Cricket Knuckle Ball Zaheer Khan Charl Langeveldt Bhuvneshwar Kumar > Cricket News, cricinfo, mobilecric, cricbuzz, livescore and more

The expansion of the knuckle ball

Cricket news - The expansion of the knuckle ball

It's the 16th over of the Indian Premier League clash between Sunrisers Hyderabad and Royal Challengers Bangalore when something unusual happens. Umesh Yadav tries the knuckleball but gets his execution horribly wrong. The ball loops up and lands on the second adjacent track on the off side.

Kane Williamson, the striker, does think of hitting it but eventually pulls out. Virat Kohli, who is at long-on, can't help but smile before he applauds his pacer for the effort. Umesh has a sheepish smile on his face and so does Williamson. If a compilation of IPL 2018 bloopers was made, Umesh's effort would surely find a space in that clip.

It's just a one-off incident but it isn't hard to see why Umesh would try executing a delivery he hasn't mastered in a high-pressure situation. Williamson, at the prime of his form having discovered the T20 batsman in himself, was past his half-century. The game was evenly poised at that stage and Williamson was key if RCB had to keep SRH to a modest total.

Bowlers, with all the advancement in batsmanship, are constantly forced to keep the surprise element intact to stay in the game. Umesh was trying just that, attempting to catch Williamson by surprise even if he hadn't perfected the delivery. Such is the pressure on bowlers that they are forced to be on their toes. Williamson ended up getting a half-century and RCB eventually lost the game by five runs.


Charl Langeveldt knows a thing or two about the knuckleball. And in fact, about what happens when it doesn't come out right. His first attempt at it saw the ball barely make it to the batsman after several bounces. It was met with laughter and some friendly banter.

"I was playing league cricket in England. I was just fooling around with a baseball guy and he was a pitcher. He used to throw the knuckleball in the baseball nets. In T20 cricket you are always looking to evolve and I thought it would be a difficult delivery for the batsman to pick up," he says, recollecting his early days working on the knuckleball. "It was way back in 2005-06 before the 2007 World Cup."

Once the idea was sown, Langeveldt learnt the nitty-gritty of it from former first-class cricketer Kenny Jackson, who is better known as Jonathan Trott's half-brother. Jackson picked it up from his mother who was a softball professional.

While Langeveldt actually held the ball with his nails, the recent trend is to grip it with the tip of your fingers. "A lot of guys use their knuckle but I used to use my nails," he says. "I found that I got more control with that. I would bowl one with the seam up - swinging away - and one would just wobble in the air where I just held back up with my nails on the seam.

"While I would start with a normal stride, at the last moment in my gather I would change the grip and hold it with the nails. I would try and give it a flick at times and it used to be the same arm speed but the ball came out a lot slower. It took me the whole summer to perfect the grip and then gain control."

A trend that was started by Jackson before being picked up by Langeveldt was eventually brought into fashion by Zaheer Khan. It's a potent delivery. Ask Michael Hussey, who failed to read it and was bowled by Zaheer in the 2011 World Cup quarterfinal. Or Chamara Kapugedera. The Sri Lankan played just two games in the tournament - one of them being the final where he lobbed a simple catch to cover off after he was deceived by the pace of Zaheer's knuckleball and pushed too far away from the body. With his impressive control, the India pacer was making people sit up and take notice of the knuckleball.

Zaheer learnt the craft from Langeveldt while playing for RCB, before developing it further. "He used to hold his right hand in front of the ball to hide it and tried to show it to the batsman at the very last moment. I would run in with the normal grip with the batsman expecting me to bowl a normal seam-up delivery," Langeveldt recollects.

So what is it about the knuckleball that bowlers are yearning to add it to their repertoire? Andrew Tye, who at times uses it as his stock delivery, believes it's his most "powerful weapon". Bhuvneshwar Kumar swears by it, be it bowling in the powerplay or at the death. Siddarth Kaul relies so heavily on it that, at times, it appears he has run out of options. Yet he uses it to good effect.

"It's one of those balls where the batsman can't really pick up the change," stresses Langeveldt. "They pick it up a lot later. In a leg-cutter or an off-cutter, you can see them rolling the fingers. Even when it's coming from the back of the hand.

