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Tim Southee and the intriguing art of setting up batsmen in whites

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Southee took a five-fer at Lord's


Tim Southee and the intriguing art of setting up batsmen in whites

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Harshit Anand


There are some sights that you just want to behold for a long time and can never get tired of watching even if for a hundred times. Today, it was ‘Tim Southee’, at the home of cricket - Lord's - putting up a masterclass, unveiling his artistry and bowling like a sheer dream.

“The comfort zone is a psychological state in which one feels familiar, safe, at ease, and secure. If you always do what is easy and choose the path of least resistance, you never step outside your comfort zone. Great things don’t come from comfort zones.” - Roy T. Bennett.

Now, three cheers for Mr Roy T. Bennett for giving out this killer quote as it's an amazing principle to live by. When it comes to cricket, it's as much psychological warfare going in the middle as it is a contest between the bat and the ball. It's a team sport but as individualistic as a sport gets. It's effectively a battle between two players at any given time with different rounds of punches and counter-punches shared between a batter and a bowler.

And that's where the art of setting up your opponent comes into the picture, especially by the bowlers. Though this art has been practised in all sorts of wars, across the globe, for centuries.

In an uncomfortable, brutal and challenging thing like professional cricket, the moment a batsman gets into his comfort zone, the feeling of familiarity, safety and easiness - all hell breaks loose for him. It leads to his downfall. Now, that's bad news for a batsman but exactly what a bowler craves for. To bait the batsman, lead him to create blinkers to himself, and then land the knockout punch when he's least expecting it. That's the peculiar, masterful art of setting up a batsman. 

Of many things that Tim Southee doesn't possess - as much appreciation as a certain Trent Boult, as much Asian wickets as a certain Pat Cummins, as much excitement among people as a certain Kyle Jamieson, as much speed as some of his contemporaries - he's surely a master at setting-up the batters. But, it’s easier said than done. All it requires is one slip-up for the batter to figure out the plan of the bowler or duck the sucker-punch if he errs even marginally. But, that's generally not Southee - with a wealth of experience, the calmness of a monk, the instinct of a hunter, and the precision of a surgeon. 

Virat Kohli experienced the wits of the veteran Kiwi pacer last year. And in the first innings, England learned it the hard way at the Lord's. But, more than anything, for an onlooker, it was a delight to witness an exhibition of top-notch skills from Southee and how he has mastered the art of perfect set-ups that adds a compelling layer to the theatre of the game. 

Unlike Rory Burns, Ollie Pope, in some helpful conditions for the bowlers, was ready to take on the bowlers on day four. He's a naturally attacking player and was trying to cash in on his red-hot county-run. And his five glorious boundaries on a sunny day did send warning signals for New Zealand. The technical change that came earlier in the season for him, of batting across his stumps, was coming out beautifully. At least, that's what he must have thought. 

Meanwhile, Southee was relentlessly bowling in the channel to him. But wait, was the supposedly biggest danger (LBW) even going to arrive for Pope? Forget it. At least, inexperienced Jamieson could do nothing about it. When he tried, he erred. On the other hand, all that Southee did to Pope was to draw him across, by bowling outside off. No whispers of the in-swinger yet. But it was the silence before the storm. Just like a reptile sets up its prey by leaving him into a bubble of his own, where the prey is relaxing, largely unaware of the threat. And BOOM, there comes the wicket-taking delivery. Angled towards his stumps, it swings more than any other delivery in the over - 1.27 degrees, and Pope is trapped plumb in front of the wicket. The Honeymoon is over, after all.

On day two, Southee had done something similar to Zak Crawley. He had set him up in an impeccable manner. It ended with the youngster walking into the bait, and getting out, playing a loose drive. But, he had remarkably lined him up with the in-swingers first and then dangled the carrot, very well knowing, to strike precisely while the iron was hot. But his memorable five-fer wasn’t just about the set-ups but some supreme skills, which often get overshadowed by the brilliance of Trent Boult, or at times because the limelight is not meant to be centred around the Kiwi players. 

Southee pitch-map in first session of day four © Twitter

But, his morning spell on day four, where he took three prized scalps, cracked open the game. He effectively changed the narrative from when will Trent Boult return and how good he will be in the WTC finale to how good a bowler Tim Southee is. He stepped up alright. And he has been stepping up for a while now, sans much recognition.

Pat Cummins is the reigning No.1 bowler in the ICC Test rankings. He's an absolute champion, the go-to-man for his side, has the pace, gets the big wickets, is the DUDE among the fast bowlers. But what if I tell you that Tim Southee is catching up with Cummins quickly. At least, the numbers suggest so. Since the start of 2018, Cummins has 128 wickets in 25 Tests at 20 while he strikes every 44.5 deliveries. In comparison, the Kiwi pacer has scalped 99 wickets in 20 games, and has an average of 21.91, while he strikes every 47.3 deliveries. Not a whole lot of difference? That's the thing. 

Despite being among the best in the world, the perception is such that you wouldn't even know that he exists in such an elite list, forget closing in on some wizardly bowler like Cummins. Now, before everyone starts ripping me off, let’s address the elephant in the room. Southee is generally considered a lion at home and a lamb abroad, but in the aforementioned period, the Kiwi quick has averaged 20.64 away, which isn't too far from Cummins' 20.41. Also, his away average is better than premier bowlers like Bumrah, Shami, Anderson, Hazlewood, Broad, Rabada, Starc and Boult. Certainly, not a bad feat. 

And the good thing is, at 32, Southee, with the attitude of a keen learner, will only get better with every passing game. That's the thing that has made him such a phenomenal performer over the years. He never shies away from stepping out of his comfort zone, facing his fears, addressing his vulnerabilities, as he prides himself in learning new tricks and trades of the art so as to compete with the best. He never buckles down and instead uses it as an opportunity to grow and evolve.

As much as he wishes to ‘blast out the batsmen with 150 kph pace,’ as mentioned in one of his recent interviews, he accepts what he has and is open to adding up new skill-sets. For instance, working on his in-swinger, that did him the world of good today in dismissing Ollie Pope. As per CricViz, the right-armer was able to swing the ball both ways despite the out-swinger being his stock delivery.

The use of the crease and its various angles, playing around with the seam position, the scrambled seamers, and being able to do all of that with accuracy without erring, is what makes him a truly remarkable bowler and a gentle giant of the game. And these changes are not limited to his words, but they reflect in each of his dismissals, as he keeps on adding the little margins that prove to be the game-changer. For a clever fox like him, it's all in the mind as cricket is nothing but psychological warfare, and he sees it as a Chess master. To sum it up, underestimate this master of the game, at your own peril.

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