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Could fast cricket bowlers cut it in baseball?

Matt Wiggins @mattwjourno

Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh, Allan Donald, Glenn McGrath and Brett Lee. As a lifelong cricket fan, I have grown up watching these fast bowlers excel at their art form.

Recently, though I have started taking an interest in cricket’s long-lost American cousin. In the last month, some of baseball’s great pitchers have been duelling with batters in the playoffs.

Justin Verlander, CC Sabathia, Roy Halladay and Tim Lincecum. These are all names that I have become accustomed to as I have marvelled at the skills of pitchers across the MLB otherwise known as Major League Baseball.

There are some obvious comparisons to draw between cricket and baseball. That they both use bat and ball is immediately noticeable.

More seriously, though, I have noticed that both sports require phenomenal athleticism in the field to get batters out and the batsmen themselves wow the crowds with their ability to hit the ball over the fence.

There is no doubt that certain technical ability in the two games overlap, not least in the fielding and batting aspects. However, it was while watching the pitchers that I found myself wondering of an intriguing crossover comparison. Could the two ever successfully swap roles?

Physically the act of pitching is nothing like bowling a cricket ball over 22 yards. A pitcher hurls his weapon over a shorter distance, just over 19 yards, and does so from a standing start while fast bowlers get a running start to help gather speed.

The mechanics of the arm are different too with pitchers throwing their baseballs using a bent elbow, while bowlers are forbidden in doing so by the laws of the game.

Nevertheless, the speeds the two athletes generate are similar with the fastest recorded pitch being clocked at 105mph in 2010 by Cincinnati Reds pitcher Alroldis Chapman – the quickest cricket delivery currently standing at 101mph from Pakistan’s Mohammad Sami.

While it is fair to say that speed gun measurements in both sports can often be temperamental, the best of the best in both sports regularly hit speeds of between 90 and 95mph.

Coupled with these top speeds, both bowlers and pitchers impart spectacular movement on the ball, turning what they do from a job into an art form.

Bowlers like England’s James Anderson can swing the ball in the air in either direction at high speed. Baseball pitchers like Verlander of the Detroit Tigers, on the other hand, are renowned for their ability to throw fast pitches around the 100mph mark with extreme movement at the plate.

A pitcher will typically have anything from four to six different types of pitches at his disposal. Without boring you with too much science and detail, these can range from a straight fastball to a cutter (akin to an Anderson swinger) and a changeup (a slower ball).

Surrey bowler Jade Dernbach has recently broken on to the England one-day scene because of his varying repertoire of slower balls.

Baseball is no different, with at least 12 different pitches currently on display in the game. Each of those contains degrees of subtlety and movement meaning it can become puzzling for the batters to figure out what is coming next.

Although bowlers aren’t allowed to throw the ball like pitchers, there are comparisons in the placement of their arms too. Taller speedsters like Steve Harmison and Ambrose bowl with a high arm but shorter guys like Lasith Malinga and Fidel Edwards reach their speeds with a much lower, slinging action.

The same can be said for baseball where you will find a variety of pitching motions across the league. Lincecum of the San Francisco Giants would relate to the Harmisons and Ambroses of the cricket world while Texas Rangers’ Scott Feldman could talk side winding techniques with Malinga and Edwards.

Like in cricket, the different techniques pose different problems for the batters with various release points and movement in the air to contend with making each art form even more beautiful.

While there are obvious skill set comparisons between the two sports only one cricketer has ever managed to take the field for a professional baseball team.

Ian Pont was a seam bowler, who enjoyed his best playing days with Essex. Aside from his hostile pace bowling, Pont was renowned for his strong throwing arm.

He ran out Chris Broad from the boundary with a fierce throw in the 1985 Natwest Final and is reported to have recorded the second longest throw in history while playing in South Africa. By the time the 1987 season rolled around, Pont had travelled to America and had trials with six MLB franchises as a pitcher.

The Philadelphia Phillies soon took a liking to Pont and offered him a month’s extended trial. He took to the field as a starting pitcher in one exhibition game for the Phillies during Spring Training, baseball’s pre-season, but wasn’t signed permanently.

Pont, who could pitch at 100mph, continued to play baseball alongside his cricketing career, representing sides from the UK, South Africa and Australia.

