When Tim Southee left the beautiful Basin Reserve ground on April 6, 2009, he seemed like a man whose career was at crossroads. On that day, the gifted swing bowler cut a forlorn figure, as the Indian batsmen smashed his bowling to smithereens.
Rewind a bit further back to March 22, 2008. Southee had just bullied the batsmen into submission in the Under-19 World Cup. He even carried that form into his debut Test against England. On a seaming deck, Southee just scythed through England’s top-order and took a five-for. Later on in that game, he showed he can wield a bat like an axe by smashing 77 of just 40 balls.
As a microcosm of life, a top sportsman’s career will have days when nothing seems to go right. A few will just drown in depression. But the best in the business will be able to overcome it, through guts and gumption.
At the 2007 Wimbledon, Rafael Nadal looked well set to defeat his arch-rival Roger Federer. Unfortunately, Nadal lost his way and Federer emerge supreme. Nadal said later that he cried for a long time in the players locker room. Nadal took that defeat on his chin and outlasted Federer in a marathon five-setter the very next year at the very hallowed turf of Wimbledon.
Last year, Southee too showed his mettle after years of under-performance. From a bowler, who averaged 38.93 and 42.36 in 2010 and 2011 respectively, he became a thorn in the flesh of the batsmen by taking 25 wickets at just 22.64 in 2012. Watching him blow away India and Sri Lanka in their own backyard made one wondered if he is was Southee’s twin brother masquerading as Tim Southee!
The seven for 64, Southee took against the formidable Indian batting line-up at Bangalore has to be one of the best spells of 2012. Under slightly overcast conditions, he seemingly had the ball on a string and did whatever he wished to that day. The Bangalore track was by no means a swing bowler’s paradise yet, he made the ball talk by consistently swinging it late at a good pace. He even used the surprise bouncer and the change-up scrambled seam delivery to great effect. He peppered bouncers at Cheteshwar Pujara, who loves to play the hook, and finally nailed him with a well-directed bouncer that is etched in memory.
Sachin Tendulkar wasn’t spared either. After bowling a few good length deliveries, Southee surprised Tendulkar with a change-up scrambled seam delivery to uproot his stumps. Tendulkar is coming to the fag end of his illustrious career, yet every bowler dreams of taking his wicket. The icing on the cake was he set up Tendulkar before delivering the coup de grace.
Southee did something similar in the beautiful Emerald Isles. Sri Lanka’s opening bat, Tillakaratne Dlishan was wafting and swishing at almost every delivery outside the off-stump without getting an edge. Southee didn’t lose his nerve while bowling to him. He cramped Dilshan for room and put finishing touches to the bowling master class by finding a gap between the batsman’s bat and pad and sending his stumps for a walk. Even their premier batsman, Kumar Sangakkara was a victim of some careful planning and brilliant execution by Southee. A good length delivery outside the off-stump, followed by a quick, short delivery that forced Sangakkara to play. The ball was too good for Sangakkara. In India and Sri Lanka, Southee was like a predator preying stealthily on the batsmen.
New Zealand went onto win that Test at PSS Colombo and drew the series 1-1. The five-wicket haul that Southee took at PSS Colombo would have made him a happy man, as New Zealand won the Test. It is sad but true that Southee was ruled out of the tour to South Africa, due to a thumb injury. On those seaming decks, Southee could have been a handful.
Swing bowling is a very difficult art to master. To swing the ball either way with a cocked wrist or with the seam perfectly upright isn’t a difficult art with very little margin for error.
Southee is not yet a great manipulator of the ball. He isn’t a Dale Steyn or Jimmy Anderson yet to explore every nook and cranny in the defence of a batsman. Southee’s Test bowling average of 35.04 doesn’t make for great reading either. But only a brave man will be willing to bet against South Africa’s great fast bowler, Allan Donald’s prophecy that one-day Southee is going to be the best swing bowler going around.
From New Zealand’s perspective, a fit and firing Southee is a must, when they take on the men from Old Blighty in the Test series. Southee and his partner-in-crime, Trent Boult can make Englishmen dance to their swinging tunes; with their craft called swing bowling. Interesting times ahead.
(Bharath Ramaraj, an MBA in marketing, eats, drinks and sleeps cricket. He has played at school and college-level, and now channelises his passion for the game by writing about it)