Perhaps it is nothing more than a cliche trotted out by commentators searching for something meaningful to say. In recent years there has been possibly an overuse of the phrases ‘bowling as a unit, hunting as a pack.’ Chrisps from The Declaration Game believes that the phrase is essentially meaningless, that bowling as a unit is indistinguishable from each bowler individually bowling well. And I have a lot of sympathy for writers who point out meaningless cliches in cricket commentators, so here is my attempt to not succumb to the same temptation.
Here’s the rather lengthy and potentially bollocks-filled setup to my argument. I propose that we look at it slightly differently. Arguments about bowlers bowling well individually in a vacuum miss the point of what bowling is, in that it is one half of the yin and yang of cricket. Without bowling, batting doesn’t exist, and vice versa. And as much as cricketers talk about focusing on each individual ball as it happens, it is impossible to separate the individual events in cricket games from the context in which they occur.
As well as this, I think the role that teamwork plays in cricket can often be underestimated. Partnerships, both bowling and batting, are crucial to the success of any team, far more so than any one individual performance can be. And I think fielding is often underrated, as a mechanism for setting the tone of the innings. Measuring the impact in terms of runs is tricky, as part of the effect is to prevent runs from being considered. And here we get to the fundamental equation at the heart of batting.
Risk vs Reward. As the party that is attempting to make something of every delivery, every action by a batsman is an unconscious or conscious calculation of what they can afford to put on the line in order to get runs. Sometimes batting seems all too easy. Trott in his pomp can risk nothing and score a single off every ball. Gayle can pick which IPL trundlers he can take to the cleaners, and elect not to risk his wicket against the genuine bowlers.
So to get back to the original premise of the argument, how does bowling as a unit differ from every bowler individually bowling well? They are very closely related, certainly. For my money though bowling as a unit is about a team collectively using their advantage of numbers in the field to create a siege mindset in the batting team. It isn’t so much that each bowler is performing their role, it is that as a collective unit the fielding side forces the batsmen to adjust their internal calculations so that every run seems overwhelmingly risky, and that things aren’t going to be any easier at the other end. ‘Bowling as a unit’ can therefore only be recognised as a concept when it affects how that batting team operates.
A great example of this in practice would be New Zealand’s triumph over South Africa in the 2011 World Cup quarter finals. The Black Caps had an incredibly mediocre bowling attack going into this match, Oram, Southee, Vettori, Nathan McCullum and Woodcock. (who? exactly.) Clearly the bowlers alone weren’t going to trouble a South African batting lineup that included some of the best players in the world, especially chasing a low target of 222.
But then, all of a sudden, New Zealand started bowling and fielding as a unit. In an incredibly disciplined team performance, they created the sense of doubt in the minds of the South African batsmen. Unprecedented aggression from the New Zealanders actually required the umpires to step in a break up verbal fights. Catches were held, tight singles were cut off, bowlers managed to get dot balls following dot balls, and the South Africans imploded. As Aakash Chopra put it, they panicked and lost all ability to rationally assess their situation. The balance between risk and reward now appeared to the batsmen to be completely out of kilter, and as a result they began to attempt suicidally stupid things.
The feeling of being isolated among a sea of hostile fielders can be overwhelming. Chrisps used a personal anecdote to begin his piece, so I will use one in mine also. I used to open the batting for my high school team, not particularly proficiently, though I would often find myself still batting after 3-4 wickets had gone down early. It is incredible the psychological effect of being surrounded and strangled can have on a batsman. Suddenly the gaps are non-existent, every ball spits off the pitch, the fielders taunts, normally so childish and petty, cut to the bone. And you are alone, painfully alone when on strike, a witness to your partner being similarly dismantled when you aren’t.
This to me is the difference between bowling as a unit and each bowler individually bowling well. The difference is subtle and slight, and to be honest Chrisps is probably right to point out the absurdity and management-speak nature of it as a concept. But I think there is still a difference. No doubt we will still hear it, and other cliches trotted out at press conferences ad nauseum. But I think this is one cliche that does still have a meaning under specific conditions. Bowling as a unit exists as a concept when it is experienced and affects the batting team.