpful, but you go over and over your process.

When the bowlers are busy figuring their own kind of ideal lengths in England, what was your feedback like?

More than telling them, we would encourage bowlers to experiment for themselves and figure out what they think is good, the pros and cons of it, and my feedback would be around how the ball reacts when they bowled those lengths. For some batters who like the drive, you don't mind a few boundaries going because that could be their downfall as well. My job at that level is to encourage a bowler to keep pitching it up. That's where the right feedback comes in, so that the bowler knows he is empowered to make decisions for himself. It's important that the bowler works on his strength rather than trying things in a match which aren't his strengths. And you build your strengths in the nets. (More on this later in the interview)

It's about encouraging a bowler to think for himself?


When you say that you encouraged the Indian bowlers to try things on their own in the nets, do you mean trying in terms of lengths or is there more to it?

It can be anything, not necessarily only lengths. It can even be something as simple as the grip, it can be variations in the grip, it can be variations in the position of the bowling arm... which can be close to the head or it can be slightly away. I feel, what a bowler thinks he's doing and what he's actually doing are two different things. So as a coach, you've to help them bridge that gap. Today, there's a lot of help with technology, there're videos and you also have an analyst. You take videos and when they see for themselves what they think they did and what they are actually doing, and that there's a slight variance in that, it will help them to bridge the gap and also give them confidence.

For example, if I ask them to bowl with the arm slightly away from the head, they would probably think they are becoming very round arm. It's the feeling they would get. But if they see the video and realize 'oh, I am not too round arm' and that there's a very small difference, then it gives them the confidence (to keep trying new things). Without seeing, they would probably think that something new won't work for them at all. So, I think judicious use of technology just to enhance what you're trying to tell a bowler is important.

How are India's bowlers in terms of coming up with their own plans?

As I said earlier, I believe in empowering the bowler. I believe in them coming up with their own plans and then we are there to fine-tune it or add a few things. The mindset of a bowler is something you don't want to confuse. He doesn't need too many inputs other than what he's thinking. Of course when it doesn't work, then you say, 'Hey why don't you try this?'. But if he has come out with a plan and you think it's on the right track, you just go ahead and back him and make him feel that it's his thought process that's coming through. I am happy for the bowler to be thinking for himself, come out with his own plans and set his own fields.

What kind of adjustments did the current crop of Indian bowlers have to make in England?

If you look at Ishant Sharma, initially he was bowling from close to the stumps and his wrist was slightly tilted and it was in a brilliant position to be bowling inswing. But then when he was bowling close to the stumps, sometimes the deliveries would slide down the legside. And when he tried to bowl on the other side of the stumps, the line ended up being slightly more outside off. He was the most economical bowler, yes, but he did not make the batsman play as much as he'd have wanted. So just a slight adjustment of bowling from the middle of the box, you know, it changes the angle. From there, it's very challenging for the batter when the ball comes in. These are the kinds of things you notice in bowlers and suggest different adjustments that they need to make. And when they do it, they discover things about themselves and that's how they evolve.

Not that Ishant now doesn't use the crease to bowl from close to the stumps. When you are bowling to left-handers, you can go close to the stumps because that's the line you'd want and also because of the position of his wrist. If you remember Ishant Sharma at his peak, he used to bowl round the wicket to left-handers, with the angle that comes in and leaves them. He was probably one of the best bowlers to left-handers because of the angle and time and again, he'd been a thorn in the flesh for them.

You say you're a big believer in empowering the bowler. Can you remember an instance when a bowler has come up with a plan of his own and it made you proud?

I would say Mohammed Siraj at Lord's last year. He had tried round the wicket angle to left-handers but he felt more comfortable coming over the wicket. Virat told him to try and stick to bowling round but he insisted that he wanted to come over the wicket. In the end, he came up with a plan, stuck to it and ended up picking the two left-handers [Moeen Ali and Sam Curran] with the balls leaving them.

As a coach, it feels great watching things work for a bowler, you know. And this is what you want. The coach's role according to me should become redundant, that's when I feel the coach is more successful, rather than the bowler depending on the coach for everything. The day I sit up and say, 'okay, see these guys will come up with their own plans, my job is to only encourage them', then I think I am very successful as a coach.

For all his bowling brilliance, Mohammed Shami didn't enjoy the most productive time as a pacer in the 2018 series against England
For all his bowling brilliance, Mohammed Shami didn't enjoy the most productive time as a pacer in the 2018 series against England ©Getty

Shami had, for the lack of a better word, an unlucky tour of England in 2018. He kept beating the bat but he was among the wickets in 2021. What did he do right?

It's important not to look at bowling in terms of outcome to be happy. We look at the overall process of bowling.

When Shami is beating the bat several times and not picking wickets, he keeps the pressure on the batters; they feel they have not overcome this bowling attack and it would allow the other bowlers to exploit. But in the earlier tours, Shami would bowl one brilliant ball and then try to move the ball from legstump. In trying to do so, the angle of the wrist would change and the ball would go down the leg side, and most likely go for a boundary because you don't have protection on the legside. Of course, picking wickets is at the back of the mind for every bowler and you need to also plan for it, but if you are bowling very well and still not picking wickets, it can be a challenge to keep it going and keep building the pressure for your teammates. It's not about your own ability, it's often about the team and about bowling partnerships. And what is going to define that? Being consistent.

So, the conversation (with Shami) was around how do you create pressure on a batter? It's either by picking wickets or not giving away runs freely. We worked on his consistency. Because what you think you want to do and what you should do, it should be the same. You should be able to execute what you are thinking. When you are at the top of your mark, you have to be very sure of what you want to execute. Then you are most likely to do what you are thinking. But if you are in doubt, the chances of you executing becomes that much less. Coming back to what we do in the nets, it is exactly that. I stand there and they tell me what they want to bowl. Right from the time you are bowling in the nets, you need to think what you are going to execute. The cricket match then becomes an extension of your nets.

