Len Pascoe January 22, 2015

The contradictory fear of the fast bowler

When he was a young and ferocious fast bowler, Len Pascoe wanted the batsmen to be afraid of him. But he also had his own fear. That he would hit someone too badly

Len Pascoe: "The only way I could get all I wanted was by being a fast bowler." © Patrick Eagar

On India's 1980-81 tour of Australia, gutsy offspinner Shivlal Yadav was told by Rod Marsh: "Lenny is going to keep coming down." Yadav says he was hit on the helmet, then shoulder, then forearm, then ribs, then the thigh. "When he broke my toe, I understood what Rodney meant."

Question: Could you see the batsman was afraid of you? Pascoe: Oh I could smell it.

Question: Did you like it? Pascoe: I just didn't want that bloke to be scared. I wanted the guys in the dressing room to be scared too. If you got him scared that's it. Often when I took wickets, I would get them in batches. One, two bang. You just hit hard, hit hard.

**

One month previously, in Sydney, Len Pascoe bounced Sandeep Patil, who wasn't wearing a helmet. Patil didn't have the time to react, got front-on, and raised his bat to fend in panic. The ball missed both the gloves and the bat, and hit him so hard on the head it bounced back to where a silly mid-off would have been. Patil fell unconscious, and didn't move for seconds. He was stretchered off the field, and sent straight to a hospital. That evening Pascoe called up his former captain, Ian Chappell.

"So I remember after I hit Sandeep Patil, I had no more," Pascoe says. "I spoke to Ian Chappell and said I want to retire. I was 32. And I said the game's not worth dying over. I was worried about what I was becoming. It wasn't me. I don't know whether I grew up or the bravado of the fast bowler was stripped. I don't know."

Pascoe played only three more Tests.

**

Welcome to the contradictory world of fast bowlers. They want the batsmen to be afraid of them, but they have their own fears, their own demons. Phillip Hughes' death at the age of 25, in November last year, has only just made it okay to talk about them. If you listen to Pascoe, the fast bowlers have always had fears. Fears they will lose their run-up. Fears they will lose their rhythm. Fears they will hit someone too badly.

Pascoe is 64 now. He looks bigger than he did when bowling in the company of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson. He has a beard that looks like Patil's current beard. Since retiring he has become a coach. He has worked with Glenn McGrath and Stuart Clark, with Steven Smith and Mitchell Starc. It is hard to believe he coached the metronomes that McGrath and Clark were. Two bowlers who believed in nicking the batsmen out, not hitting them. Pascoe also runs an entertainment business. He can now talk comfortably about the discomfort hitting batsmen brought to him, and why he kept on doing it.

Here was a man after whom his club's hometown named a hospital ward. Every Saturday Bankstown Hospital would receive cricket victims in Thomson-Pascoe ward. That despite being told years later by the groundsman at Bankstown that because of Thomson and Pascoe he used to make incredibly flat pitches. Pascoe was young, he was ferocious, his captains loved him because he could strike fear in the opposition, the fans loved the drama, and the women loved the fast bowlers. There was reason to feel powerful.

Hughes' death might have reaffirmed to us the dangers of cricket, which we had begun to take for granted with the advent of modern protection, but for Pascoe they were always there. He remembers clearly the first time he seriously injured a batsman, South Australian George Griffith. Two bouncers had been pulled away for fours, but the third one got him. Pascoe says he is still haunted by what followed. "He said, 'Look Len it was not your fault. It was my fault because it was a poor shot.' But what scared me is what he said next. Only a matter of half an inch either way from where he got hit, he wouldn't be here today.

"I knew he was pretty serious. But you're young. There were no helmets around. But it always haunted me. When I saw him I said I got to apologise because I didn't see him in hospital. And he said, 'No, no, you have nothing to apologise for. I know where you're coming from.' And anyway, after that I kind of went surfing and fishing and cricket to me wasn't my thing."

"The only way I could get all I wanted was by being a fast bowler. And the person stopping me was the guy 22 yards away. But I didn't hate him. But the more I got rid of them, the closer I got to everything I wanted out of life. Hating the batsman is not what it's about. It's not hate. He is preventing you from what you want."

