10 March 2010.
Twenty20 offers fast bowlers their most convenient stage. It will be a pity if it becomes their only space for expression.
Fast bowlers don’t actually like bowling. Labourers don’t like digging holes. Give them a chance to put their feet up and have a cup of chai and they’ll grab it with both hands. After all, it’s hard yakka, causes blisters and bad temper and exhaustion, and meanwhile the pretty things flick through lifestyle magazines.
Pacemen are not uplifted by their calling. The activity itself gives them little satisfaction. Often they can be heard grumbling about wretched little spinners taking cheap wickets with their trifles, and professional batsmen carrying huge lumps of willow allowed to stand 22 yards away lest the ball inconvenience them in some way. These pampered clowns wear suits of armour and still flee as soon as a dark cloud covers the sun. Often they stand in the slips urging on their hewers of wood and turners of sods with claps and calls and other dubious contributions. Meanwhile referees sit in their armchairs ready to pounce on any outrage perpetrated by the long-suffering leather flingers, who trudge back to their marks and summon the effort needed to send down another thunderbolt on another pitch as lively as a suet pudding.
Poets can purr all they like about smooth run-ups and rhythmic deliveries and the beauty and ugliness of it all but the practitioners themselves hope the captain wins the toss and nothing thereafter enters his head or leaves his mouth except those priceless words “we’ll bat”. To that end speedsters often glare at the pitch and now and then, in the immortal words of Joel Garner, tell their benighted leader, “It isn’t as green as it looks.” Only in fond imagination do fast bowlers flex their muscles in the rooms, chomp at the bit and resemble a horse snorting on the starting line.
In truth, most pacemen are inconveniently bright. Indeed, they dedicate their years in retirement to proving the point by writing books, serving on boards, becoming coaches, funding films, commentating and so forth. Great heavens, some of them even take proper jobs, a manoeuvre that has not appealed to too many batsmen or spinners.
Of course, exceptions exist. Mr Jeff Thomson has never gone out of his way to change the raw impression created on hot afternoons in Bankstown as club batsmen found themselves fending off missiles from him and Len Pascoe, a man of similar persuasion but blessed also with the quixotic outlook apparently commonplace in Balkan males.
Thommo and Pascoe belong to the old school. Fred Trueman had the same idea. Contrasting them, John Snow wrote poetry, Bob Willis swooned over JS Bach, and Frank Tyson took to writing and teaching. Most fast bowlers object to their caricature as the witless workmen of the game. They know they are misunderstood and underappreciated. They know that captains, batsmen most of them, think they can be switched on like an electric lightbulb. Captains don’t understand the intricacies of the operation, the wonder of the gathering and release, don’t realise that footholds and wind and ball and so many other factors can make an immense difference to a bowler’s performance. They simply regard it all as the moaning of prima donnas. Truly, it is a thankless task.
When forced to take the ball, most speedsters put aside their despondency at being so rudely obliged and put on a fair impersonation of hostility and eagerness. Some stoop to pantomime villainy, a role that requires a good deal of glaring and, at the very least, a satisfactory moustache. Dennis Lillee and Merv Hughes were the leading advocates of this school of thought, but history suggests that even village teams almost compulsorily contained a fiery fellow of the same persuasion.
Fast bowlers keep going and the reason is simple. It is no small thing to be the fastest gun in town. It’s no small thing to see fear in the eyes of batsmen and stumps flying in all directions. It’s no small thing to see a legcutter clip the outside edge or a batsman fend a bumper to short leg. Speedsters take the new ball, charge to the crease and put every ounce of their strength into their work. No one else can do that. A hush can go around the ground as they start their run; the tension on the field can be palpable. It does not happen every time but it occurs often enough to make it worthwhile.
Of course a lot of fun was taken out of the game when helmets were introduced. Banning wet pitches was bad enough but the new-fangled protection given to batsmen was the crucial change. No rule since the imposition of straight-arm bowling has had such a powerful effect on the fragile balance between bat and ball, and more specifically, tentative bat and angry ball.
As it happens my modest career spanned the divide. Helmets were a creation of the 1974-75 series in Australia. I remember watching the highlights on television late at night in some outpost on the cricketing road and recall the shock as John Edrich and company ducked and dived and took blows. Rearing deliveries bruised their bones or took their wickets or landed with a thump into distant gloves. Till then genuinely fast bowling had been a test. Suddenly it had become an ordeal.
