Michael Jeh June 28, 2009

Fast Bowlers United

To get some answers from someone who has recent experience of the art of fast bowling in Australia and India, I hunted down Joey Dawes, former Queensland and Middlesex fast bowler and the current fast bowling coach of the Queensland Bulls.

My recent post about Queensland replacing Western Australia as the production line for fast bowlers, got me thinking about why such patterns emerge and what factors may trigger change. Why has the West Indies’ factory come to such a shuddering halt for example? There was a time when some of the guys who could not make their first XI would have been snapped up by any other international team. Chaps like Sylvester Clarke, Wayne Daniel and Ezra Moseley were genuinely scary but couldn't regularly crack the top team.

As much as Australia and South Africa continue to churn out good quicks, why is it now the case that some of the best fast bowling talent is emerging from the subcontinent? It’s a much a cultural shift as anything else – fast bowlers are no longer viewed as the quick entrée before the main meal. Is it down to coaching, nutrition, equipment or even a change in the physique of the Asian male?

To get some answers from someone who has recent experience of the art of fast bowling in Australia and India, I hunted down Joey Dawes, former Queensland and Middlesex fast bowler and the current fast bowling coach of the Queensland Bulls. Just in case there was any doubt about his commitment to the ‘club’, Joey also runs a specialist business which converts 'joggers' into fast bowling shoes by spiking them according to the individual’s running style, heel pattern, bowling action etc. It’s a pretty scientific operation, in consultation with podiatrists and other health professionals. His clients include Brett Lee, Mitchell Johnson and Jimmy Anderson. Not surprisingly, his business is called Fast Bowlers United. They’re a close knit bunch these dumb, quick bowlers!

Joey’s view on the modern coaching philosophy is part scientific, part gut instinct. His program includes enormous emphasis on ‘core strength’ (from abdomen to upper thighs) to enable his young charges to be able to get into the best possible position at the point of delivery to then allow their natural skills to flourish. Without good core strength, he believes the bowler’s action gets corrupted at that crucial point when the wrist needs to be behind the ball to enable it to swing.

Not only does poor core strength cause injury concerns but from a pure performance perspective, it might explain why some bowlers stop swinging the ball or “hitting the deck” (another buzz word in the fast bowling lexicon) when they start to get a bit tired. One of Joey’s pet projects is to get his protégés bowling equally sharp second and third spells, late in the day. In the contemporary game, a new ball bowler who is ineffective with an older ball later in the day, due to fatigue or not swinging the old ball, soon becomes the twelfth man!

Gone are the days though when the secret to being a genuine fast bowler was merely attributed to physique and muscle mass, thereby virtually rendering the smaller Asian frame obsolete. It’s clear now that the most open-minded coaches readily accept that there’s so much to the art than looking at such simplistic measures. There have been too many quality fast bowlers with wiry physiques and whippy actions to hold such a prejudiced and narrow view. From Kapil to Imran to Akram and more recently to Vaas’ guile, Malinga’s sling and a host of quality exponents like Akhtar, Zaheer, Gul and a host of others, it is a fool who continues to think that fast bowlers can only come from the one factory. Pace, swing, cutters and slower balls are now as much a skill-set in the subcontinent as on hard, bouncy or seaming wickets elsewhere.

Joey firmly believes that while the basic skills have remained remain constant for a hundred years (eg: core strength and good wrist position), the clever coaches now accept that there is an art form that is developing in the subcontinent that has contributed enormously to fast bowling lore. Twenty years ago, who would have thought that fast bowlers (and coaches) from around the world would descend on Chennai to hone their craft?

That’s exactly where Joey Dawes is headed this week – the MRF Pace Foundation in Chennai. He’s taking a few young fast bowlers with him, hoping that some of the Indian expertise will rub off on them. Interestingly, he reckons it’s not the physical skills that he’s looking to learn; there are a whole lot of mental skills that come with the territory. Patience, variety, reverse-swing, coping with heat and bowling to batsmen who play in ‘different areas’ on Indian pitches are some of the lessons that bowlers need to understand if they are to succeed in global conditions. With the lure of the IPL, every young quick bowler can now see the value in becoming an effective exponent on these pitches. There’s also a real sense that to succeed in the Subcontinent, you must first learn to appreciate the other cultural aspects like the food, the history and the deep-rooted passion for the game. I sensed his enthusiasm for the week ahead was a lot more than technical analysis.

I’d love to be a fly on the wall this week in Chennai, listening to all these fast bowlers exchanging ideas. For all their so-called ‘skill acquisition” gobbledygook, I bet they all share one common love – the sight of batsmen ducking and weaving, wearing bruises on their ribs and cracked helmets. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Fast Bowlers United indeed!

I’m hoping to have Part 2 of this story after Joey returns from India. I still think too many of our youngsters here in Australia get 'over coached' so I'm interested to see what Joey thinks of the system in India. At what point does raw talent need to be refined? With better equipment (like tailor-made shoes), will that make a massive difference to the number of athletes coming through the system? I'll ask him soon...

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane