Among the first players to turn to T20 full time, Dwayne Bravo has carved himself a special niche as the man captains turn to at the pointy end
"When I started playing there was no T20."
Dwayne Bravo has not had the career he envisaged growing up in Santa Cruz, a town in the northern tip of Trinidad and Tobago. Nor the career he seemed marked out for during an effervescent debut Test series as a 20-year-old in England in 2004.
A great Caribbean allrounder Bravo indeed became - just not the one expected. There were 164 one-day internationals, and 40 Test matches too. Yet all of these games have long seemed peripheral to the real core of Bravo's career: winning two World T20 titles, the crowning glories of a storied T20 record built up while being one of the very first cricketers to specialise in the format in their prime. At the end of last year, he became the first man to ever take 400 T20 wickets.
Yet Bravo's career owes far more to happenstance than planning; he did not choose his path so much as stumble upon it. It was partly to do with new playing opportunities opening up on the domestic T20 circuit, but it owed at least as much to the poisonous relationship between the West Indies players and board, which reached a nadir when Bravo, as ODI captain, led the walkout of the India tour in October 2014. For all the allure of a life gallivanting between five-star hotels for different teams on different continents, Bravo admits to a sadness too; a lingering regret that he played his final Test aged 27, and final ODI a few days after turning 31.
"I had six years of Test experience, and I believe I was only getting better with age and experience. Unfortunately it was stopped short by the selectors.
"A couple of years ago I still felt that I had a lot to offer in the longer formats, but now times have changed… I don't even reflect on that anymore. I'm in a very good place in my life now. I'm still able to play cricket. What the West Indies Cricket Board do - that's solely up to them. That's their business. I focus on my life, I don't worry about anything else."
"You watch them all the way to the end." Bravo is explaining his strategy for bowling in T20, where his prowess in the helter-skelter of the death overs has made him one of the most coveted cricketers. Like a savvy entrepreneur, Bravo was able to find and exploit a gap in the market. His death bowling became so effective that his batting - which earned three Test centuries, including two in Australia - became an adjunct to his more essential discipline. "I developed a skill in a game that is more batsman-friendly, that I'm able to more often than not come out on top."
Dance like it's 2016: though he might now be synonymous with club cricket worldwide, it is the World T20 titles with West Indies that Bravo particularly cherishes
© Getty Images
Dance like it's 2016: though he might now be synonymous with club cricket worldwide, it is the World T20 titles with West Indies that Bravo particularly cherishes © Getty Images
Almost half Bravo's T20 wickets - 203 out of 413 - have come during the last four overs of an innings, comfortably a record. "Wow," he laughs. "I never know that. Thank you very much for telling me.
"It's the most crucial time of any part of the innings, the death overs. That basically sets the game up or wins it for you." Although statistically wickets at the death are worth less and less the closer to the 20th over you go, given how many T20 matches are tight - the format, after all, was explicitly set up to produce excruciating finishes, and over a quarter of all matches won by the team batting first are won by ten runs or fewer - Bravo identified a skill in demand for the new age.
In many ways Bravo is a new kind of death bowler. He does not have top pace but makes up with chicanery instead. To see a Bravo over is to see an array of slower balls, delivered from different points on the crease, interspersed with yorkers and bouncers. The contours of his method were developed in 50-over cricket, well before he became a T20 nomad.
"At a very early age Brian Lara used to always give me the ball in those death situations. I enjoy it and since then I keep doing it," he recalls. "Go back into my early days playing one-day internationals, that was my strength - my slower ball." In 2006, Bravo unfurled a dipping slow yorker to Yuvraj Singh, who was on 93 and had crunched his last two balls for boundaries. Yuvraj was flummoxed and clean bowled. West Indies sealed a famous one-run ODI victory, which Bravo identifies as the turning point of his entire career. He now had a template to succeed in T20.
"The back end of ODIs are very similar to T20. I stick to the basics. When it comes to the death overs of any cricket game, your yorker and slower ball are two very important balls. If you can master these two balls, more often than not, you will be successful. As long as you can bowl a yorker, half the pressure is off.
© ESPNcricinfo Ltd
© ESPNcricinfo Ltd
"To survive in T20 you have to develop your skills. While I used to play ODI cricket, I was always one of the bowlers that had a very good slower ball, and I just transferred it into T20. I realised variations are the key in T20 cricket. I bowl in a time where batsmen really come after you, so you really have to develop and be brave enough to bowl in those situations."
