'Pacers need mental clarity'

'Pacers need mental clarity'

The SA legend speaks on his battles with batsmen and the way forward for bowlers in the T20 era.

There was no better sight on a cricket field than Allan Donald in full tilt in the early and mid 90s. The perfect fusion of skill, pace and ferocity made the South African pacer a compelling sight. Well over decade after his retirement, Donald is still active as bowling coach of South Africa and Royal Challengers Bangalore, and he is also a respected voice in the commentary box.  The ‘White Lightining’ touched base with Deccan Herald for a chat on varied topics -- fast bowling, IPL stint and his playing days.

Excerpts: 

How will you describe the three seasons in IPL as coach? 

Probably, I will have to write off the first two with Pune. It was disastrous – one as bowling coach and one as head coach. But I have learned immensely in those two years, how to handle people while the team lose continuously, how to keep everyone on the bus tightly. This season with RCB, though we haven’t won many games it has been an enjoyable and learning experience being in the dressing room with so many fine cricketers. 

Heavy bats, short boundaries and daring batsmen...what advice you have for bowlers to minimise the damage? 

There is only one loser in this – bowler. When a bowler makes a mistake, it is a mental mistake in making a decision, and that affects the execution. I think you have to embrace this game with a wonderful attitude. I will break it into three parts: Power Play, middle overs and end overs. You have to own the Power Plays, and overpower the Power Plays by being aggressive. You may go for runs, but if you are not aggressive mentally then it’s tough. You need to be aggressive in finding your areas as a bowler and aggressive in using the short ball. 

In the middle overs...the batting team might have gone slow in the Power Plays, and they will want to catch up, while the bowling side wants more wickets if they have made some dents in the Power Plays.

The most important part is the back four. There are times when the teams have scored 60-70 runs in the back four, and it’s incredible how skilful batting has become. That’s where I think the bowlers are tested, stand at the top of their mark and make a very good decision about what he’s going to do with the field he has got. He might also be bluffing, but he might as well stick to the plan. That’s it, if you panic, you are dead. That’s what T20 cricket for me as a bowler, you need to be mentally clear otherwise you will be fetching leather all day.  But how do you keep a clear mind as a bowler when someone like AB de Villiers or Maxwell can upset all your calculations with creative stroke-play? 

When AB sits in the team meetings, and talks, without giving away his secrets, it’s amazing to know how he wants to hit the ball. He wants the bowlers to bowl at him in his areas. Maxwell too is in the same category, but AB collects runs initially before hitting around in the end. When you plan against guys like AB and Maxwell, especially AB because AB goes both sides of the wicket – he laps this way and laps that way. You gotta try and stick to one field, and minimum strategies. What I am saying is, for these kind of players you shouldn’t overplan, but try to keep it as simple as possible because bowlers shouldn’t have five complex plans but two simple plans to execute. Why are bowlers not trying yorkers these days? 

That’s the hardest delivery to bowl in any format. In RCB nets, we try to put the bowlers under realistic pressure where we want the bowlers to bowl just yorkers -- no other option -- at Chris Gayle or AB. They then, probably, can execute it in the middle. It’s a massive confident thing. Many times bowlers know they have to execute a yorker, but they default into a slower ball or a slow bouncer. The best bowler in terms of yorker in the world at the moment is Lasith Malinga. He does it in his sleep too! But yes, I am amazed that I have not seen enough yorkers aimed at the wicket. People either tend to take it wide of batsmen -- slow ball wide outside off stump or wide yorkers. When you are out in the middle, under pressure, you need to mentally tune to that delivery. You need to make out for yourself what is unfolding in front of you, and need to stay clear about your strategy otherwise no coach can help you. How important it is for a fast bowler to sustain the intimidation part? 