Unlike Pont, Kent batsman Ed Smith never donned a baseball uniform in a professional match but secured a spot in the New York Mets’ training camp in 2002.

Smith wanted to research his book “Playing Hard Ball”, which illustrates the similarities between the two sports from the view of someone who has monitored them at close quarters, and made some shrewd observations. He observed that while in practice he is closer to the hitters in the MLB, psychologically he has more in common with pitchers.

“You both play in the shadow of the guillotine — one mistake and you could be gone and have lost the game for your team,” he says.

It highlights the pressure that baseball pitchers come under, something that isn’t quite experienced by bowlers in cricket. In each sport home runs and wickets are the least common occurrence, making them very important on the outcome of the game.

Should a pitcher allow a home run or a batsman lose his wicket it can be crucial to their teams’ fortunes, meaning the two play under immense pressure.

Imagine then, the role of the closer in baseball. He is the pitcher charged with getting the last three outs in the final inning of the game without conceding a home run.

It’s probably the most intensely pressured role in baseball and takes a certain type of character to fulfil it, the kind of character that the San Francisco Giants have in Brian Wilson.

Wilson begun life in baseball as a starting pitcher but soon realised he could earn better stats as a closer, not to mention dodging ball collecting duties at the next day’s training.

An enigma, Wilson is the most recognisable baseball player in the world. He is possibly the most interviewed, one of the best and became an American icon in the 2010 season.

Along with fellow pitching teammate Sergio Romo, Wilson decided he would try something different to turn his teams run of bad results around. The pair started to grow their facial hair, vowing to shave only when the Giants season was over.

As it turned out, the season didn’t end as Wilson and the Giants entered the post season and climaxed with their first World Series victory since moving from New York in 1957.

While Romo has since shaved, Wilson has continued the beard which is now as thick and as bushy as something you would see on Father Christmas.

His striking facial hair, coupled with his recent World Series success, has meant that he has been a regular booking on the American talk show circuit. He appeared on one dressed as a sailor, complete with dyed grey hair, while also appearing on the Jay Leno show and many others.

Listening to Wilson’s many interviews it becomes clear that he is a man who thrives on the glare of the media, but also on the pressure that being a closer brings with it.

“You come into a game with 60,000 fans going nuts,” he says. “Everyone’s eyes are on you. Whether you’re in a visiting stadium and the masses are hoping you fail. Or you’re at your home stadium and the masses are hoping you’re the victor. Everything is amplified, you’re adrenal gland is pumping. The pressure is immense.”

His mindset during that final inning of each and every game he plays when the pressure is at boiling point is equally as descriptive.

He adds, “The only thing you start thinking about is the mind games that you play on yourself. Sometimes you start getting that cancerous thought about failure. That can take over your whole inning and the more negative thoughts you have the more negative outcomes you’ll have. In order to complete that inning you just have to have the ability to forget the negative.”

Wilson’s stats show that he is able to achieve that more often than not. He won the MLB saves championship (awarded to the closer who prevents defeat the most times in a season) in the World Series winning year and has been an All Star on three occasions.

But, everyone has an off day. Recently Wilson blew a save against the Detroit Tigers and was pulled out of the ninth inning with the game still hanging in the balance.

Showing just how much strain closers can be put under; a frustrated Wilson took out his anger in the dugout. Wielding a bat, he smashed a drinks cooler and punched a wall before returning to support his team.

Reflecting on the event, he said: “As a closer, it’s embarrassing to be taken out of the ninth inning. Your job description is to go out there and, win, lose or draw; you’re the last guy standing. Well I wasn’t the last guy standing so I was pissed off about it. I was pissed off at the fact that I didn’t get the job done. So I took 30 seconds to allow myself to completely lose it, snap a little bit and smash a water cooler. It’s no big deal; it’s made of plastic, its fine.”

With a job that requires the use of your hands for the most part, Wilson would have been wise to leave the wall alone. Not least because of the amount of injuries pitchers are susceptible to throughout a season.

The amount of strain pitchers put on their body can only be rivalled by a fast bowler, the two athletes taking the ball for their team never far away from the treatment room.

The types of injuries suffered between the two are different, though, bowlers exerting a lot of stress through their front leg and lower back while pitchers use their upper body and arm a lot more.

In fact, one particular injury became so common in baseball that the surgery was named after a pitcher. Tommy John surgery is the most common surgery for a pitcher.

It serves to replace a damaged ligament in the throwing arm with an unaffected tendon from the players other arm and can put a player out of action for an entire season.

With 162 games played in a season, and pitchers throwing up to 100 balls at 95mph in each appearance, the risk of injury is great.

Pitchers are allowed significant rest in between appearances which is a luxury that modern fast bowlers cannot afford and the two are some of the most worked athletes in world sport.

However, the level of fitness required to be an MLB pitcher is not as great as those demanded of international cricket. There is no flying around the outfield to make diving stops on the boundary and there is no real need to bat with designated hitters taking the pitches for you, so, in essence all you need to do is pitch.

That could be the reason why so many pitchers in the big leagues weigh in at over 17 stone. Heath Bell, Todd Coffey, José Valverde and Sabathia all weigh in at over 240 pounds, relying on their strong throwing arms rather than their athleticism to ply their trade while there aren’t too many beefy bowlers in international cricket with the possible exception of Bermudan spinner Dwayne Leverock.

With that in mind, it’s possible that modern day bowlers like Lee and Anderson, both known for exceptional fielding athleticism, could add a new, rarely seen, dimension to the mound; a pitcher who can make athletic defensive plays.
Close similarities in using hand and seam position to move a ball in the air mean that they could adapt to becoming a Major League pitcher and Pont has shown us that it is possible to convert.

I have seen a Surrey Second XI bowler practice his pitching in a pre-match warm up with some degree of success while it is reported that the eccentric Wilson backpacked around India during an off season, teaching cricketers how to throw a fastball.

A pitcher’s career is much longer than those of their cricket counterparts, with some pitchers continuing their mastery into their forties. A cricketer, therefore, could extend his athletic career through the major leagues as bowlers tend to wind down around the age of 34.

Big name cricketers around this age tend to defect to the hefty wage bills on offer in the IPL, but those salaries are nothing compared to the MLB.

So is there a potential career path that bowlers are missing out on? Pont may not have blazed a trail for cricketers to flood into MLB, but he is evidence that the modern day bowler could follow his lead. Even if it is 24 years later.

If you enjoyed this, then check out Matt Ogborn’s take on the NBA in “Evolution of a Big Man”

13 Responses to “Pitch Perfect”

  1. A really interesting read. I saw a video recently of the American tennis player, Mardy Fish, trying his luck at baseball. Fish has what tennis geeks call a live arm, really loose, which enables him to create enormous power without, seemingly, any real effort. Strangely, the right-handed Fish hit as a left-handed batter and was actually very good. When you’re a young tennis player, some coaches make you throw the ball hard to replicate a tennis serving motion, so perhaps some top tennis players would also make good bowlers and pitchers.

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  2. Tugger the Slugger November 9, 2011

    The games are so different. In the 70′s The Chapple brothers in Oz tried their hand at baseball in the off season and were decent. But Pro baseball players learn the game almost from birth, too much to expect a European or Australian to go pro. Games so different. I do think a top Rugby kicker could punt or kick in the NFL though, easier transition. Nice thesis on both sports though Matt. Interesting stuff.

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  3. @Simon, thanks for the comment. I enjoyed writing it. Interesting point you have about Fish and Tennis players. I wonder if anyone has tried to make the cross over before? Would Roddick be another player who could pitch because of his serve?

    @Slugger, again thanks for your interest, I’m glad you liked it. I would argue that the basic principles of the pitching motion are ingrained in cricketers. They throw the ball in much the same way and the seam positions needed to get the ball to move in the air shouldn’t be too much of an issue to grasp either. A fly half could transfer to NFL much easier though, I agree.

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  4. I don’t think you can compare bowlers and pitchers. Maybe a cricketer with a strong arm could cut it but, as you allude to, the bowling and pitching mechanics are way too different. I think it’s far more likely that a batsman in cricket would make it as a hitter. I’d imagine Andrew Symonds, or Hayden or MS Dhoni or Gilchrist, to name a few, would have been handy hitters in baseball if given time to tweak their techniques. HArd to say they would cut it at MLB level, but the transition would be far easier for them than for any fast bowler in my view.

    Many cricketers would also provide good value in defence (or defense). Symonds or Jonty Rhodes or Ricky Ponting at short stop would kill it.

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  5. Charles Perrin November 15, 2011

    There is some overlap between the two sports and in fact, New York played cricket at the start of the 19th century before switching to baseball.

    Without digressing too much, this is a fascinating angle you have chosen and you flesh it out well.

    I do have to agree however with Lord Aram- the mechanics of bowling and pitching are very different. However, cricket is blessed with natural sportsmen, such as Ricky Ponting and if you have an aptitude for something, I’m sure you could quite easily adapt.

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  6. I agree with both of you, Charles and Aram, I make the point quite early on that the mechanics of bowling and pitching are completely opposite to each other. However, the point I am trying to make with the article is that while it may take a bit of practice to perfect, the fundamentals are there for a cricketer to make the switch. All cricketers, whether they bat or bowl, have to throw the ball. The reason I think bowlers might suit a career in pitching is that they could harness their throwing techniques, along with their ability to use the seam of a ball to make it move in the air to effectively pitch in baseball.

    @Lord Aram I don’t necessarily think batters can make a fluid transition. Their tools are vastly different, they have a shorter reaction time and the ball doesn’t bounce. I would argue that even the most ferocious batsman would struggle against Justin Verlander.

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  7. tom van dyke November 25, 2011

    Interesting. As an American who has played both sports, my opinion is that the throwing arm is a more inherent athletic talent: even as early as age 8, some kids have it, some kids don’t.

    There is also the dimension of building the throwing arm from ages 8-14 while the body is growing. I have my doubts if one can build much of an arm after 14.

    As a baseballer, my arm in the field was middling at best; in my California cricket league [I took up the game at age 37], mine was one of the better arms.

    So too, as a pitcher, my pace [speed] would be a joke. I did learn to bowl a bit, though, and even at my age, my pace on a good day approached middle-of-the-pack anyway.

    My guess is that learning proper technique can benefit a bowler much more than a pitcher.

    As to what Simon mentions above about the left-handed hitting right-handed tennis player, it has to do with pointing one’s dominant eye toward the pitcher or bowler. “Cross-dominance” [left-eyed, right-handed] approaches 20% in baseball whereas it’s only 9% of the general population. Add in righties who bat left along with the switch-hitters, and it begins to approach 50%.

    As for batsmen, considering it’s just fine to swing and miss half the time, I’d expect a Ponting or Lara to be just fine. A Tendulkar or Boycott, well, high averages albeit without power are nice, but usually admired only when accompanied by superior fielding skills.

    As for fielding, I have seen few Test cricketers who would even be average by baseball standards. Even Jonty Rhodes would probably only make for a third baseman, although a top one. I have seen no cricketer who could play shortstop on a major league level, for the quickness, sure-handedness and throwing arm that the position requires.

    Hope this is of interest, and thx for the interesting article.

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    • On the fielding side of things, Tom, I would like to think cricketers would add a great deal. They are used to fielding ground balls without the use of a glove, something that US commentators rave over any time it happens in the MLB. Also I think the throwing distance shouldn’t be a problem. Players fire the ball into the keeper as a means to end each ball. The distance between say extra cover and the keeper is roughly the same between the bases.

      Another thought I had was the use of the bounce throw, generally used more in cricket over the long distances but also used to gain pace on the ball when throwing at the stumps. Do you think that is something that could be utilized in baseball?

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      • tom van dyke December 20, 2011

        Matt, the infield bounce throw entered baseball along with artificial turf, circa 1970. The fields [save one] have returned to grass, but the bounce throw has indeed stuck.

        The long throw from the outfield has classically been one [last, short] hop, so it slows enough for the catcher to handle it and apply the tag.

        But I would say that even the routine infield throw to First Base [from SS or 3B] is at far more mph than anything a wicket-keeper is called to handle with one hand, very close to an actual pitching delivery of 70-90 mph. I don’t think cricketers develop that sort of throwing motion that is routine in baseball. [In the outfield, only the right fielder needs a great arm; in the infield, the shortstop, 3B, and the catcher, for stolen bases.]

