Mike Holmans August 6, 2011

The era of great bowlers is not over

For my birthday, my mother sent me a copy of “Not In My Day, Sir”, a collection of letters on cricket published in Britain's most traditional newspaper, the Daily Telegraph

Dale Steyn leads a clutch of current bowlers seeking greatness © Associated Press

For my birthday, my mother sent me a copy of “Not In My Day, Sir”, a collection of letters on cricket published in Britain's most traditional newspaper, the Daily Telegraph. The book amply bears out the implication of the title, that there is nothing so constant in cricket as the complaints of the middle-aged and elderly that the sport is going to the dogs because it was so much better when they were younger.

Being middle-aged myself, I adhere to this to some extent: I don't care what you say or what statistics you produce about any other player, I'm not going to change my opinion that IVA Richards is the greatest batsman I've seen. And I very much suspect that when I'm an old man I will annoy young whippersnappers now being born by droning on about none of the future's current leg-spinners being a patch on Shane Warne.

But only to that extent.

One of the currently fashionable moans is that there are no good bowlers any more. All the great ones of the last couple of decades have retired and there's no-one to replace them.


Is Dale Steyn going to end up as South Africa's best-ever fast bowler, or will that title remain with Allan Donald – and if it's still going to be Donald, by what margin?

Have India ever had a better pace bowler than a fit Zaheer Khan?

With the exception of Wasim Akram, which left-arm quicks have been better than Zaheer, who swings both the new and the old ball and was chiefly responsible for the wins which elevated India to the top spot in Test cricket?

What did Michael Holding do that Stuart Broad did not do while taking five for none at Trent Bridge?

Would Suresh Raina or Yuvraj Singh have been any more uncomfortable being worked over by Andy Roberts than they were by Tim Bresnan?

What extra weapons does Chris Tremlett need to be comparable with Joel Garner?

After a winter of success in swingless Australia and a similar performance on the fifth day at Lord's against India, while still retaining the ability to hoop the new ball both ways at 88mph, which England team from any point in history would the 2011 version of James Anderson not walk into? Getting Sachin Tendulkar out seven times in eight matches isn't bad going for someone who isn't top-class, either.

Those of you scurrying to Statsguru to drag up a lot of boring career averages to try and prove that I'm asking very silly questions indeed need not bother commenting unless you have a substantial point to make. Simply showing that fast bowlers who had the chance in the 1980s to bowl on the ultra-fast wickets at Perth or The Oval, on the terror tracks of Headingley or on West Indian pitches as lively as the discos in the stands have better averages than bowlers sentenced to toil away on pitches designed to make sure that corporate guests will have some very dull cricket to watch on the fifth day of a Test is not, to my mind at least, particularly convincing.

Right, the greats I've mentioned did their stuff over a long period – but Zaheer is the only one for whom the end of his career is even a cloud on the horizon, and there's no obvious reason to suppose that the rest are going to get worse over the next few years: Anderson, Bresnan and Broad are visibly better bowlers than they were a year ago.

More promising, perhaps, is the line that the Robertses, Garners and Akrams were pioneers. They showed people what could be done, and the present generation are simply benefiting from their invention. It's certainly true that there are many more bowlers around nowadays who bowl at West Indian quartet velocities: thirty years ago, the only English bowler at that level was Bob Willis on a good day; now almost every county has one. And reverse swing is no longer a Pakistani mystery but a skill which a lot of the best bowlers have to some degree even though the journeymen can't manage it at all. Internationally, apart from those I mentioned earlier, Morne Morkel, Fidel Edwards and Kemar Roach have the pace if not necessarily the skill, and one must presume that there's at least one to be found in the dozens that Australia are picking.

But it's a funny old argument that the game is going to the dogs because there are now a lot more bowlers who bowl like the greats of the 1980s than there were in the 1980s themselves.

Of course only some of the current contenders will have lengthy successful careers. Some will get injured, some will get so far and no further and we will shake our heads wistfully in years to come and mutter phrases about wasted talent. And whether any of the ones who do have long careers will end up on anyone's list of great bowlers, let alone everyone's, we cannot yet know. But I'll bet that some will and that when they have retired in 10 or 15 years time, there will be another wave of people telling us that the era of great players is over. And they will be wrong again, because the supply of great players is never-ending.

The difficult bit, apparently, is spotting them when they are right under our noses.