While you are on song, bowling at 90 mph or so, you get the attention of the batsmen, and they do respect you. I think it is a wonderful space to be in when you can demand that respect from batsmen. As a bowler you should be aware that batsmen are going to have a play against you and you should be ready for that. You need to try and keep up that intimidation all day long. It’s the sign of a great fast bowler, how mentally strong and alert you are. If you can bowl at 90 mph at 10 am and come back and do the same at 5 pm, it’s special. Great West Indian fast bowlers did that, Thomson and Lillee did that. Sometimes they overstepped a bit but that’s what made them great and earned them respect. 

Johnson and Steyn use intimidation effectively, your take on the two best contemporary pacers? 

Johnson had a terrific year, as he has made a comeback and it’s amazing because a couple of years ago he almost gave up the game because his confidence was shattered. He didn’t have any life in him and then he found Dennis Lillee, who gave him back the confidence. He has just blown England into pieces and in South Africa he has blown us in two Tests. Steyn, on the other hand, too had a good year, and he had many good years in fact. He has 360-370 wickets now in 60-odd Tests, which is unbelievable. But the most important part now is not to just enjoy the sight two fine fast bowlers, but to think how to preserve them. Johnson is past 30, and Steyn has just turned 30, and he is not invincible anymore. We never thought he will breakdown but he started the 30s with hamstring and shoulder problems. It is for us to look after the main guns and help to stay around longer. 

Have your ever tried those intimidation tactics? 

In 1998 at Trent Bridge...it probably was the best one hour I had on a cricket field as a fast bowler with one person, and Mike Atherton was at the other end. I think I kept my composure when I was angry. The umpire had given a poor decision, and the next thing I wanted to do was to kill the block. But I had to kick on. It was a fierce duel between two guys who didn’t took a backward step. I think that Test has now been played a million times over in You Tube, and that spell is shown in many academies as part of fast bowling coaching. 

You seemed to have an extra gear against Atherton and Steve Waugh...Lara, Waugh, Tendulkar...you value their wickets so much because they will lift their game against you. Lara was attacking and could hit very good balls for fours and with him you had to fight fire with fire. Waugh and Athers were more resilient. They were not pretty to watch but they put a big prize on their wicket and got the job done. Tendulkar was, perhaps, the finest of them all because he was technically very sound. He could attack when he wanted to, he could defend when he wanted to, and I have not seen a better organised batsman in the crease -- mentally and tactically. 

You had a very rhythmic run-up. How important it is for a fast bowler to have that rhythm? 

I did some work over my rhythm with a guy Bob Woolmer introduced to me in Birmingham in 1993. He was the sprinting coach of Linford Christie. He taught me what rhythm was. It was the first time I heard about bio-mechanics and realised how sprinters plan meticulously for a run that lasts no longer than 10 seconds. They call it bounce. You will never see a sprinter running flat-footed, they always look like running on the tips of their toes. I did hundreds of this rhythm rolls on synthetic tracks and simulated that in my run-up and I soon got a very smooth and economical run-up. I know I had to gather a lot of strength because I had a very big leap and that gather of energy was important for me. If you are too quick then you are going to buzz through the crease and fight it always against the inconsistencies of your line and length, and if you’re are too slow you will feel that you will never get there. I am impressed with the rhythm of Starc -- very easy and deliberate. He never changes the running speed, and his feet lands almost at the same spot every time he lands at the bowling crease, giving him a good control over the delivery. In short, rhythm is absolutely everything in the outcome of the actual delivery. 

Your connection with India started way back in 1992 when you made your debut, your memories...

Eden Gardens was intimidating. The local officials told us that there was going to be 100,000 people around in the stadium. We were a bit anxious because we never had seen that kind of crowd for a cricket match in South Africa or anywhere else. The crowd erupted when Ravi Shastri got the first runs for India through the covers. I never heard anything like that in my life, the sheer mass of sound a crowd of that size can make. Many times when I sit in Chinnaswamy stadium and hear the overpowering chants of crowd, my mind goes back to that day in Eden Gardens. The day I realised what international cricket could be, and from that moment I wanted to be a part of it as long as I can. 

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