Harshal Patel stretches a hand out to catch a ball
Deepak Malik / © BCCI

Talking Cricket

Harshal Patel: 'There's nothing wrong in bowling 24 slower balls in a T20 spell'

The India and Royal Challengers Bangalore player talks about the craft of one of the most formidable weapons in the fast bowler's arsenal

Interview by Nagraj Gollapudi  |  

A slower ball, in theory, might sound like it ought not to be very difficult to bowl. But any fast bowler will tell you a good slower ball has several components other than its lack of pace - which alone calls for the execution of a number of manoeuvres in its production. Add to that, the bowler needs to maintain their regular load-up and normal arm speed. They also need to create the right trajectory and dip for maximum effectiveness, use angles cannily, factor boundary dimensions into their planning, and have a good grasp of the batter's strengths and weaknesses.

India fast bowler Harshal Patel is recognised by batters as one of the best exponents of the slower ball at work currently, producing wicked floating dippers that leave batters befuddled. In this interview with Patel in September, before India's T20 World Cup squad was announced, he talked about the art and mechanics of the delivery, which other bowlers do it best, and why it is one of the best weapons in a bowler's armoury.

What are the basics of a good slower ball?
For me, the deception starts in the air. Obviously there's the wicket as well. Sometimes a wicket will stop a bit and there's a bit of variable bounce, and sometimes the wicket is absolutely flat, so you don't really rely too much on support from the wicket and you make sure that you deceive the batter in the air.

And to be able to do that, the two most important things that I keep in mind is arm speed, first of all. Even though it's counterintuitive, my slower balls are actually faster [in terms of arm speed] than my quick deliveries. So I have to put more on to the ball when I bowl my slower balls. It's not just running in and rolling your arm over, you have to actually put in a lot of work on the ball for it to be effective and for it to have that deception.

Let's unpack that. Firstly, how do you cut down on pace?
There are multiple ways. Dilhara Fernando was the one who was bowling split-fingers way back when I was pretty young. Knuckleball is another, your regular offcutters and legcutters [are other ways].

What you are trying to do is roll your arm at exactly the same speed, but the ball comes out of your hand slower. So if you hold it like this (demonstrates normal grip, with fingers straddling seam), it's going to come out at a natural pace. If you hold it like this (knuckles folded and ball gripped by tips of fingers) though you are you are generating a lot of energy through your arm speed, it's not getting transferred onto the ball. That's how you sort of slow down the pace without reducing your arm speed.

Play 02:46

'If you want to create dip you have to risk bowling a full toss'

I usually try and tell myself that I want to hold the ball as loose as I can and roll my arm over as quickly as I can. And that's what creates the revolutions on the ball. Usually when people pull off cutters, they go this way (indicates sidespin). For me, there's a there's a lot of topspin involved. I am not rolling my fingers over on the side of the ball, I'm rolling them over the ball, so the ball comes out of the front of my hand. And because I have a loading, which is here (cocks arm in bowling position with elbow away from torso and hand just behind head), it allows me to give it that whip, so when the ball comes out of my hand, it comes out like this [with topspin and a scrambled seam, out of the front of the hand]. That's probably one of the reasons why I can bowl the slower ball as well as I can. If my loading was in front of me, I would probably not be able to bowl as effectively as I bowl holding it right now.

And how do you keep your arm speed normal?
Like I said, I try and hold the ball as loosely as I can - almost in my palm, even though I have my fingers over it. If you try to snatch it out of my hand, you'll be able to do it without any effort at all. And you make sure that you bowl it as quickly as you can, and in that process, whatever energy you are putting onto the ball, rather than the backspin [which is involved in regular-speed deliveries] it goes this way (indicates forward-spin, with scrambled seam). And when it goes this way, because the seam is rolling over, it creates that little bit of dip.

The trajectory is critical. Because if you want to create that dip, you risk bowling a low full toss or a high full toss. If you bowl it at a flatter trajectory it is never going to dip. Just like a spinner: if you don't flight the ball, it's not going dip on the batter

Sometimes we hear bowlers grunt when bowling the slower ball. Is it an effort ball?
Actually, for some people it is part of the deception. For me it is a genuine grunt, because it is an effort ball. So if I'm bowling six yorkers and I'm bowling six slower balls, I'm expending more energy on the six slower balls, so that's how much it takes out of my body. When you have a very high arm speed, your finish and your follow-through is also going to be quicker because all that energy has to go somewhere, right? It has to break somewhere.