        There have been several Australians who have pitched at the Major League level, though. Whether they’d been playing baseball since their youths and developed the arm strength there I do not know, but it’s not unlikely, since Oz plays baseball.

        Keep in mind that “playing catch” is something you do from the age of 6 onward in the baseball world. I can think of fewer more miserable experiences than playing full-steam “catch” without a mitt. Not the sort of thing you do for fun, esp as a kid. Again, I think it’s a development thing, and is it worth even developing much in a cricketer, as it’s a relatively unimportant asset in the game?

        As for cricketers learning to field without gloves, having played both sports, I’d say it’s of limited utility, since catching with one hand, at full extension from the body, is routinely necessary, whereas in cricket, quite the exception.

        Since the speed of a batted ball can approach 120 mph, I dunno why anybody would want to get their bare hand in front of it, especially for fun! Mebbe Jonty Rhodes, but the list is short.

        And as you may know, it was the Baggy Green’s addition of a baseball coach, Mike Young, that precipitated the current emphasis on and higher level of fielding in cricket currently. Whatever cricket might teach baseball about fielding, I’m afraid it might have got from baseball in the first place.

        Sorry I lost the link to this site, Matt, but find the discussion fascinating and will endeavor to return more promptly to see if there’s any life in it. Feel free to reply by email as well.

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        • NFL is supposedly tought than Rugby. Baseball’s get hit harder than cricket balls. Balls! I’m just not buying it.

          You stand at shortist extra cover and try and field a ball of a Matty Hayden drive.

          Maybe because the Baseball sluggers are all juiced they hit it harder but Rhodes et al would cope fine with a big leather glove. Their American cousin’s would crap themselves with no glove.

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  8. Tom Van Dyke December 22, 2011

    Howie, having played both games [see above], I certainly agree there’s no braver act in all of sport than facing and corralling the cover drive. I adore cricket, believe me.

    The discussion was about how the skills of the games translate to each other. Since baseball is about mastering fielding with a glove, being good without one doesn’t necessarily translate.

    Although it could—many top shortstops come from the Dominican Republic, and it’s said the kids there used paper milk cartons because they couldn’t afford gloves. Thus they learned to field with the hand and not just the mitt. [Think Donald Bradman's childhood practice with golf balls and a broomstick.]

    And I did note above in the thread that Jonty Rhodes would likely have made a top-drawer third baseman. But cricket seldom has seen his like, whereas baseball has seen quite a few. [Look on YouTube for Brooks Robinson at third base, a mirror image of Jonty at backward point.]

    As for NFL, I do believe simply that rugby attracts a lower tier of athlete because there’s not much money in it. The game is no less grueling, although rugby favors conditioning over the NFL’s quick-burst speed and strength. The NFL’s 300 lb. lineman would literally be dead in a half-hour.

    On the other hand, a linebacker [Dhani Jones played some rugby for TV] of the 6’2″, 225 lb range or his rugby equivalent would excel in either game.

    On the other hand, at only 180 lbs, Chavanga is probably too small to take the pounding in the NFL, although Jonah Lomu looks like he’d excel.

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  9. Tom, you make some excellent points. As someone who has had the experience of playing both sports you probably the most qualified to comment on the likelihood of a cricketer transferring to baseball or vice versa.

    As I mentioned in my article, I have only recently started getting into baseball and so your thoughts on the subject have really interest me.

    I still maintain that cricketers could contribute in the field. Although I think we would need to see someone actually do it to end the argument! However, I accept that they are possibly not going to translate as easily as I originally thought.

    Pitchers/bowlers are again a skill that I think the cricketer could adapt to while the batters may have a lot of adjusting to do – in both sports.

    Have you heard of the book I referenced in the article by Ed Smith. It is possibly the closest we will ever come to finding out if a cricketer could make it in the major leagues. And well worth a read.

    As a cricket fanatic I am inclined to agree with Howie’s views. Possibly in more of a staunch backing of my favoured sport than anything else. Again we need an experiment to settle the debate.

    The NFL/Rugby point you make Tom is spot on though.

    If your still keen to read about American Sport we have got a great on the website now about Lebron.

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  10. I feel the need to clarify that the relatively recent abomination that is the Designated Hitter rule (i.e. pitchers not batting) is only employed in the American League, not the National League.

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