Bravo uses four variations: the yorker, the bouncer - a rarer sight as he has aged and his pace has dwindled - and his two slower balls: one bowled into the wicket and one that dips, like that delivery to Yuvraj. There is even sometimes a fifth delivery, which can seem almost anachronistic: a good-length ball at normal pace.
Precisely because bowling at the death involves embracing such high-octane situations, Bravo leans on routines. Even when bowling in the first innings he has targets for how many runs he can concede per over. "I always try to give myself a small challenge - whether it's six balls for ten runs. The situation of the game will dictate how I bowl, but basically in death stages you try to nail your yorkers, execute well, and always put the team first - that's the most important thing."
With ball in hand Bravo is like a goalkeeper in a penalty shootout: always watching his opponent to see what they do first, and deciding on his course as late as possible. "If you see a batsman try to go down onto his knees to try to lap you, you might have [had] intentions to bowl a yorker or faster ball, but because he moved earlier, you then can change your delivery - bowl a slower ball or vice versa. So you try to watch a batsman as long as possible. Sometimes you bowl to players that you're sure will not lap-sweep - then definitely you stick to your previous plan. But it's always good to watch a batsman and try to always be ahead."
Have rollaboard, will travel the world to play T20
Ishara Kodikara / © AFP/Getty Images
Have rollaboard, will travel the world to play T20 Ishara Kodikara / © AFP/Getty Images
Perhaps most important to bowl at the death is a strategy to deal with failure. Even a bowler as adroit as Bravo concedes a boundary every 5.36 balls in this phase. "My slower ball is my safest ball. It's my most defensive ball and also my wicket-taking ball. That's the ball I really go to.
"Depending on the surface, you have to know what type of slower ball to bowl, and when to bowl it, how to execute it. It all boils down to awareness and analysing conditions."
Yet planning only helps up to a point. "I don't go into a game saying, 'Okay, I'll bowl three slower balls at the death or four slower balls.' It depends on the day, on who's batting, on the size of the ground - all these factors. I will know there and then what is the best delivery to bowl. Only at the time will I know."
As a T20 pioneer Bravo had no template to mimic; he effectively had to invent his own strategy. "When T20 came about, the bowlers who I'd looked up to in the past - the likes of Ian Bishop, Allan Donald, Waqar Younis - had not really played T20. So it's just a matter of learning my craft on my own and developing it and realising the importance of variations.
"All bowlers have their own skills. You watch different bowlers, you watch how they bowl and how they execute." Bravo particularly admires Lasith Malinga. "He's one of the best in the world; he's also very simple - yorkers, slower balls."
Same opponent, different day: the likes of Bravo and Brendon McCullum run into each other fairly frequently on the T20 circuit
© Getty Images
Same opponent, different day: the likes of Bravo and Brendon McCullum run into each other fairly frequently on the T20 circuit © Getty Images
Simon Katich, head coach at Tribago Knight Riders, where Bravo is captain, observes: "He has played so much cricket - all the information is stored in his memory bank. Dwayne is a very clever bowler, he sets his fields and bowls to them very well. He can change from wider yorkers to around-the-wicket leg-stump yorkers to keep the batsman guessing what line he is trying to achieve."
It is a method that travels easily. "My mindset is the same, my approach is the same," Bravo says. "Obviously execution will be a little different depending on where you're playing, but everything else remains the same."
Often, so do his opponents: one oddity of the travelling T20 circuit is that Bravo can face the same batsmen in five different tournaments throughout the year. "The more I play the more I learn," he says. "Personally, I don't look at footage. The [batsmen] that I don't know, basically I always believe in my strength and my ability, and allow them to maybe beat me off of my strength, but I keep it very simple."
Bravo has been a trail-blazer in other ways too. He has been a trend-setter: not just for future Caribbean players, but as the recent examples of Chris Lynn, Adil Rashid, Alex Hales and Colin Munro attest, those from all around the world. He believes that, even if it was not of his own design, specialising made him a better T20 player.
"I would not have the experience that I have now, so it would have been very difficult to achieve the things I have achieved if I had continued to play Test cricket. It's two big, different formats. The more games I played, the more tournaments I played, the more experience I got, the more comfortable I got with my craft."
