Patrick Noone talks to Sussex’s left-arm quick about one of his most memorable nights
The winter of 2015-16 was a long and hard one for Tymal Mills. The previous summer, persistent back injuries prompted his decision to retire from any cricket longer than T20. For Mills, this meant a radical change in how he trained and his preparation for the 2016 home summer was unlike any previous season.
‘I had a long winter away on various camps. I’d had to adapt to my training after retiring from four-day cricket and I went on two separate trips to South Africa, one with a fast bowling group and another with the England U19s where they took me along just to keep me outside, to keep me training.’
Nowadays, Mills can expect to spend his winters on the T20 circuit, picking up valuable experience and playing in front of good crowds in leagues such as the IPL, the PSL or the Big Bash League. Back then though, two outings for the England Lions in December 2015 in Dubai was the extent of his winter cricket.
It meant that when the English county season resumed the following year, Mills was champing at the bit to get ball in hand. Having declared himself only eligible for the T20 Blast, Mills had to wait until May 20th to get involved with Sussex’s campaign. A rain-affected match against Gloucestershire in Bristol would be his first outing of the season.
Figures of 0-19 from two overs in a truncated run chase did little to suggest what was about to happen 12 days later when Somerset visited Hove. For Mills though, his return to meaningful cricket couldn’t come soon enough.
‘I came back from the UAE and then had a long wait while the boys were playing Championship cricket before the Blast started. Our first Blast match was cut short, so this game against Somerset was the first proper game that we played.’
Sussex batted first, giving Mills even longer to wait before he could have an impact on the match. Chris Nash’s unbeaten 112 propelled the home side to a mammoth 222-3 from their 20 overs and, after Ajmal Shahzad dismissed Jim Allenby in the first over of the run chase, Mills finally had a chance to let rip.
‘I’d been waiting a long time for that game. By the time it came around to finally getting the ball in my hand I’d been waiting for such a long time for that moment that I was so pumped. It came out pretty well.’
‘Pretty well’ is something of an understatement. Mills’ first over had an average speed of 148.67kph, making it the fastest T20 over on record on English soil. There was also the small matter that Mills was bowling to none other than Chris Gayle, the West Indian great who was playing his first game for Somerset in that campaign, having registered scores of 92 (59), 151* (62) and 85* (49) in his three appearances with the county during the previous summer.
Pumped up and raring to go, Mills made sure there was to be no repeat performance for the Jamaican giant. His first delivery clocked 148kph and whizzed past Gayle’s bat as he looked to defend. The second was nearly two metres shorter and nearly three kph quicker as Gayle threw everything at it and top edged the ball for four.
‘The first ball I beat Gayle on the outside edge pretty comfortably, then he played a big flash that went over first slip for four, so I felt on top in that situation. I didn’t feel like I had to go to anything different in terms of variations.’
Mills’ assessment proved to be correct and his decision to keep pace on the ball brought him reward the very next ball. As he cranked it up even more to 152kph, Gayle was beaten for pace and could only watch as his leg-stump went cartwheeling off behind him and the partisan crowd at Hove erupted around him.
It was the quickest ball Mills would bowl that night and proof that extreme pace, when allied to accuracy, is enough to get the better of even the very best around. Mills would ultimately end the night with figures of 2-11 from 2.4 overs but what stands out is the change of approach he made from those early explosive exchanges with Gayle compared to when he came back into the attack during the death overs.
Of the first nine legal balls he bowled that evening, none were slower than 135kph, yet of his last seven balls, only one was quicker than 120kph. As effective as Mills’ early strategy was against Gayle, his dramatic shift in pace is further evidence that variations are essential for the modern T20 bowler to succeed.
That said, there are not many bowlers around capable of taking things to such extremes as Mills, given his ability to bowl in excess of 150kph alongside his slower balls. At first glance, or perhaps to people new to the game, it might appear somewhat counter-intuitive that someone who can bowl so fast deliberately chooses not to with such regularity. From Mills’ perspective, the full pace delivery is simply another string to his bow.
‘I’ve been lucky that because the pace has always been there for me, it almost becomes a variation in itself because you can bowl fast at multiple lengths and lines.
‘The combination of express pace and slower balls is my biggest weapon. If you can bowl 150kph, even the best batsman in the world will be aware he can get hit and while you’re thinking that, you have to be ready for those faster balls.
