September 12, 2013

The long and short of the run-up

The best in the business may say you can achieve a lot from a shortened run-up, but can you forego the power trip a long one gives you?

The fast bowler's run-up: a sight to behold Adrian Murrell / © Getty Images

Ian Botham galloped "like a shire horse cresting the breeze". Some bowlers skip and some bound. Bob Willis angled into the crease with one arm agog like a wounded heron. Dale Steyn is gun-barrel straight, targeting batsmen from the moment he raises the ball, almost like an officer with a pistol, ready to execute. Nottingham legend says they cut a hole in the hedge for Harold Larwood, that he started his marathon run-up in the adjoining field. And then there was Michael Holding, "Whispering Death", all that lethal force hidden in his languid approach and the feline glide before brute pace thudded into ribs.

According to the 1952 MCC Cricket Coaching Book, "The object of the run-up is to bring the bowler to the bowling crease completely balanced and with the momentum necessary to bowl", and that "its length should be the minimum necessary to provide this momentum".

Therefore, the faster the bowler, the longer the run-up. This would equate to Frank "Typhoon" Tyson's 38-yard charge to deliver the humdingers that compelled Don Bradman to admit he was "the fastest bowler I have ever seen".

But "Typhoon" was human too. Injuries riven from a raw action pounding ball and body into the pitch brought a premature end to his career, despite heeding the advice of master coach Alf Gover to reduce his labours into the crease on the 1954-55 Ashes tour. His 28 wickets at 20.82 apiece helped win the series and Tyson was named one of the 1956 Wisden Cricketers of the Year. With the wisdom of hindsight, would Tyson have traded fewer steps for a longer career and less pace? In his 1977 Cricket Coaching Manual he says a run-up length should "not be too long and tiring" and ought to be "carried out with correct acceleration and deceleration within the minimum space".

As a bowler on the verge of 40 and, despite years of being proved to otherwise, still believing that I can send down lightning bolts, my mind, machismo and mortality refuse to accept what my body wants - a shortened run-up.

For most bowlers the prize wicket is an uprooted stump. Larwood only considered pegs flying as a true dismissal. But if I could freeze-frame one moment of bowling it would be that last step before the delivery stride, all the potential still in my hand, seam primed, and the buffed new ball ready to warp in flight. In this golden snapshot I have balance, speed and control. No rhythm lost in the sprint to the crease, just a gathering of momentum like a train leaving a station.

Which is why I fear trundlerhood. That the act most dear to me must be retired for a post-pace career of military medium. That I'll become exactly the kind of middle-aged dobber I love to belt over the sightscreen.

Listening to Hadlee, Marshall and Akram, along with my aching limbs after bowling 28 overs in three days, I should focus on strategy and rhythm

Actually, isn't this exactly the kind of bowler I often get out to? The old-timer with guile. A bowler with cutters and subtle changes of pace, the wily seamer who tricks me into thinking I can waft him over cow corner, before I swing and find the bails are missing.

Perhaps there is a future after fast.

If I look to my bowling heroes for advice, the mantra of a "fewer steps equals more" certainly repeats. Sir Richard Hadlee recalls the day he made the decision to shorten his run as a "turning point in his career". And he was a relatively sprightly 29 when he decided to curtail his number of strides. "It gave me an extra ten years in the game and I was three times more effective," he told the Guardian when asked to comment on the experimental trimming of Steven Finn's approach. "The short run allowed me to be more explosive at the crease."

"Explosive". Now that's an adjective to sway a wannabe fast bowler into technique change.

And what bowler off a short run was more explosive than Wasim Akram, detonating batsman with toe-breaking yorkers and wicked swing. Admittedly I don't have the whippy shoulder-action of Wasim, but listening to him speak with ESPNcricinfo's very own Sambit Bal, brains are more important than brawn. "Fast bowling is not all about fitness and power; it is not all about big dumb men with biceps and triceps."

The late great Malcolm Marshall may well agree. Although hardly a bowling dwarf at five feet ten, he was diminutive in a West Indies attack of giants, and another thinking paceman who strode in off fewer steps than most of his feared contemporaries. "He was the only bowler I can remember who could rattle Sunil Gavaskar," said Kapil Dev.

Listening to Hadlee, Marshall and Akram, along with my aching limbs after bowling 28 overs in three days, I should focus on strategy and rhythm. Hadlee dissected technique, Wasim swung, and Marshall varied to devastating effect.

That's the common-sense approach. Fewer steps, less strain on the body. But less pace too. And I know that the first batsman to hit me over the ropes off a shortened run-up will spike my testosterone, and that I'll probably take a few more steps before the next ball. And if that too is despatched, the marker might be moved a few yards further still. Running in to bowl I won't be thinking about my dodgy knees and back, the stabbing pain in my left heel, because as the Typhoon himself once said, "To bowl fast is to revel in the glad animal action, to thrill in physical power."

Nicholas Hogg is a co-founder of the Authors Cricket Club. His first novel, Show Me the Sky was nominated for the IMPAC literary award