"In limited-overs cricket, the batsmen are looking to hit most of the time. The fearlessness has improved so it's crucial to come up with such deceptions. It's difficult to pick up so late with the ball coming up slower. You see the kind of dismissals, they are either caught up in the air or they were early into the shot. They were early because they couldn't pick up the changeup.

"Bhuvneshwar has been really successful. The guys (South Africa batsmen) couldn't really pick it up (in the series in February) and that's the main thing. He's got good control and most importantly he bowls it with the new ball. That's the key and it's really hard to do so. When you come to bowl in the death overs, you are bowling yorkers and the knuckleball as well. Most of the fielders are at the boundary so it's a lot harder for the batsmen. With the new ball, it was difficult because the seam was a lot harder. With the older ball, it is a lot easier."

What makes the knuckleball a potent delivery is the knuckling effect that causes the ball to dip at the very last moment, making it incredibly hard for the batsman to time. It is a phenomenon that has attracted the attention of Rabindra Mehta, a Sports Aerodynamics Consultant who works with NASA. "If you release the cricket ball with the seam angled for conventional swing, the seam will impact the boundary layer - the thin layer on that one side where the seam is leaning away. And then on the other side, you've got a smooth surface. The whole key to have the ball move in the air is to create some sort of asymmetry in that horizontal plane," Mehta explains.

"The knuckling effect is very similar. The big thing with knuckling is that the ball is not spinning that much. The less the rotations, the better it is. More often than not when they release it, it has one or two revs on the ball (going north to south rotating towards the bowler). So what happens is when the ball is rotating and floating through the air, it affects the boundary layer on different parts of the ball. So you've created an asymmetry that's variable in space and time. That's what is knuckling. So you may see it go to the right and then all of a sudden it may start going towards the left."

Mehta's point also clarifies why Langeveldt kept stressing the importance of a good wrist position while bowling the knuckleball. Several ingredients need to come together for a bowler to be successful with it. The deception plays a key role but it's equally important to reduce the rotations on the ball so that it behaves in an unpredictable manner. For that, wrist position comes into the picture.

"It's crucial," Langeveldt points out. "The guys who have all done well with the knuckleball are also good swing bowlers. At the end of the day, you want to surprise the batsman. Say if I bowl it seam up and I do it with a good wrist position, at times there's extra bounce apart from the movement in the air because the ball is landing on the seam. When the seam does come out wobbling, there's relatively less bounce. All that keeps the batsman guessing."

Make no mistake, it's a hard delivery to master. Langeveldt took a whole summer, Zaheer spent a considerable time on it while Tye took "nearly five to six years" to gain the confidence to bowl it in high-pressure situations. Bhuvneshwar, though he was the quickest to master it, took a full tour of Australia - that included four Tests and some limited-overs games - to get comfortable with it.

While the knuckling effect is much more visible in baseball, football or volleyball, it's hard to spot in cricket. However, it is unfair to expect cricket bowlers to extract the same kind of movement in the air that knucklers in baseball achieve - partially because the seam length on a baseball is a lot longer.

"The seam on a baseball is very similar to what we have on a tennis ball, so the knuckling effect is very visible," Mehta points out. "On a cricket ball, the seam is on the equator of the ball so if you measure the length of the seam, it's more on the baseball. The additional seam will affect the behaviour of the ball and in my opinion, it'll be more effective on a baseball.

"If the seam is very worn, it'll knuckle less. The seam plays a role and the roughness of the surface plays a role. So the age of the ball could make some difference.

"In cricket, until a few years ago, I didn't think it was possible to release it with zero or very little spin because of the round-arm action. Zaheer was the first one I saw using that. It's a great change-up. It's very effective and that's why more and more players are using it."

The knuckle ball has been used in cricket for over a decade now but there's still plenty that can be added to it. While it's past its infancy stage, the bowlers still have scope to add to it and use it in a better way. Langeveldt, with all of his experience, accepts there's plenty of room to improve the use of it - and already has a suggestion.

"I used to bowl the knuckleball bouncer and I haven't seen guys use it now. I had a lot of success with it playing in the UK when I was with Kent. One instance I remember that the ball got stuck. I pitched it short and it bounced just over the wicket. Now when the batsman sees that length, he's not expecting that sort of bounce."

The onus is now on the current crop to pick it up and use it in an even more effective way.

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