Shami later realized that in some games, picking up wickets becomes that much easier when he's consistent. And if you look at all the great bowlers, there's only one thing that doesn't change. The consistency level. They are economical and they pick wickets. In fact, they pick wickets because they are consistent. The job of a batter is to make runs; if you prevent him from doing that, no matter how well he's playing or for how long he's playing, it is pressure on them.

As a coach in a place like England, where there's consistent help on offer, does it become that much more difficult to convince bowlers not to go for the "magic ball" but instead be consistent?

If you go for the magic ball and it happens, you just need them to get the opposition out. So the magic ball never happens. It's you who create it, it's you who create an environment for it by consistently exploiting what you are able to do. And if you are focused on the outcome, like I said, there's a disappointment. But if you are not focused on the outcome, there's a lot of joy in beating the bat or keeping the batter in an uncomfortable zone. That is the big victory, wickets are just an outcome.

How's Umesh Yadav to work with?

Oh, he is a delight to work with. He's simple, he's got a superb repeatable action. He is extremely strong and a very disciplined guy. It's extremely unfortunate that a man of his calibre is made to sit out most of the time because of the combinations we have. Whenever he's played in India, he's been outstanding with his ability to reverse the ball. I only wish that we had used him more but there were other bowlers also who were performing. In a nutshell, he's somebody who has not achieved his potential. He has pace, the ability to move the ball, brings a different standard of fielding and is a handful with the bat. A brilliant package but my regret is he could have played a lot more than he did.

He's constantly willing to try out things. Even now when you tell him something, he would most willingly go and try it out in the nets. And he will come with a feedback, whether it works or it doesn't. Such an experienced fast bowler who's still willing to learn, it's a character which is very important for anyone to evolve and grow.

Umesh has been part of India's pace narrative for a long time. He made headlines by hitting Ricky Ponting on the helmet (MCG Test, 2011) but has also been complicit in India conceding runs at over seven an over in a session (MCG Test, 2014). What's changed now for the Indian bowlers?

Consistency. Earlier, they were fast and had the ability to move the ball but I feel, we lacked putting balls in the same spot. We had the potential, which is why we made a conscious decision when we got back in 2017, to become the No 1 team in the world. Now as good as it is to have that thought, what are the real factors that you need to work on? One is we need to be successful in all conditions and for that, you need to be consistent in what we do. That doesn't happen overnight, it's a mindset and also it is conscious work that you need to put in. We said we got to be mean, we got to make them earn every run they get. So when the mindset changed, that was the most important factor in our fast bowlers dominating. They hated batters getting runs off them. That motivated them to focus more on the process.

Coming to Bumrah, he's been used in short, sharp spells by India. Bowlers usually like settling into long spells in Test cricket, so did it take time for Bumrah to settle into that role?

He knows the kind of effort he puts in his bowling. He does not get much momentum in his run up and so he's generating a lot in the four or five strides and there's a huge amount of body he uses to get that kind of pace and awkward bounce. So yes, it has its toll and you don't see Bumrah bowling long spells. Instead, you want him in short bursts.

What makes it so difficult for batters to face him?

A lot of people spoke about his action but what's unique about it is that most batsmen - I can talk for the Indian batters who have faced him in the nets - find themselves a little late in picking him up. Usually, when bowlers are quick and they have a very smooth, conventional action, you can pick them up easily, in terms of when he's going to deliver the ball. With Bumrah, it takes a while for a batter to understand. There's a split second delay, which makes him that much more effective.

When you say that batters pick the ball late, is the speed of Bumrah's bowling arm a factor?

Speed of the arm for any fast bowler is very, very, very important. For Bumrah, the speed with which the arm comes down is exceptionally quick. It has to be for him to generate that pace. Most bowlers start the action with a smaller lever, with the arm slightly bent and then it extends as the arm rotates. But Bumrah starts bowling with the longer lever; his arm is totally extended. It's very difficult, in the sense that for someone who uses the longer lever first, the acceleration is slightly slower. If you go from short to long levers, there's more acceleration. Bumrah has got this unique ability to accelerate the arm with a longer lever and not many bowlers can do it. That's why sometimes doing nothing with a bowler is more beneficial than trying to give him some kind of feedback.

The Dukes ball, how much is that part of the planning and strategizing? How much of a change in the ball is part of adjusting to conditions in England?

Dukes ball is one ball that bowlers around the world love bowling with. It's because it has characteristics of both the SG Test ball and the Kookaburra. Every bowler is looking forward to bowling with it, they love it. But even then, it's best if the bowler has enough time to make slight adjustments with the ball in the nets and get used to it.

The 2018 tour was a close one despite what the scoreline of 1-4 suggests and could have easily gone India's way. What were the learnings from that tour and how did that manifest in how India bowled in 2021?

It was the biggest learning curve for Shami. The other bowlers also understood the need to be consistent and not always be on the lookout for wickets. It is about bowling the right lengths and enjoying that. If the batter plays a good shot and it goes straight to a fielder, he is disappointed. When he plays a good forward defence, he's happy because he has negated a very good ball from the bowler. That was what the 2018 tour helped us understand, that if you need to be a winner, it's all about consistency.

After the tour, we have not looked back and we have won all over. It helped us win two back-to-back series in Australia. Even the last series in England (in 2021), it was brilliant. From nowhere, when nobody gave us a chance, we came back to win the Tests at Lord's and Oval. You can learn something but how far you use that learning is another, greater challenge. In terms of both, India did exceptionally well.



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