You've heard of pink balls. Now, we bring you pink shoes
© Hindustan Times/Getty Images
You've heard of pink balls. Now, we bring you pink shoes © Hindustan Times/Getty Images
And so, for all the focus on the riches of the T20 life, Bravo's career invites the question of whether, for all but a tiny elite of super-cricketers, the chasm between the skills needed to thrive in T20 and Tests is simply so great that it will become impossible to be excellent at both formats. Effectively, he chose being a tier one player in T20 over being a tier two player in all three formats.
As one of the first T20 freelancers, Bravo provides a template for how cricketers can become self-managing athletes - taking control of their games, and physiques, in a way akin to tennis players.
"The only difference is, tennis players are allowed to travel with their own staff - I am not," he explains. "I am an individual who plays a team sport, that travels and play with teams around the world.
"The good thing about franchise cricket is, you get the opportunity to be yourself. Training is based on what you want to do and what you want to get out of it as an individual, and there's not much stress - on you, on your body - or anyone looking over your shoulder or anything like that. So I really enjoy franchise cricket. I'm allowed to be myself and do what I want to do."
For the last six years Bravo has enlisted as his personal trainer Zephrynus Nicholas, a strength and conditioning coach who is a freelancer in much the same way as Bravo. Nicholas' time is paid for by Bravo out of his own salary. As Trinbago Knight Riders captain, Bravo insisted that Nicholas join the coaching staff during the tournament. Nicholas sometimes travels to other competitions too, and will spend the first week of this year's IPL with Bravo, setting out his personal programme for the tournament. "I can't fly with him everywhere I go," Bravo explains. "But when I'm home and off season, I have my personal team that I work with."
Simon Katich on Bravo: "He can change from wider yorkers to around-the-wicket leg-stump yorkers to keep the batsman guessing what line he is trying to achieve"
Ashley Allen / © CPL T20/Getty Images
Simon Katich on Bravo: "He can change from wider yorkers to around-the-wicket leg-stump yorkers to keep the batsman guessing what line he is trying to achieve" Ashley Allen / © CPL T20/Getty Images
Whenever Bravo is back from a competition, he returns to Nicholas' private clinic, where his physical condition is evaluated by Nicholas, who then puts in place a new gym-workout programme designed both to help him recover from his last tournament and prepare for the next one.
"It's all based on what he needs at that moment. Sometimes it's strictly rehab," Nicholas explains. "If he has any injury, he will do therapy, then we will do some work on the other part of the body not injured. We have a template we work from. Because of his training age, he is aware of his body." This, perhaps, is one of the logical byproducts of the age of franchise cricket: players getting their own private support teams, who will know them far better than the coaching staff at a six-week tournament ever can.
"I try to follow it as much as possible," Bravo says of his personal programme. "The more you're playing in games, the fitter you will get. Also, sometimes your body tends to get tired despite how much fitness work you put in. When you play and travel, play and travel, your body at some point tends to wear and tear. So there's a matter of balance in it, and managing your time."
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© ESPNcricinfo Ltd
If Bravo is emblematic of the transient cricketer's life - he has played for 18 different T20 sides - the paradox is that he particularly savours titles won with his national team: the twin World T20 titles, in 2012 and 2016, which were secured against the backdrop of the team's deleterious relationship with the West Indies board. "No one gave us a chance. They had four or five teams to win the tournament and no one mentioned West Indies. To win two World Cups is a special achievement." Even new-age cricketers cherish the old currency of international titles.
For all the cachet of these triumphs, Bravo's career embodies the ascent of club cricket at the expense of the international game - and a new age in which appeals to a cricketer's patriotism no longer suffice. "I think the time has gone where you represent the country for 15 years, and then when you look back, you're not sure where to turn next. With T20 it gives you a new opportunity to invest properly and have a better living for you and the entire family. And I think that is a blessing for all cricketers, that these leagues actually do pay well.
"How I look at life is: everything happens for a reason. I have no regrets. The 40 Test matches I played for West Indies I enjoy every moment of. I move on with my life - it's not like my life was at a standstill and my career just ended and that was it for me; I still was able to play cricket. My brand was still able to maintain. So I have no regrets and I'm thankful. If I had to do it all over again I would still choose what I'm doing now - playing T20 cricket."
Such a view once led Bravo to be vilified. But as prioritising T20 becomes ever-more mainstream, it is possible to glimpse his final triumph: the embrace of the pariah as pioneer.
Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts
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