If you slow down my videos of bowling a slower ball and a normal delivery, you will actually see the difference - my finish will be much more energetic with the slower ball.

Giantkiller: in the 2021 IPL, Harshal foxed Kieron Pollard with a slower one that cut away to hit leg stump, the ball after he got rid of Hardik Pandya with a slower one

Giantkiller: in the 2021 IPL, Harshal foxed Kieron Pollard with a slower one that cut away to hit leg stump, the ball after he got rid of Hardik Pandya with a slower one © BCCI

How many types of slower balls do you have?
I just have two. Both are offcutters. The difference is whether I want to use the pitch, whether the pitch allows me natural variation, or not. If I don't want to use the pitch, then I try and bowl it from the front of the hand because it allows me that topspin. So it works on better pitches with better bounce, where even if you fail to deceive the batter in the air, sometimes what happens is, it sort of just kicks enough on you [as a batter] and that doesn't allow you to get timing and trajectory in the shot - it goes higher rather than flatter.

The other thing is, when I'm bowling on pitches like Dubai or Chennai, where there's enough in the wicket, then it is just bowling it into the pitch as hard as I can and trying to roll the fingers down the side, so that if the wicket has a little bit of softness or sometimes there's a bit of dampness or the wicket is breaking, I can make use of that and actually turn the ball into the right-hander or away from the left-hander.

What happens when there is dew and the ball is wet?
When there's a lot of dew, I usually don't try and bowl the fuller slow ball because I have zero control over that. When you hold the ball loose and the ball is wet, especially the seam part, it's a coin toss whether you land it straight into the keeper's hand or it goes at the batsman's head or at his boot. You don't know where it is going. But when the ball is wet you can actually go a little shorter and bang it into the pitch, which can give you a little bit of deception, but it is not as great as on a drier pitch with a drier ball.

Even when the ball is wet, if you have put enough work in, you can get the batsman to break their momentum just a little bit and that is more than enough to get them out. Also, when there's dew, the wicket is a little flatter and the ball skids on nicely, so there are other ways to deceive the batter when the conditions are not suited for bowling the slower ball.

Can you talk about what you have learned from two players who have been masters of the slower ball, Dwayne Bravo and Bhuvneshwar Kumar?
Bhuvi's slower balls are very subtle. He not only deceives the batter with pace but every time you see him bowl a slower ball it is either wide of the line, or when the ball is swinging, like yesterday [in the Asia Cup], he got a couple of Afghani batters out with knuckleballs which swung in…

"I think a good slower ball can work on any pitch. [To say it won't] is like saying that a spinner can't bowl on a flat pitch" © Getty Images

For lack of a better word [Bhuvneshwar's slower ball] is not as flamboyant as mine or Bravo's, or even Jasprit's [Bumrah]. Because he [Bhuvi] does it subtly, he has to keep the element of line and length in play as well. You will rarely see me bowl wide slower balls to right-handers. I want to keep the stumps in play. He does it a little differently, bowls it wide of the [off-stump] line and expects the batters to try to drag it through the leg side.

From Bhuvi I learned sequencing [of slower balls in an over]. His slower balls are sequenced in a way which makes it even more dangerous. He will bowl a couple of brilliant yorkers at the feet and when the batter is trying to sort of move away and dig that yorker down the ground, he will bowl the slower ball wide outside off stump. And he knows exactly when the batsman is going to do that. So his sequencing is brilliant.

Bravo is someone who will always keep the stumps in play. And that's what I have learned from him: his slower ball and mine are pretty much the same. But I would say that his is better than mine because he can actually get his slower ball to almost 100 kilometres an hour without changing his arm speed at all, which is an incredible thing. I can't imagine doing that. Last IPL I tried doing it and the slowest I could go was 110kph. My normal slower ball would be around, say 115-117kph. And the slowest I could go without compromising on my arm speed is about 107-108kph.

And how much does that difference in speed help?
That's the whole purpose of the slower ball - that you don't want to give batters any energy to work with. They have to generate all the energy. So the slower you can go without the batsman seeing it out of your hand, the better. When I saw [Bravo] do that, it occurred to me that maybe I can try and go a little slower. Again, we were playing in Mumbai and most of these pitches, at CCI or Wankhede or DY [Patil], they were all flat, good bounce, high-quality batting pitches. So I had to make that adjustment very early in the tournament.

What would you say you have learned from Bumrah
Jassi doesn't use it as often as I do or Bhuvi does, but his slower ball is also incredible. Because of his action and the whip he gets in the wrists, and also, he bowls at 145. So when you come from 145 to, say, 120 without any difference in your arm speed, it can be very difficult for the batter.

