“I’m a hybrid,” he says. “I’m closer to a quick spinner than a medium pacer.”
Attending a Major League Baseball game while on holiday after his first season for Gloucestershire in 2012 transformed Howell’s career.
“I watched the Miami Marlins versus the Philadelphia Phillies and it was actually quite a boring game,” Howell recalls. “But I loved it because I just love the way pitchers and the catcher have their plans and know what to throw. And I just became pretty obsessed with it.”
Howell studied pitchers such as RA Dickey, Sergio Romo and Trevor Bauer, renowned for their subtleties as he looked to embrace other routes to success, than pace. “Those sorts of pitchers I really enjoy, rather than the out-and-out fast-ball pitchers,” he added.
Howell ended up playing club cricket in Melbourne and while he was there he started experimenting with the knuckleball – which hangs in the air, then drops like a stone – in cricket. “I didn’t really like the idea of standard medium pace,” he said. “I was like, right, I’m going to just bring the knuckleball in.”
The delivery has thrived – yet, in a game as fast-evolving and forensically analysed as T20, one trick is never enough. The knuckleball has become almost de rigueur among the new generation of T20 fast bowlers; but Howell has three.
All the while, Howell has honed other variations. All told, he reckons that he has 13 distinct deliveries – the three knuckleballs, seam up, cross-seam and three-quarters seam variations bowling at full pace, two split-finger variations, two types of leg-cutter and three deliveries with an off-spinner’s grip.
Like mischievous baseball pitchers, Howell tries to make each delivery look similar at the point of release, depriving batsmen of clues about what to expect. “It’s very subtle variations. Sometimes it probably looks like I’m bowling medium pace on TV but, actually, I’m bowling those slight variations.”
Almost as important to Howell as his variations is knowing when to deploy them. “Generally, it’s a lot on the batter, on the pitch and the conditions – I would take that into account. Sometimes I will only bowl one variation in a game and that’s it. Sometimes I bowl them all, sometimes I bowl a lot of seam-up balls because I know guys are waiting on my slower balls – they’re thinking about my slower balls and if I bowl quicker ones, I can surprise them.”
It adds up to a bowler who is unique on the T20 circuit today. But novelty cannot explain Howell’s success: meeting the same batsmen year-on-year in the T20 Blast has not diluted his excellence.
And so while there are no guarantees that his methods will transfer to different teams and different leagues, the curiosity is why he has barely got a chance. In 14 Bangladesh Premier League games – bowling on completely different pitches in matches featuring a plethora of batting stars – Howell has conceded just six an over, dismissing Kieron Pollard, Andre Russell, Shakib Al Hasan and Jos Buttler along the way. Yet Howell has never even been selected by England Lions, the national second-string.
“Pace is important but I do think we’re more obsessed than we should be, in T20 cricket anyway,” Howell says. “It should be ‘is this guy performing in this part of the game or does that guy perform in that part of the game?’ I think they should look at it more like that.”
And while he hopes his Big Bash sojourn may yet be the prelude to higher honours, Howell already has his next innovations in mind.
“Everyone’s catching up, I guess, so I’ll have to think of some new balls,” he laughs. His newest invention, he hopes, will be delivering leg-spin at 120km/h. “I bowled some leg-spin in lockdown so we’ll see if that comes on in the next couple of years. I’m fizzing them out.”