‘Nobody wants to get hit, no matter how good you are, so you have to be ready for that faster ball while also thinking of the big discrepancy in pace that could come from my slower ball.’
Across Mills’ career, he generally bowls 42% slower balls at the death, compared to just 15% during the Powerplay. Unsurprisingly, he sees the top of the innings as the best place to be unleashing his quickest deliveries.
‘When you have that new ball in your hand, you know you’re going to get that carry, that pace and you’re looking to be attacking. It’s when you’re at your freshest as well – you haven’t bowled a ball yet; you don’t want to waste slower balls when you’re feeling at your fittest and at your freshest.’
But despite that, Mills recognises the need for bowlers to think on their feet in the heat of the battle.
‘You do try and ride the momentum of how the over’s going and be adaptable. You’ll often find if I’m bowling more slower balls in the Powerplay, either it’s because I’m getting hit off my full pace balls, or it’s blatantly obvious that it’s a knackered pitch, or it’s because I know a particular batsman doesn’t pick my slower ball or play slower balls particularly well.
‘Generally though, you look to be more attacking and take wickets with pace on balls in the Powerplay, for sure.’
With the amount of data available on players, particularly those who, like Mills, compete across the various T20 leagues around the world, it is a constant battle to stay ahead of the curve and continue to tweak their variations lest they get found out by batsmen who have done their homework.
‘I’ve played so many games now – over 100 T20 games so that’s a lot of data on me – analysts can now pick up a pattern and tell teams things like “at the death he’s going to be bowling three out of six slower balls” or “if he gets hit for a boundary his next ball is often a slower ball” or whatever it is. All these stats are out there so I definitely have to be a bit wise to that.
‘Last year I definitely made a move to bowling fewer slower balls. Unfortunately, I got injured midway through the Blast, but up until then I was bowling probably as well as I ever have done in my career.
‘You’ve still got to be smart; you’ve got to understand the rhythm of the game, but I definitely put away my slower ball a little bit because I was becoming over reliant on it.
‘Batters are getting so good – guys that you were previously fooling are always finding ways to come out on top so it’s definitely a game of cat and mouse.’
That perpetual tug-of-war between batsmen and bowlers is fundamental to the game of cricket across any format. Different players have developed different strategies to gain an edge and there is no one-size-fits-all formula for success. For Mills, the key to his variations with the ball is to bowl his slower ball as quickly as possible.
‘The faster your arm speed, the more difficult it’s going to be for the batsman to pick it up out of the hand. But it’s more to do with the revs you get on the ball from the back of the hand slower ball, almost like a spinner.
‘I try and bowl it as quickly as I can so that when you get it right, the faster your arm comes over, the more revs you get on the ball and that’s how you get that bite off the surface.
‘There’s definitely a sweet spot where if you land it either just full or just short of a length where it kicks and that’s when it’s the bounce that actually does the batsman.’
At the elite level, the margin for error with strategies such as the one Mills outlines is very slim.
‘Guys now are so good – they’ll pick the slower ball but if you’ve got those revs and that extra bit of energy on the ball and it bounces a bit more with the overspin you’ve got on it, that’s what makes the back of the hand slower ball more effective, in my opinion.
‘But when you bowl it too full, those revs will make it dip into a half volley and that’s meat and drink for the batsmen. So, you need to find that balance of either pitching it just short of a good length, going really short for a slower ball bouncer or the perfect one that really dips down and turns into a yorker.
‘That’s the hardest one to bowl though because it’s got further to travel but it still needs the energy on the ball for it to dip. That’s the holy grail.’
Mills’ efforts on that chilly evening on the south coast back in 2016 were a different kind of holy grail. With the Sky Sports cameras beaming his eye-catching dismissal of a high-profile player to millions of eyeballs around the world, this was a performance that put Mills on the map as a force to be reckoned with in the T20 arena.
His next T20 outing would be in an England shirt a month later – the first of five T20Is he has played – and, in November of that year, he turned out for Chittagong Vikings in the Bangladesh Premier League. It was to be the first of many franchise gigs he would secure around the world.
At the time, his three balls to Gayle might have felt like the culmination of a long road back, the fruits of a sustained period of rehabilitation and hard work. As it would turn out, this was just the beginning of something bigger for Mills. Gayle might have been the first superstar to be beaten by Mills in front of a global audience. He certainly wouldn’t be the last.
Patrick Noone is a CricViz analyst