Cricket, though, brought opportunities next year, and more dangerous games. When Pascoe next hit a batsman too badly, he remembers, his mate Thomson had only recently lost his former flat-mate, the 22-year-old Martin Bedkober, to a blow to the chest while batting in a Queensland grade game. Pascoe bowled a bouncer in a grade game, to Sutherland's Glenn Bailey, and hit him in the chest. "And he started vomiting blood, and I go, 'Oh no...' And he was taken off the field," Pascoe says.

There was this other time when he had had enough of John Benaud's statements in the press. "Dion Bourne, the uncle of the Waugh boys, he's my captain [at Bankstown]," Pascoe says. "And John is on his soapbox. And I just said to my captain Dion, 'Let him talk about how we should have played the game. Should have declared whatever. Next week, I'll close his mouth.' And what happened was, Penrith took half of our players from Bankstown like Steve Small. Benaud was their captain.

"The first guy is in. A fellow called Kenny Robinson. I just bowl normal to him, and he gets out. And then Benaud comes to the crease. First ball straight in the throat. He could not talk. We won outright. I went through them. And then we are all having drinks, and I looked at Dion and said, 'Not much to say now.' That one was one that I recall, and it could have gone badly as well."

There is a clear sense of feeling powerful when Pascoe is narrating these tales. There is another delightful one. "We are down at Bankstown Sports Club. Dion Bourne [whose nephews Pascoe coached later] and the other guy was Mike Stevenson, who was called Stench. Stench because he was a Pom. Till date he's still Stench. Dion Bourne's nickname was Lunch. Because he would have scored a hundred, and he would have had tomato sandwiches in his back-pocket while he batted. And he would come in and eat them. So we got Lunch and Stench. And we are playing snooker.

"Thommo's not a bad player. And Stench says, 'Oh, you might be better than us at snooker but we're better cricketers than you two.' 'Is that so?' says Jeff. 'Tomorrow afternoon, I'll have two overs, Lenny will have two overs. You bat for four, and we'll find out who the better cricketers are.'

"So we got an umpire at one end just to say that's out, that's not out, that's four and three. Stench goes in first. I hit him from a***hole to breakfast. I made sure I didn't hit him in the head, but his legs are knocked out from under him. He has got bruises on his bruises. Then Thommo's come on. Thommo had less idea where they were going than the batsmen did. He lets go at Stench. He has come out looking sad, sore and sorry and says, 'Righto Dion it's your turn.' Dion says, 'Bullshit, I've just declared.' I had forgotten that but when Dion Bourne died, they told this story."

By the time it came to hitting Patil, Pascoe wasn't enjoying them as much. "I retired soon after that," Pascoe says. "Not because I couldn't play anymore. After Patil, they all built up. And I did not bowl another bouncer to Sandeep Patil. He came into the dressing room and joked, 'Lenny, I am so sorry for putting my head in the way of your ball.' And I go, 'What?' And he's got this big bandage on his head. The thing is that it did shake me up quite a lot. It was an accumulation of all these other blows. And you saw how he went down."

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Len Pascoe: "At the level that you are, if you wanted to hit someone you could." © AFP

What brought the change, then? After all when Pascoe was younger he was hitting batsmen even though he had known a mate's flat-mate to have died of a hit.

"Because there were things I wanted in life," Pascoe says. He was the son of an immigrant. His father was a brick carter. Pascoe grew up with racial abuse, being called a wog at school, in the '50s-60s Australia. He wanted a house of his own, he wanted the luxury to be able to stay in the outdoors that he loved. He had left school. He also wanted to leave brick carting, which did help him attain the strength needed to bowl fast.

"The only way I could get all I wanted was by being a fast bowler," Pascoe says. "And the person stopping me was the guy 22 yards away. But I didn't hate him. But the more I got rid of them, the closer I got to everything I wanted out of life. Hating the batsman is not what it's about. It's not hate. He is preventing you from what you want.

"At the time my thinking was, policemen risk their lives, army people risk their lives. And if you are going to be with the best, you have to survive. It is a matter of survival. Did you know that there were four jockeys killed in one year in 2014? There were two water skiers, champion water skiers. Extreme sport. And I put a post on Facebook saying cricket now is an extreme sport. To go in and face somebody from 80 to 90 miles an hour. That's an extreme sport. In extreme sports, tragedies happen. Hardly a year goes by when a jockey doesn't get killed.

