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Cricket news - Pushing boundaries, the Benny Howell way
AB de Villiers has been around the block a few times. There isn't much in the game he hasn't seen. After all, he's got just over 20,000 international runs to his name, gleaned from more than 400 matches for South Africa. He's faced geniuses like Warne, Anderson, Muralitharan and averaged more than 50 in Tests and ODIs while doing so. And earlier this year, as a teammate for Rangpur Riders in the Bangladesh Premier League, de Villiers faced up to Gloucestershire's Benny Howell in the nets.
The pair hadn't met before and if de Villiers knew who Howell was, it wouldn't have been much more than he played in county cricket and was an all-rounder. After a few net sessions, de Villiers knew plenty. "I had some drinks and dinner with AB," says Howell. "He said my bowling is different to anything he's seen. And that he was never sure what I was bowling next." De Villiers was so impressed he told Howell to put himself in next year's IPL auction.
That wasn't it. Over a whiskey in the hotel bar, Chris Gayle, another BPL teammate, joked that Howell should speak to the selectors and get in England's T20 team. Except Gayle wasn't really joking. He meant it. Tom Moody, Howell's coach at Rangpur and the head coach of Sunrisers Hyderabad in the IPL, told him he needed to improve his batting so that he could be a top-six batsman. If he could do that, given the quality of his bowling, Moody said Howell could be a million dollar cricketer. As a set of recommendations go, there have been worse.
Howell is not your run-of-the-mill all-rounder. He started off as a batsman for Hampshire before being released, getting a chance at Gloucestershire and developing his bowling to such an extent that it is now his strongest suit. But describing his bowling is difficult, and even Howell admits there isn't really a term for it. It's many things at once: seam, medium pace, spin.
He has so many different variations and he uses them at will. One might be a knuckle ball, one might be a wobble seam. The next might be a conventional seam up, another an offspinner. Howell claimed to The Cricketer that he has 50 different deliveries. No wonder de Villiers was confused.
He became obsessed with pushing the boundaries of what a cricket bowler might do with different balls after seeing a baseball game whilst on holiday in America. He became fixated by how the baseball pitcher goes about things and the curve balls and knuckle balls in their armoury.
"I'm always working on new balls," Howell tells Cricbuzz. "Even when I've done my spell in the nets, I always have a ball in my hand. I'll walk-through, jog-through, see what works, see what might work. I'll start there and then I'll go to a full run and then bowl at a batter and see what they think of it. Always developing. There's a lot of balls I have in my head and it's about trying to see if they work from my run-up."
His T20 record is excellent and he has been one of the best bowlers in the T20 Blast for a number of years, yet he remains strangely underrated. Over his career, Howell concedes less than seven runs an over and in the BPL this year, it was less than six. Of all the bowlers who sent down 20 overs or more in that tournament, he was the most miserly. Last season, he took 17 wickets in 11 T20 Blast games for Gloucestershire, the year before 16 in 12. Howell takes a wicket every 16 balls in T20 and averages 21 with the bat too. These are top-class numbers.
Yet he remains without an England cap in the shortest format. He has said he's heard they don't think he's quick enough. Before the BPL, Howell played the T10 tournament in the UAE and shared a beer with Eoin Morgan. England's white-ball skipper told him they want players to carve it up in more than one format to be considered, which, given the differences between the three - soon to be four - strands of the game, seems an odd stance to take. Morgan also said Howell needed to improve his batting because they were considering him as an all-rounder.
"The limited-overs squad is so impressive that you have to be performing pretty highly in county cricket, not just in one format. That was one message," Howell says. "The other is that my batting needs to improve to get in the few top all-rounders in the country because my bowling is taking over, especially in T20. I'm hoping to really excel with the bat this year like I used to when I was a bit younger."
Howell is willing to do the hard yards, but he believes he should already be in the T20 mix: "I have no doubt. Personally, I believe I should be playing international cricket now as a bowler in T20. It doesn't matter if you bowl medium pace, spin, seam, whatever I do. It's all about being smart about what you do and executing your skills. But I have to try and prove to them that I've got the skills to bat in international cricket because that is what they want. I'm happy to try and do that."
Because England want Howell to excel in more than one format, thoughts of giving up red-ball cricket have been put on hold. If he gets picked up for a team in The Hundred next season, he will not be playing 50-over cricket because the two tournaments will clash. As such, if he gave up the first-class game, he would only be playing T20 - the Blast will be played early season - and The Hundred, two similar formats which he doesn't think would give England's management what they're after.
Plus, he still has a first-class record - batting average of 27 and bowling average of 33 - to improve on. "I still want to have a couple more years of four-day cricket to see what I can achieve because I still haven't done too much," he says. "Four-day, it's great when you play with your mates at Gloucestershire, hard fought days and get a win. It's one of the better feelings in cricket. T20 is great. It's fun, exciting and when you win a game, it's great but there's nothing to compare with winning a game of four-day cricket."
Gloucestershire had a middling Championship season last term, finishing fifth in the second tier with five wins in all. This year's prospects haven't been helped by losing two of their most important quicks, Craig Miles and Liam Norwell, to Warwickshire. Despite Australian Dan Worrall's retention as overseas, Gloucestershire's biggest challenge will be taking enough wickets to force the number of wins that are necessary to get out of the second division.
"It's going to be tough with a small squad and a small group of bowlers," says Howell, when asked if red-ball promotion is a realistic goal. "The bowlers have got to stay fit otherwise we will struggle. If they can stay fit, and the batters score runs, with three going up, why not?"
In limited-overs cricket, the squad looks better placed to compete and Howell will have a key role to play. After a winter mixing with legends of the game, he's ready to put what he's learnt into practice. "What I found most interesting was how they have the same issues as us mortals," he says. "They get nervous before a game, they have their issues but they deal with it so well. Mentally, they have such a good routine which helps them.
"Obviously they're talented players but they have figured out how to become that good. It just shows how important the mental side of the game is. For anyone who is a professional cricketer, most guys have a chance to make it big, it's just about figuring out how to get there. Each person is different."
Benny Howell certainly is.
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