The slower delivery has begun to make its presence felt in every part of the T20 innings. The likes of Lungi Ngidi use it as a powerplay tool

The slower delivery has begun to make its presence felt in every part of the T20 innings. The likes of Lungi Ngidi use it as a powerplay tool Stu Forster / © Getty Images

Is the slower ball reactive or is it proactive?
There's a bit of both. Sometimes there are days where I feel I don't really need to go fast at all. And as a fast bowler you want to see the speed gun touching 137-138, and my quick balls can get through that ceiling. You want to do that. You want to see the ball hitting the wicketkeeper's gloves. But I'm not someone who's going to shy away from bowling 24 slower balls.

For me the objective is to get the job done. "How can I do my job most efficiently?" is the most important question. So sometimes I have to be proactive in understanding that, okay, this is a wicket where the faster I bowl, the easier it's going to get for the batter. Or there are tracks where I felt that maybe the slower ball is not going to work that well and I bowl a couple hard-length [deliveries] and the ball is not coming onto the bat as well as I thought, so that's where you have to adapt to the conditions and react to what's happening.

If you remember there were those two maiden overs that I bowled against KKR at DY Patil in the last IPL. I was bowling to [Andre] Russell and Sam Billings. I saw the wicket and thought that the binding was not as good as it was in the previous game. So I thought, "I'm going to use a lot of slower balls" and I went into the game with that mindset. When I bowled my first ball, I hit the hard length and the ball just kept climbing. And that's when I realised, okay, this is not a day to bowl slower balls and I just kept banging it in. I didn't bowl a single slower ball. [Patel got both batters out.]

Bravo said he learned to create dip by aiming at the batter's hip or thigh pads. What's your method?
You have to aim higher if you want to create dip, because I can have all the revolutions, all the work on the ball, but if I don't have that trajectory, if I don't allow the ball that trajectory to dip - the longer the ball spends in the air, the more time it has to dip. With both yorkers and with full slower balls, I always have a reference point: I aim at the hip.

It is like you are a sniper. You are setting your aim, considering all the variables - the wind etc. For me it is about how my body is feeling on that day, how hard the ground is, because that can make a massive difference in the momentum you create through your run-up. On a soft ground you need to run a little harder, on a hard ground you get more energy from the ground. All these factors, all these calculations, they happen subconsciously. I don't really have to think about it, but they do come into play.

The appeal for the Suryakumar Yadav wicket that wasn't, in the IPL this year, one of Harshal's favourites among the slower balls he has bowled

The appeal for the Suryakumar Yadav wicket that wasn't, in the IPL this year, one of Harshal's favourites among the slower balls he has bowled Pankaj Nangia / © BCCI

So I try and aim at the hip and see how the ball is coming out of my hand. If the ball is coming out really well and it's landing around the ankle of the batsman, I'm pretty happy, I don't change anything. But if I'm going shorter or fuller, I try and change that reference point and see how it works.

Also, the condition of the ball makes a huge difference as well. A newer ball travels faster through the air as opposed to the older ball. Also, when the ball is rough, if it is reversing, that's when I get drift as well. If the ball is reversing and I hold the shiny side on the inside and bowl a slower ball, it is going to drift away [from the right-hand batter]. When I'm bowling with an older ball I try and aim a little higher. When I'm bowling with a newer ball I try and aim a little lower because it's going to travel at a faster speed.

Can you talk about dismissing Hardik Pandya and Kieron Pollard off back-to-back balls in the 2021 IPL in Dubai? Were those dismissals planned?
So there's another way I like to use the slower ball, which is to get the batter off strike. Because if you bowl it right under the bat, give no pace at all, it's very hard to hit for a six. So that was my aim when I was bowling to Hardik. I just wanted to get him off strike, but the ball actually dipped more than I expected. And he tried to hit it. Also, my angle is always in to the batter, so you feel that they can hit me through long-on or midwicket, but when the ball dips and you are early through the shot, you get a top edge and you either get caught at cover or caught by the keeper.

The Hardik wicket wasn't planned, but Pollard's wicket was definitely planned. I had three out on the off side and my square leg and fine leg were up. I knew that [Pollard] was going to try and reach it. I had two options. I could have bowled a fast yorker at his heel, which he is very good at hitting, so if I had missed by even a little bit and he got bat to it, it was going to either go for four or six - knowing him, it could go for six. But I thought the slower ball, because it was coming out of my hand really well and it was dipping quite a bit, I thought, okay, I'm going bowl a full slower ball at his heel and if he tries to reach with his front foot rather than his back foot, he's going to be in trouble because when you throw your front foot across, you have a massive blind spot on the leg side. And that's exactly what happened. And that wicket to date is one of my favourites.