"Once you've achieved what you want, you are able to reflect and go, 'What am I becoming?' And, I remember saying to Ian Chappell that I want to give it away. And he said, 'What if he hits you for six? Do you think he feels sorry for you?' That kind of changed my thinking but I went on to play only one more season."

Bowling fast and risking injuries to the batsmen wasn't just a ticket out of mundaneness, though. There was a whole package. When asked if he would have reacted differently to hitting batsmen in the early stages of his career had he been born into better means, Pascoe says: "When there's a young fast bowler, the rest of the team feeds off him. They encourage him. The rest of the team wants to see the other guys scared. Here were a pair of young fast bowlers in Thommo and me. They couldn't score more than a 110 between them. And here we got these fast bowlers. You are young, and pretty soon your ego gets the better of you. The bravado. You run around in fast cars. You are getting girlfriends. Your testosterone is running high. We are used to seeing batsmen get hit but they always get up. Bit like a movie. And then you see what's happen to Phil…"

"When there's a young fast bowler, the rest of the team feeds off him. They encourage him. The rest of the team wants to see the other guys scared. Here were a pair of young fast bowlers in Thommo and me. They couldn't score more than a 110 between them. And here we got these fast bowlers. You are young, and pretty soon your ego gets the better of you. The bravado. You run around in fast cars. You are getting girlfriends. Your testosterone is running high. We are used to seeing batsmen get hit but they always get up. Bit like a movie. And then you see what's happen to Phil…"

When he hit Patil, Pascoe was no longer a 21-year-old with girls after him. "I was married, and I had two kids," he says. "When I am coaching fast bowlers now, I say that the bouncer is an intimidatory delivery. It is a delivery aimed at a batsman much the same as a boxer has to throw a knockout punch. What you can do is learn how to bowl that bouncer properly. For instance, if you are playing on a synthetic wicket with a two-piece ball don't be a hero and bowl a bouncer at that batsman. That's stupidity. The two-piece ball is rock hard and you are on synthetic. And it's going to fly. You should be very conscious of where you're bowling it and why you're bowling it."

What then is bowling a bouncer properly? "The first bouncer I would bowl to a batsman would be a fact-finding mission," Pascoe says. "I will have mid-on and mid-off tell me what his foot movement is. If I bowled a bouncer I'm not there to hit him with it. I will bowl that bouncer over leg stump, and high over leg stump. So that I can see is he going back and across or is he getting cramped. Then I would move my line. The more you go down leg side the finer it will go. The higher you do it, the higher they'll hit it. As you come more towards off stump, they start hitting you squarer and squarer. If you can detect there is a weakness. Say you bowl a bouncer over middle or leg stump and he's going back and across and he's inside, the next one you bowl him is not as high but it is over middle-stump and he's walked right into it. And it's cramped him up. You're setting up a target. Setting him up. This is the level you get to."

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Pascoe wants one thing made clear. He was not just a bouncer bowler. He loved his professional wrestling. "Now that's where the façade and the World Championship Wrestling come in," he says. "They all think this is bouncer, bouncer, bouncer, but my best ball was the offcutter. I took more wickets with the offcutter, and took more lbws. I took five in the Centenary Test, and three of them were offcutters. Lbw. Look at my first Test wicket. Tony Greig. Bouncer followed by yorker. Stumps went all over the place."

But Pascoe did aim to hit the batsmen, didn't he? "At the level that you are, if you wanted to hit someone you could."

"And did you fear hitting someone too badly?"

"Yes, if you hit someone."

"Did you always fear hitting someone too badly?"

"Yeah."

"Even when you were young?"

"It's funny. You are angry and you want to create fear, but at the end of the day you cool down and want to have a think about what just happened. A bit like wrestling, where you are hitting someone but you are taught to hit them without injuring them."

**

There is a Bollywood movie called Ab Tak Chhappan [Fifty-six So Far]. It is based on police trying to get around loopholes in the law by faking encounters and killing those whom they believe are criminals but are likely to get away if trialled properly. Fifty-six is supposed to be the count of encounter-murders kept by one of the policemen. The main protagonist in the film reflects on his own fears, "It is important to kill, but it is even more important to stay away from the habit of killing."

Now batsmen are no criminals, but with big bats, slower pitches, smaller outfields, better protection equipment, the fast bowler's world is a bit like that of the conflicted policeman's. They don't all show it, but if Pascoe is any indicator, they must all come face to face with that fear.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

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