Cricket has always had slow balls, just not actual slower balls. People have bowled quick and then slowed down. Perhaps they slipped on their cravats, or enjoyed too much ale for lunch, or were beaten by their landowner for not bowling straight enough in their last spell. Bowlers have always delivered balls that come out slower; it's just that until there were matches with people trying to hit every ball stupidly hard, they weren't much use.
And what we have now is not slower ball, but really slowerball™, a portmanteau. But for a phrase we use so much, we talk little about the different types of slower balls. They are all lumped together as one thing.
And there's a reason for that - they are spoiler balls. We want big hits and fast bowling; we don't want some pudgy medium-pacer who grins too much making a big slogger lose his shape and wicket. Slower balls are like the people who correct you for grammar.
But they are here, coming out of the back of the hand, from knuckles and fingertips, gently wobbling like plates full of jelly at unsuspecting batsmen who want to crowd-please and make Danny Morrison discover a new octave, and instead they are overbalanced on their splayed front foot, one hand off the bat, bails slowly falling off like they have been pashed by a butterfly.
Watching overpriced batsmen taken down by modern cricket's subversive force is a beautiful thing. The slower ball is canniness in cricket form. It rotates down the wicket violently and says - in a Kiwi accent, for some reason - "Can you hit slow, bro?"
"When I was a teenager, I taught my girlfriend, who had never played cricket, how to bowl an offcutter, to upset my mates in backyard cricket."
So for those of you who don't record super slow-motion replays of change-ups with your mobile phone to watch before bed, here is a complete guide to modern-day slower balls.
Remember a few years ago before you went to cafés with exposed brick and vintage-looking eco bulbs hanging low over your avocado meal presented on a reclaimed boat paddle? Back then slower balls had become stale. Then along comes AJ Tye - maybe the 87th quickest bowler in Perth - and becomes unhittable, and the knuckleball becomes like wool sneakers or Bluetooth speakers: everyone wants them.
ALSO READ: Decoding Andrew Tye's knuckleball
So we take the knuckleball from the baseball pitch known as - you've already guessed - the knuckleball, where the pitcher holds the ball with his fingertips digging into it and the knuckles closest to the fingertips showing over the top.
Mark Butcher once claimed to me to have invented the delivery while playing club cricket in Melbourne in the '90s. Other bowlers have tried versions, especially around the time the split-finger ball was trendy - Zaheer Khan had his own version. But in mainstream cricket, it never landed. Quite literally: a bad knuckleball floats wildly, like a kidult drifting through their mid-20s. But unlike those, the knuckleball is actually useful.
There are two basic grips. One is holding the ball with your thumb and resting your fingernails flat on it, while for the other you hold it with your fingertips. As it comes out it looks more or less like a seam-up ball, the knuckles holding the ball in a way that to most batsmen they look like fingertips.
By holding it with your knuckles, you take pace off the delivery and the ball doesn't rotate backwards, like with a standard delivery. It either doesn't rotate at all, which makes it wobble around, or it rotates forwards, which makes it drop. It's something about the Magnus Effect (I looked it up, it has nothing to do with Magnus Norman, the Swedish tennis player who appeared in the game Virtua Tennis 2).
So if it's so damn good, why doesn't everyone bowl it?
Well, it's really hard. You know those balls where the commentators laugh instead of calling the ball as it floats out near the end of the cut strip, and then rolls apologetically to the keeper? Those are failed knuckleballs. (Also, the laugh should be hence known as the knucklechuckle.) Some bowlers just can't control it. Others say their hands are too small even to try. Donald Trump, for example, would be a rubbish knuckleball bowler.
Bowled by: Andrew Tye, Zaheer Khan, Mark Butcher (allegedly), Sunil Narine, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Matt Coles and Andile Phehlukwayo.
Cutters, chapter one
Look, you could totally bowl an offcutter. I don't know how good you are at cricket; I don't know if you own the maidan, beach or backyard, but if you understand the shape of a ball while having the physical dexterity required to open a door, you can bowl an offcutter. When I was a teenager, I taught my girlfriend, who had never played cricket, how to bowl an offcutter, to upset my mates in backyard cricket.
ALSO SEE: Vote for your favourite slower ball
The offcutter is the easiest ball to bowl. I'm talking about the slower-ball variation of the offcutter more than the traditional offcutter. The latter one was more from a subtle roll of the fingers down the back right half of the ball, which made it nip back in at a decent pace. The current offcutter involves a violent wrist wrench, like turning off a faucet in panic as the sink overflows. Basically, we've swapped the sophistication of Bond for the biceps of Schwarzenegger.
An offcutter is turning your hand to the right. Using the same basic movement as an offspinner (let's be honest here, almost all the rubbish offspinners you have played against in the park are just slow offcutter bowlers, and no one has had the heart to tell them). Only, the ball is not wedged into the fingers like for offspin; it's really just a seam-up grip.
"The slower ball is canniness in cricket form. It rotates down the wicket violently and says - in a Kiwi accent, for some reason - "Can you hit slow, bro?"
It is a ball that has been around forever. It's almost certainly the first overarm delivery that moved off the straight. And when people say they are cutter bowlers, they almost always mean offcuttters (see "Cutters, chapter two" below).
The offcutter as a slower ball is moderately successful. On a pitch with grip, it can be like a fast offspinner. On a slow pitch it can hold in the surface. Someone like Ben Laughlin - who has taken the offcutter, put on mag wheels, a spoiler and painted it racing red - has turned it into a weapon of drift. Mustafizur Rahman is known as the Fizz because there is a "fiz" in his name, but also because of what his offcutters do off the pitch. And Lasith Malinga's offcutter is like an egg rolling and then dropping off a glass table, such is the dip.
Sadly it is usually just a medium-paced arm ball, so on most pitches, from most hands, the offcutter doesn't fizz, curve or drop. It just takes pace off the ball, while showing the batsman exactly what has happened through a very pickable wrist tweak.
It's the most delivered but least damaging slower ball. Think of it as how you remember the Matrix mostly for the cool leather costumes Neo and team wore, but not the bits where they wore filthy rags and ate ugly goop.
Bowled by: Every seam bowler, unless they have far better slower balls or they have ethical issues with slower balls.
The Benny Howell
While you were watching an Instastory from someone with a billion followers who draws pictures of Logan Paul as a pot plant, Benny Howell invented a slower ball. By the time you hit "skip intro" on Netflix's Labour Day BoJack Horseman special, he'll find two more. And while your life partner is off making you a decaf coffee with artificial sweetener and almond milk, he's made ten more.
Howell is not a man, he's a slower-ball production line. His knuckleballs have knuckleballs. There have been many influential men in this world: Simon O'Donnell, Adam Hollioake, Malinga and Ian Harvey would all be on a Shane Warne-style mural of influential slower-ball bowlers. And Franklyn Stephenson, perhaps the first man to make his name from change-ups.
They are all special but none of them are like Howell. He bowls so many slower balls that they are no longer slower balls, just regular balls. He has not got a change-up in pace - just another ball that will be roughly the same pace but will do something different.
He claims to possess over 50 slower balls, which sounds made up, but with Howell, it is an understatement. Recently he has been working on a back-of-the-hand variation made in his science lab (in this lab I assume he has a lot of plasma orbs with seams on them). He is more Abdul Qadir than Jade Dernbach. He looks down on cutters like a golfer would at a wooden wood.
Like fast bowlers trying to reverse it, he hides his bowling hand as he runs in. Every ball. For Howell, it's more like a baseball pitcher covering the ball with his glove (which is fitting, as baseball is his main inspiration). You get a split second to read him as his arm comes over. It's possible he's inventing more slower balls on the way in.
Last year Howell talked about a barrel ball: "The commentators are always saying I bowl cutters. No, I don't. I also bowl barrel balls, which is when an offspinner bowls around the side, like a saucer, that might skid on or hold." It sounds made up, but no one can hit him, so maybe it isn't.
"A bunny ball is when you have no fingers on the ball. The ball is just wedged with your thumb holding it in your thenar webspace (the bit between your thumb and index finger, you big silly)"
The other cool thing with Howell is, almost no one has seen him bowl. Gloucestershire only play on TV at midnight once every three years, and the BPL is locked away on subscription channels you have to join by mail. Even England don't understand what to do with him. And even if people see him, they don't see a giant Hollywood Japanese-inspired monster, they see dibbly dobbly. This year in the BPL his economy was under six.
Bowled by: Benny Howell
Cutters, chapter two
Are you ready for a nuclear hot take? Legcutters are bullshit. For all the talk, the legcutter is a ball that has had no real impact on cricket since black-and-white TV. Most balls classified as legcutters are just balls that seam away from the right-hander. And the reason you don't see more actual legcutters is because they are ineffectual. They are like home-brand cola - the same colour as the better-known cola, but tasting like someone vomited up bubblegum-flavour toothpaste through brown sugar.
Partly we just want to say legcutter because, let's be honest here, it sounds fantastic. It makes bowlers sound like axemen bringing down robot theropods, when it's more like someone catching a fork they have knocked from the table.
Legcutters are slow, like really slow, like something a Kiwi batting allrounder bowled in the '90s. (Yes, I am talking about Chris Harris. And while we are talking about Chris Harris, why doesn't the world talk about the fact that Virat Kohli, conqueror of cricket, super mega uber star, bowls dibbly dobbly legcutters in the style of perhaps the least cool player from the '90s?)
And then there is the deviation - or lack of it. It's a fast bowler sliding their fingers down the left side of the ball, so it's not exactly Stuart MacGill on the fifth day after he's taken a shiv to the pitch. There are fewer revs on them than a grandma's hatchback - unless the bowler is a digit genius like Dennis Lillee, Malcolm Marshall or Venkatesh Prasad, with fingers that have strength and dexterity.
The offcutter might be easier to read than one of Virender Sehwag's Twitter dad jokes but it is strong and proud. On most surfaces it does something off the wicket, goes down at a decent pace, and is easy to aim. The legcutter is none of those things. Which is why for years it was only practised by old men who said things like, "If you can't be a cricketer, at least look like one", sported non-ironic moustaches, and appeared at the ground with red-stained trousers.
"Legcutters are like home-brand cola - the same colour as the better-known cola, but tasting like someone vomited up bubblegum-flavour toothpaste through brown sugar"
But this delivery is making a comeback, for the same general reason legspin has done (except, with none of legspin's elegance or panache), because it moves away from the edge of right-hand batsmen. Most batsmen are right-handers and moving the ball away from them is still one of the most essential skills in T20.
Now all these people who have heard - and misused - the term for years will get to see balls gently float away from the edge: the legcutter, in all its understated and over-named glory.
Bowled by: Jofra Archer, Malcolm Marshall, Kieron Pollard, Richard Snell, Venkatesh Prasad, Kesrick Williams, Munaf Patel, Scott Boland, and Virat Kohli.
Whipping out a split-finger slower ball these days puts you in a very specific era, like someone wearing happy pants or using a Blackberry. Back in the '90s, this was the knuckleball. All the cool kids wanted one.
Split-finger balls came from baseball as well. Hollioake used them, because let's be honest, what was he going to do otherwise - medium-pace them to death? Glenn McGrath had one and used it in Tests to get rid of annoying tailenders. It was the first slower ball where mid-off and mid-on became wicket-taking fielders.
The ball came through slow while behaving more or less like a standard delivery, and because of this it was the most spoonable delivery ever concocted. It's not easy to bowl, in part because a cricket ball is quite big, and placing one between the ring and index fingers isn't easy.
You might think, "Wait a minute, it dropped pace and made people mishit while pretending to be a normal ball? Why isn't this the biggest thing ever?" Well, like much of the '90s (Furbys, Limp Bizkit, and teams still wearing white kits in ODIs after the 1992 World Cup) it wasn't perfect.
Few players could deliver it well. It was hard to deliver once, let alone consistently. Then there were the finger tells. A keen-eyed ball-watching batsman - and ball-watching is a central task of batting - would spot that instead of two fingers being near the seam, they were out towards the side.
Once picked, the split-finger slower ball is just a slow ball. It doesn't spit, spin or fizz; there is no holding up, it's wobble-less, and contains no magical drop. The split fingers allow a bowler to deliver the ball club cricketers bowl: slow-medium and straight, which is fine right up until the point the batsmen work it out. Then it's like asking your local friend who opens the bowling to deliver to a top professional.
ALSO READ: Mustafizur and the art of the cutter
It's still bowled now, but very rarely, and few use it as their main go-to slower ball.
Bowled by: Glenn McGrath, Adam Hollioake, Matt Coles and Dilhara Fernando.
I went and found a new slower ball, and it's got a tremendously cute name.
A bunny ball is when you have no fingers on the ball. The ball is just wedged with your thumb holding it in your thenar webspace (the bit between your thumb and index finger, you big silly). The fingers are used as a cunning ruse. They stand straight up, so they still look like it is seam-up, but they are just above the ball, like bunny ears.
I have no idea how useful this ball is. It kind of feels like a ball you bowl if your hands are not big enough to deliver a knuckleball. But it does wobble around, and at times it can really swing.
I've included it here for a few reasons. Cricketers call it the bunny ball, and I like that. It makes me think of Donnie Darko and Harvey. But with this delivery so much can go horribly wrong: like missing the cut strip, and getting short cover smashed in the arse.
Bowled by: Kane Richardson and Chris Liddle.
Back of the hand
If the back-of-the-hand slower ball could legally marry you, it would be too good for you, and you'd end up in a dysfunctional relationship with an offcutter. Seriously, who do you think you are?
The back-of-the-hand comes out of legspin. It is basically just a wrong'un with a long unnecessary run-up.
"The back-of-the-hand ball is the little black dress of slower balls - every good change-up bowler needs one"
O'Donnell and Steve Waugh used this ball in the 1980s, so it is older than most of the players who now face it. What is weird is that after all these years, players don't always pick it. And it's not that subtle: I mean, it comes out of the back of the hand; a whole different part of the hand faces the batsman.
The genius of it isn't just based on whether you pick it, it's also because of what it does. Let's talk about the plunge first. When Dwayne Bravo bowls it, batsmen see the beamer coming straight at their head, until it falls. From the safety of your seat, that seems mildly concerning, but try facing it in the middle. You're looking for a ball to pitch and bounce up at you; instead the ball is coming at your face, and all you can think is, "Oh my god, my face, my beautiful face!" And then it drops. That ball at your face is now dropping towards your precious stumps. That's the worst: fear of facial trauma, and then, way worse, fear of losing your wicket.
There are two ways to pick it. One is that it comes out of the back of the hand. The other is that batsmen seemed to work out a few years ago that if the ball goes above your eyes, chances are it's out of the back of the hand. That should have meant the death of the delivery, but it's still everywhere. And the reason for that is why it is such a good ball: even if you can pick it, you still have to hit it.
The drop makes it tough to work out the length, the bounce makes it hard to hit. Off the pitch it doesn't react like a cricket ball but a tennis ball. And hitting a tennis ball is bloody hard when you're trying to knock one back over your mate's head. It's a lot harder when the bowler has dropped his speed for that ball, you have lost your shape, have to generate pace without great balance, and there are two or three deep fielders ready to end your part in the game.
Here is the thing with good slower balls, they work outside of just being slow. They work because they are also deliveries that do crazy things. Beating a player for pace is good, but so is beating them for sideways movement or bounce. A good slower ball doesn't rely on its change of pace; it's better than that.
ALSO READ: Death becomes him
The back-of-the-hand ball is the little black dress of slower balls - every good change-up bowler needs one. Honestly, if you don't have it, you probably don't have a heart, or are a batsman. Same, same.
Bowled by: Simon O'Donnell, Ian Harvey, Clint McKay, Steve Waugh, Dwayne Bravo, Rana Naved-ul Hasan, Rikki Clarke, Tymal Mills, Tom Curran and James Faulkner.
Let's be clear, the cross-seam ball isn't a slower ball, it's a variation. It can hold up a touch, and there are the smallest changes in pace, (depending on where the ball lands, seam side or smooth) but it's not a slower ball. I am willing to die on this hill. It's handy, and it works by upsetting batsmen with the bounce. If you bowl them back of a length and make players play across the line, there's a chance of beating them with bounce or lack of it.
It's still not a slower ball, obs.
The back-of-palm ball is where you pack the ball tightly into your hand, meaning it doesn't get released with the same power. And there's a variant on this, the fingertip slower ball, in which you hold the ball really delicately, like you're holding a Dikembe Mutombo rookie card. Both work, though they don't work as well as others.
There's also bowling slow. We've all tried and excelled at this. Just about every slower ball should be bowled with the same arm speed, because as much as possible, you're trying to show the batsman you are bowling quick. But some bowlers slow their arms down. On some slow pitches, just slowing down can be handy, but there is a fine line between this being a slower ball and only a slow ball.
I am assuming you work out that line sometime around the point where you get flat-batted over cover for six.
We've picked out a bunch of memorable slower ones from recent cricketing history. Click here to vote for your favourite slower ball