Another slow ball that I really cherish is the one I bowled against Surya [Suryakumar Yadav] in Pune.

ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball commentary for the delivery to Suryakumar Yadav in the IPL earlier this year

ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball commentary for the delivery to Suryakumar Yadav in the IPL earlier this year © Getty Images

That was not given lbw, right?
It was not given lbw, which was shocking (smiles), but it was umpire's call. The way Surya was batting that day, or the way he has been batting in the last couple of years, to deceive someone like him like that was very gratifying. Also, because he likes to sweep, because he knew I was going to bowl the slower ball, rather than hitting down the ground, he was always keen to sweep me.

Again, that reference point changes, because when the batter's trying to sweep you, he is going to do it at least three to five feet in front of the crease. So you want the ball to land a little shorter than usual. So, yeah, I was just trying to think, okay, if he tries to sweep me and if he's beaten, I want to keep the ball on the stumps, and if he misses, he is out. He did see that delivery and sort of ducked. It was given not out but it was quite gratifying for me.

With the Hardik and Pollard wickets, they were also trying to attack the shorter boundary on the leg side, weren't they?
Yeah, that was the shorter boundary. And usually when you play in Dubai, you are playing on one side of the square, so one boundary is longer than the other. I was bowling to a longer off side and I just wanted to bowl wide yorkers. That was the plan, but I decided to bluff and it worked.

Does the trigger movement of the batter come in handy when executing the slower ball?
For me it's difficult to change my delivery during my run-up because I hold the ball differently for different deliveries. It's very subtle, it's hard to see for a batter. Before I start my run-up I can anticipate that he is going to try and target this area, but mid-run-up, once you have your action locked, it's difficult to change.

On a flatter pitch what are the challenges involved in bowling the slower ball?
I would still back myself to bowl them, but the question is what you bowl when. Sequencing is the ultimate piece of the puzzle. People can learn to bowl the slower ball, but they will still have to learn how to sequence it according to their own strengths and weaknesses. I don't take anything out of my weaponry unless the conditions are dewy and wet.

Double trouble: Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah are masters, in their different ways, of the slower ball

Double trouble: Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah are masters, in their different ways, of the slower ball Clive Mason / © Getty Images

Do you look at the slower ball as a way to attack or to get a dot ball?
It can be both, depending on the situation of the game. Sometimes when [the opposition] are looking to get a boundary, I try and use it very defensively: I don't bowl it at the stumps, I bowl it at the heel with four fielders out on the leg side, so it's hard to get a boundary. And sometimes I just want to get them out, so I keep the stumps in play.

Was the Phil Salt wicket in the third T20I of the recent England series in that vein?
Yeah, because England are a team who just go from ball one. Someone like him, who has never faced me before, I'm pretty confident that if he tries to slog me from ball one, it's going to be difficult. I'm not saying he's not going to be able to do it, but it's going to be difficult, and I have an advantage when the batter does that. That was the plan.

Even to [Liam] Livingstone that day, before I conceded two sixes - and these are the subtle changes that you have to keep telling yourself to keep in mind - the ball before that, he survived by probably a centimetre. [A slower ball by Patel dipped just past the off stump as Livingstone swung early.] And the next two balls [which went for sixes], I probably ran in a little too fast. There was more energy on the ball than was required. And it ended up being a low full toss. There wasn't much dip.

I make these mistakes in the heat of the game and the pressure of the game, but I have my checklist of things that I want to keep in mind before a particular delivery. And sometimes you forget to tick those boxes, and when you don't do that, your execution suffers. That's the reason why people keep saying you have to remain calm, you have to remain calm, you can't get ahead of yourself.

What is the checklist?
The speed of my run-up, the angle at which I approach, and my reference point if I'm bowling a yorker or a full, slower ball.

The Phil Salt wicket in the third T20I against England this year.

The Phil Salt wicket in the third T20I against England this year. "I have an advantage when the batter tries to slog from the start," Harshal says Dan Mullan / © Getty Images

Against Livingstone on those deliveries, would you say you failed on all three counts?
I ran in too fast. The angle was not big enough, because if the angle was big enough, the ball would have finished probably on middle and leg rather than outside leg. The bigger the angle, the more the batter is likely to miss the line. The margin of error [for the batter] is very miniscule.

In the Asia Cup, Afghanistan fast bowler Fazalhaq Farooqi went round the stumps while attempting yorkers off the last two balls of the match against Pakistan in Sharjah, but both turned into low full tosses which went for six. Would that be an example of the margin of error you are talking about?
I did not see that match, but at venues like Sharjah or Chinnaswamy [Bengaluru], where the straight boundaries are probably 55 metres, you want to have the margin of error on your side. You want to pick a delivery where the batsman is not going to be able to hit you down the ground. If you are defending a boundary, you want them to hit you through the square boundary, because in Sharjah the square boundaries are longer than the straight boundaries. Also, the Sharjah pitch can be pretty slow. Like you said, the margin of error is very small with that delivery. And the choice of that delivery itself was questionable for me - bowling to a tailender in Sharjah, I wouldn't have bowled that because I have better options available. I want him to access the longer off side or the longer leg side. So I could either bowl a wide line or I could bowl at his heel and force him to hit me over square leg or over point for a six, which is an incredibly difficult shot to hit. I don't know how slow or quick that pitch was, but if the pitch is slow, it's always going to be harder to get through the square.

Does the batter matter? If you are bowling a slower delivery to a Virat Kohli or a Rohit Sharma, will you plan differently compared to when you are bowling to big hitters?
To Virat, for sure, because he is not someone who's going to muscle you. These slower deliveries are more effective when people are trying to muscle you. For someone like Virat, whenever I've played against him, he steps out and makes it a full toss and plays it through midwicket. If he gets good bat on the ball, he is going to get a boundary between long-on and midwicket or he is going to get a double. And when someone plays that delivery like that, you have to adapt. But when someone is going deep in the crease and just trying to slog you over long-on or deep midwicket or down the ground, that's where the slower ball becomes much more effective.

What about the phase of the innings? Usually slower balls were bowled mostly at death, but that has started to change.
It is starting to change. On absolute flat pitches, Jasprit bowls slower balls in the powerplay. [Lungi] Ngidi has started to bowl those dipping slower balls in the powerplay, which he did brilliantly against us in Bangalore [in June] before the game got washed out. So people are starting to realise that this is a weapon you can use. The white ball, it doesn't really matter how fast you bowl, if the wicket is good and you are bowling at 150, all the batter has to do is get bat on ball and they are going to get value for the shot. So people are realising that you have to constantly break their momentum.

Large boundary? Go slow: Harshal expects the slower deliver to play a part in the World Cup in Australia this year

Large boundary? Go slow: Harshal expects the slower deliver to play a part in the World Cup in Australia this year Matt King / © Getty Images

It will be a very interesting challenge for me to see, if I get picked in the World Cup, how much I will have to adapt and what will work and not work there. Before the England series they said England is going to be the flattest pitches you will ever bowl on, but the slower balls worked pretty well there for me. Similar perception about Australia, but again it remains to be seen how effective or ineffective the slower balls will be.

From June 2020, in 227 T20s in Australia, fast bowlers have taken 182 wickets off slower balls at an economy of 7.93. Do you reckon the slower ball will be a weapon in the World Cup because square boundaries are bigger in Australian grounds?
For sure. Even two years back in the IPL, when I was not picked in the playing XI, when they said the wicket is flat and your slower balls won't always work, I always felt confident a good slower ball can work on any pitch. Because I think a good slower ball can work on any pitch. It's like saying that a spinner can't bowl on a flat pitch. The quality of the spinner and how well they see the game, how well they read the batter, all these factors are very important in deciding whether the bowler will be successful or not.

The slower ball seems like a weapon that you can use anytime, anywhere in any format. Remember Bumrah against Ollie Robinson at Lord's last year?
And Bumrah getting Shaun Marsh at the stroke of lunch [MCG, 2018]. He came round the stumps and bowled a brilliant slower ball and hit him right on the boot.

I have taken multiple wickets like that in the Ranji Trophy, where nothing is happening, you are just running in, bowling hard, the batter is just blocking or leaving, and you bowl a slower ball and he hits it straight back to you or straight to cover. I have played on turning pitches where I have gone around the wicket to left-handers and bowled very fast offcutters and have, like, silly point and a couple of slips and got wickets.

I really believe that you don't have to be conventional all the time. At the end of the day, it's about getting the work done. If I'm bowling 24 slower balls, conceding 30 runs and taking two wickets, who's to say that it is not a good thing? And if I'm bowling 150kph and conceding 50 runs every game, which is better? The captain will obviously pick the more effective one.

Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo