James Anderson’s relationship with the now famous wobble ball that excised out Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara in the first Test began in 2006. Anderson was impressed with what the Australian Stuart Clark did with it. The memory reared up again in 2010 when he saw the ball weaponised by that great Pakistani conjurer Mohammad Asif.
The look of surprise on Kohli’s face when the ball flickered unsteadily towards him before igniting the outside edge said much. When it left Anderson’s fingers, the seam was tilted towards the first slip. When it landed on a good length, it was tilted towards fine leg. Was it going to shape away, tilt-in, or plummet straight at him?
“It’s an absolute fluke (where the seam lands),” James Anderson told Sky Sports. “I want the seam to wobble slightly so it might nip either way off the seam. I kept the shiny side on the left, trying to angle it in. If there is any swing, it will drift in and might seam either way once it pitches.”
Kohli can’t possibly know because Anderson himself doesn’t know. It’s a ball carefully, consciously, crafted so that its destination is unknown even to the creator. The perfect crime. Why does he not just go with the outswing shape instead of fussing over wobbling? “To make them play, basically. If I had bowled that ball with an outswing shape, there was a good chance that he would have left it. It’s to try to drag him into the shot and bring the stumps in play as much as possible.”
Kohli pressed forward to push at it with a slightly-opened bat face. It’s an approach that covers the potential targets – the stumps, the outside edge, and the front pad. A bat-angle which is usually good enough to extinguish any last-instant minor deviations either way — in and out. This one, though, dinked away enough off the track to send him packing.
The wobble ball took out Pujara as well. . The seam of the ball, which was initially towards slips, kept wobbling this way and that in the air even as the ball kept tailing in but at the moment of landing, the seam was pointing towards slips again. The ball that seemed to be coming in with the angle, just about held its line and allied with Pujara’s tendency to defend with a closed bat-face, it lit up the edge.
“Again, a complete fluke!” says Anderson.
The “fluke” comment is technically correct but it doesn’t entirely paint the full picture. He does intend to land the ball on the jagged seam edges – half leather, half seam hitting the turf. A few years back, he had talked about it on Sky.
“The idea is to hit the corner of the seam”! Just like Asif did. The jagged-edge landing could well decide the eventual destination.
The wobble-ball grip is almost similar to Anderson’s outswing grip with a minor tweak: even the index finger is on the leathery surface of the ball, adjacent to the seam. For the out swinger, he has the index finger on the seam and the middle finger on the surface of the ball. For the wobble, the two fingers are split across on either side of the seam. The angle of the seam for the wobble ball is similar to the out swinger, tilts towards the slips.
For the traditional out swinger, Anderson cocks the wrist and run the fingers down the seam to get the back rotation that’s needed to swing.
“With this (the wobble ball) I am not trying to cock the wrist as much and I am not trying to pull back on the ball as much to get that back motion – instead, I just try to release it as simple as possible and that’s when it gets that wobble effect.”
The swing he still manages to extract differentiates his wobble ball from most others. For his conventional out swinger, he lifts the index finger last off the ball at release. “If anything I am thinking about the finger. What I do with the (index) finger is I try to push the ball into the stumps and then it swings away later.” He does the same for the wobble, pushes it in and hopes for the jagged-seam landing to do its surprise trick.
In 2010, after watching a few wicked spells from Asif, Anderson had hit the nets. “Tried to figure out with my grip how to get the ball to do what he was doing with it. We got the video camera to focus on the seam to see what it was doing,” he once told the former player Derek Pringle. These days, the younger bowlers obsess over Anderson’s fingers to learn how he sends the best Test batsman of the world wobbling back to the hut.