For a few years afterwards county batsmen disdained metal lids. It was generally agreed that courage had a part to play in batting, and anyhow the helmets resembled those worn by motorcyclists. They were heavy, dark and seemed to send the wrong message. Gradually the view changed. The emergence of a fearsome battery of West Indian speedsters was the last straw. In the mid-seventies Viv Richards used to arrive at the Somerset rooms to say, “Another ambulance called to Bournemouth today.” It was not to collect an old-timer. Andy Roberts, his ferocious mate from Antigua, played for Hampshire that year and possessed the deadliest bouncer in the game. By the 1980s most batsmen wore helmets. Richards was an exception. He said it slowed him down. He was also an extraordinary player of great courage. From 22 yards away I saw Wayne Daniel bowl a bone-shaking beamer into his ribs. Richards did not blink.
Naturally fast bowlers resented the armour and felt their best weapon had been taken away. Was cricket no longer a man’s game? On the hardest days they could be confident of picking up a few cheap tail-end wickets as scared batsmen kept their occupation as brief as respectability allowed. Somerset had its share of timid players and no one expected them to contribute much when Sylvester Clarke or someone of that ilk came to town. Now even the most abject creatures had the gall to linger at the crease. Fast bowlers felt betrayed.
Inevitably a backlash ensued and it came in the form of reverse-swing and ball-tampering. Nothing had been heard of these operations till the advent of helmets and flat pitches. Bowler used to raise the seam, but that was mostly to assist spinners and medium-pacers. Now late swing against the shine was favoured. Of course administrators tried to ban it as they try to ban every ruse dreamed up by bowlers, and inevitably the bowlers became more subtle and the practice became more widespread.
As time passed, though, outright pace became increasingly irrelevant. Injuries had a part to play in the decline. Their causes are hard to pin down. Some blame modern lightweight boots because they offer little protection to the feet. Others argue that fast bowlers are expected to play in too many forms of the game and to move between them regularly. Then there are those who say fast bowlers play too little. They point out that the great West Indian bowlers remained fit yet most played cricket all year round, turning out for counties in their off seasons. Wes Hall belonged to this school of thought. His main regret as a cricketer was that he had not played county cricket. He believed that bowling all year round prolonged careers because bodies became accustomed to expectations. The stopping and starting were the problems. Others suggest all the different deliveries demanded nowadays ruin rhythm. No fast bowler of the previous generation bothered with a slower ball. To advocate them was to invite ridicule.
Regardless of the reason it’s clear injuries took a terrible toll and fast bowling fell into apparently inexorable decline. The averages in the last decade were dominated by precise practitioners like Glenn McGrath, Shaun Pollock, Jason Gillespie and Chaminda Vaas. Makhaya Ntini prospered as well, but with movement not raw pace. A few survivors emerged. Until recently the West Indians still fielded a couple of champions. Shoaib Akhtar was fast enough but not fit enough, Allan Donald was superb and later Brett Lee came along, but increasingly cricket was safe and sensible.
Hereabouts the game seemed to be up for outright pace. And then something happened, a new form of the game arrived: an exciting version that seemed to favour batsmen but in fact revived quick bowling and wrist spin. In a trice speed was important again. Suddenly captains and coaches needed bowlers capable of something extra.
Fast bowling was in demand. Huge IPL contracts were offered to Kemar Roach and Shane Bond. Suddenly those committed to the absolute only had to bowl four overs a match. Shaun Tait and Dirk Nannes promptly packed in first-class cricket and concentrated on Twenty20. Andrew Flintoff retired from Tests and made himself available for shorter and more lucrative versions of the game.
Tait aimed for the fastest ball in history. Roach made batsmen weave in the old way. Nannes looked as strong as a shire horse. Batsmen were harassed and hurried. Of course, it does not last long; a few thunderbolts and then peace returns.
And yet the solution contains its own crisis. It is all very well for fast bowlers to deliver shafts of lightning for a few overs in a domestic competition in India but that does not help Test cricket. If anything, the position is becoming worse than ever. Before long anyone wanting to see some genuine fast bowlers will be obliged to attend a 20-over frolic. No one can blame the speedsters for taking the fat cheque and the easy way out. Naturally they fear an imminent breakdown. All the more reason to cut the corn while the sun shines.
At present fast bowling resembles a great actor whose flagging career has been resurrected by a role in a sitcom. It’s better than nothing, yet the feeling endures that the point has been missed. Defeat can be devilishly clever. Sometimes it arrives looking a lot like success. A fast bowler in full flight counts among the most glorious sights in the game. All the evidence indicates, though, that it is going to be reserved for the least rewarding format.