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Cricket news - The bouncer hostility of a docile pitch

Kusal Perera and Dimuth Karunaratne copped severe blows via bouncers during the Canberra Test

Would you duck or sway if someone threw an object at your head? In theory, you might get away with doing both. But ducking would probably be the safer option, especially if you have judged the trajectory and direction of the missile headed your way and can trust that it won't go off its path. It's a lot like facing a bouncer on a quick, bouncy pitch like say the Gabba or the erstwhile WACA. Your success of avoiding being hit is after all based on those very factors - judgement and trust.

So what happens when you have judged the trajectory of the ball reasonably well at the point at which you pick it first, but can't completely trust whether it'll rise up exactly as per your judgement. To use the analogy of you being in harms' way of the object headed towards you again, imagine if it had been bounced off an uneven surface. Do you duck or sway? You could do both but suddenly the percentages of whether you'll escape or not are rather skewed.

Over the last two days in Canberra, Sri Lankan batsmen have tried to duck and sway against the short-pitched barrage that they've been subjected to by the Aussie pace trio. And a couple of their seniormost batsmen, Dimuth Karunaratne and Kusal Perera, had to retire hurt and leave the field while Dhananjaya de Silva also copped a blow.

This is not to say that the pitch at the Manuka Oval was uneven or that it had any kind of spite on top of it. In fact it's probably been the flattest Test pitch of the entire summer where batting has seemed a rather comfortable process. But like we've seen often before in Test history, it's the slightly more docile pitches where batsmen get hit a lot more on the head than they do on the fiery ones.

Already over the last few weeks, we've seen a batsman is more likely to receive a knock in lesser hostile climes like Canberra than in conditions ironically designed for him to do so. This is not to say batsmen weren't in physical danger at the Gabba. But more often than not, it's rarely the head that takes a beating, thankfully, in those scenarios. Take Dilruwan Perera who had his thumb almost bent out of shape by a rising Pat Cummins delivery during the first Test. Let's perhaps take a look at some numbers to understand the issue better.

There have been 5 retired hurts in 61 Tests at The Gabba (1 in every 12.2 games), 9 in 44 Tests at The WACA (one in every 4.88). By comparison on the generally flatter pitches across the country, it is 15 in 107 (1 every 7.13) at the SCG and 15 in 77 (1 in every 5.13) at Adelaide. Some of these maybe batsmen, who were "retired ill". The Caribbean makes for more interesting reading in this regard.

The Queens Park Oval in Port-of-Spain, known to have a spinner-friendly pitch but one does get untoward bounce towards the latter half of the match, has the highest rate among all venues in the world that have hosted 10-plus Tests with 19 batsmen having retired hurt across 61 Tests. St John's, where Brian Lara broke the highest individual Test score record twice, comes second with 6 in 22 while Sabina Park in Kingston, known as the bastion of fast bowling at West Indies' prime, comes third with 13 such instances across 51 Tests- the same number as Edgbaston, which again among the English pitches is known to have the most up-and-down bounce over the course of a Test.

The blow Kusal Perera received from Jhye Richardson right at the centre of his helmet- or his noggin as the Aussies would call it - and which sent his neck guard and several other pieces flying in all directions is the best example of how difficult a short-ball can be to negotiate on a flat pitch. Let's face it, he got hit because he ducked straight into a delivery that pitched short-of-length and didn't get the kind of elevation that he'd believed it would.

To put it down to bad technique would be rather unfair on the Sri Lankan left-hander. It was just a case of him having judged the length right but having been let down by the bounce off the pitch. It had also come on the back of a sustained bouncer strategy from the Aussie pacers, which meant Perera had already been suckered into the mind-set of staying back in his crease.

If this was the Gabba, Perera would have seen the ball sail over his head, for the previous delivery from Richardson here had pitched on a similar length and done so, with the left-hander attempting an aggressive waft in vain. But here, it bounced only enough to smash into his helmet, and eventually leave him concussed. And that left him second-guessing, which while facing a delivery at 145 kph is a dangerous proposition.

"You can trust the bounce at the Gabba so it's far easier to get under. We've seen two guys unfortunately get hit here on this wicket because it goes a little bit more up and down and makes it much tougher when someone's bowling short stuff. You want to get underneath it but if it doesn't get up, like it always gets up at the Gabba," is how Usman Khawaja would explain the reasons for the two Lankans copping blows.

Sri Lanka's bowling coach, Rumesh Ratnayeke, is no stranger to having felled batsmen in his time - he hit Larry Gomes at the MCG in 1985 and John Wright during a Test match in Wellington in 1983. And he agreed with Khawaja and added that how it's not always the most "ferocious" delivery - like the one from Pat Cummins that resulted in Dimuth Karunaratne being taken to hospital - that gets the better of a batsman on flatter pitches.

"You end up ducking when you don't need to duck like Kusal Perera today. I mean I've seen bowlers hit batsmen on fast tracks also, and certainly if there isn't much pace the ducking process becomes different," he said. The ball that got Karunaratne in contrast to the one Perera got, bounced more than he expected it to and he ended up not ducking enough to get out of its way.

"The mindset is still the same to hit the deck hard and get it around the nose of the batsman. If conditions are a bit flatter, you bowl a bit shorter," was Starc's response to how a fast bowler goes about adjusting his lengths in this scenario.

It's no surprise that most of the blows the Lankans received came at the hands of Cummins and Richardson, two bowlers who don't "hit the deck" as hard as Starc does, but get it to skid off the surface a lot more. It's like comparing a bouncer from Ishant Sharma to one from Umesh Yadav or Mohammed Shami. With Starc and Ishant, because of their height and the way they deliver the ball, the arc of their short balls on most pitches ends up being more parabolic in nature, and hence easier to be judged and trusted.

The batsman, however, has lesser time to react to the skiddier short-balls from Cummins, Richardson or Yadav and hence even a slight misjudgement leaves him stranded and with nowhere to go. His head invariably is on the line, quite literally. So incidentally, perhaps there's less reaction time you get to facing a bouncer from Cummins at 145-plus on a Canberra pitch to a 150-plus bouncer from Starc in Perth. It again boils down to trust and judgement.

Raph Brandon, the head of research, at the England & Wales Cricket Board (ECB) had summed up the challenge that a batsman faces while encountering a bouncer in an interview to The Telegraph a couple of years ago.

"Basically, the batter can predict the timing with which the ball will come onto the bat, once they've sighted a few deliveries. Variation, disguise and lateral movement is what is challenging about batting, because it makes the prediction less accurate, or harder to make," he'd said.

It's the same science in this case too. You'll always hear batsmen talking about how it's the bouncers that come up to their collarbones and throat that are the most awkward. And while in Brisbane or Perth, a fast bowler will look to extract that bounce by pitching it slightly short-of-length, here it will be shorter. But like Perera found out, on more placid pitches, you can't always be sure whether they'll fly over your head or attack your throat.

What also happens, like in the case of de Silva and Perera on one occasion, is that on a flat pitch, the first instinct is also not always to get out of harm's way but to stand up and try to execute a scoring shot against the short ball. But the variable nature of the bounce and pace off the pitch leaves the door open for you to get into a tangle and be left with no avenues. It leaves your mind scrambled. On a bouncier track, you have one method and you know it'll work. There's no scope for ambiguity.

No wonder then that most world-class batsmen will tell you that they're more comfortable facing a barrage of bouncers on a pacy pitch at the Gabba than on a flat deck, like the one in Canberra. And it's safe to say that there's no masochism or machismo involved with it.

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