January 28, 2014

The speed-gun myth

Commentators spend a lot of time discussing bowling speeds but a machine can't tell us how fast a batsman considers a bowler to be

Glenn McGrath: a batsman's nightmare, though he didn't register scary numbers on the speed gun © Getty Images

One of the key messages from the recent Ashes series, according to the media anyway, was that "pace rules". The primary difference between Australia in England in 2013, and then England in Australia in 2013-14, was seen by many to be the fast bowling of Mitchell Johnson, the eventual Man of the Series.

His raw speed (admittedly combined with far greater control over direction than in some previous years) was claimed by many commentators to be the deciding factor in Australia's transition from a 3-0 series loss to a 5-0 series victory in the space of a few months. It was not uncommon to hear comparisons between the speed of Johnson and that of the legendary Jeff Thomson in the 1970s.

But what does "pace" or "speed" actually mean?

In recent times, the proponents of various fast bowlers often base their argument around the figures generated from the speed gun. While the overall speed readings are very interesting, it would appear misleading to rely solely on these figures, as they don't actually come close to telling the whole story about how "fast" a batsman will consider a bowler to be. It was not uncommon to hear commentators literally jump with excitement about the extreme pace of a certain Johnson delivery that caused a batsman significant problems, only to then see a speed-gun rating show that it was actually slower than the previous ball that the batsman had played easily.

In the most recent Ashes series, a recurring theme among the commentators was that James Anderson was tired and "lacking a yard of pace" compared to his spells during the English summer. This would appear to be supported by raw statistics that show he took 22 wickets at an average of 29 in England, whereas in Australia he took 14 wickets at nearly 44. However, a review of his average bowling speeds across both Ashes series makes for interesting reading.

In the first Test in Nottingham he averaged 84.9mph; in the fifth Test in Sydney he averaged 84.5mph. Anderson's average bowling speed per innings was remarkably similar across the ten Tests, and only varied around three miles an hour. His highest average speed per innings was actually in Perth, the "eighth" Test, where he averaged 85.5mph. Whatever the reasons for his relatively poor performance in Australia, it can hardly be argued that it was due to him "lacking a yard of pace".

At this point, I understand that many readers will no doubt be striking their foreheads on their monitors and shouting, "You idiot - he is a swing bowler and doesn't rely solely on pace." This is precisely why the speed gun is an unreliable measure. Ultimately, does it matter how we judge the "pace" of opening bowlers? Unfortunately, and this was primary reason for this article, the speed gun is becoming a concerning aspect of team selection. It was only a few weeks ago that Australian coach Darren Lehmann outlined that bowlers need to be bowling at 140kph to be considered for the Test team. Clearly the speed gun is becoming a determining factor that helps fast bowlers get selected.

There is a former Australia Test opening bowler, still only 27 years old, who has taken 202 first-class wickets at an average of 25.10, and took 5 for 105 in his last first-class match, but appears to have been forgotten about in terms of national selection. Trent Copeland doesn't bowl at 140kph, and therefore doesn't appear likely to add to his three Test caps. However, players who have faced bowlers such as Copeland, Chadd Sayers or even Glenn McGrath will note that they are "faster" than they appear. A few years ago McGrath's deliveries were measured as being slower than those of Greg Blewett. However, if you asked opening batsmen which one was "faster", without any reference to the speed gun, Blewett would have struggled to gain a vote.

Phrases such as "hitting the bat hard" or "bowling a heavy ball" are used to describe bowlers who manage to bowl "faster" than someone with an identical speed-gun rating. From discussions with many batsmen over a number of decades, I have concluded that certain bowlers seem faster than others because they force batsmen to make a late adjustment when the ball is not quite where they expect it to be.

From the point when the bowler hits his delivery stride, the batsman starts moving into position to play a shot. With only half a second or so from the bowler letting it go until the batsman plays the ball, the batsman has to move on instinct into the correct position. A bowler who delivers a "heavy ball" is generally one who consistently hits the bat slightly higher than expected, thus leading to a batsman feeling a less than ideal contact and subsequently having less control over the shot.

Likewise, if a bowler has an unusual or strange action that prevents a batsman getting an early sighting of the ball, they will appear faster. The great South African Mike Procter was rated by Tony Greig as one of the "top five" paceman of his era; Greig thought Procter bowled at a similar pace to Andy Roberts, John Snow, Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson. However, it was interesting that in one of the early speed tests, conducted in 1979, Procter came second-last among 12 bowlers, and only managed to beat Pakistan medium-pacer Sarfraz Nawaz. At that time Procter was in his early 30s, but he played first-class cricket for another decade, and he opened the bowling for the WSC World XI.

While the actual speeds recorded in this trial cannot be fairly compared to those of current bowlers, due to differing measuring techniques, the comparative nature of the test showed that Procter was a long way behind Thomson, who led the field. However, opening batsmen of that era would clearly not agree that Procter wasn't a genuine fast bowler. He is an example of how speed can be disguised, as his "wrong foot" action meant that batsmen were not picking the ball up early.

When Brett Lee was bowling at 135kph, batsmen perceived him as far "slower" than McGrath at the same velocity, as Lee had a flat and predictable trajectory. This meant that a batsman was in position to play a shot earlier than against McGrath, who tended to achieve extra bounce or movement off the seam that forced batsmen into a late readjustment. This then made the batsmen perceive the bowler as being faster than a pure speed reading would have given them cause to do.

It would appear clear that Anderson's lack of effectiveness in Australia related more to his inability to move the ball consistently, rather than him being tired and "losing pace", as some commentators argued. Speed is not easily defined, and success does not always equate to high speed-gun measurements. The current No. 1 bowler in the world, Vernon Philander, is a great example of this, but it appears that he would not get a run for Australia as he bowls at a "mere" 130kph.

I hope the Australian selectors and coaching staff are willing to recognise that the speed gun alone does not define the effectiveness of an opening bowler, or just how "fast" he may be.

Stuart Wark works at the University of New England as a research fellow

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Android on March 17, 2014, 17:29 GMT

    lack of pace will make huge difference for eg in recent series philander s 130kph is not at all troubling davey warner he smashed all over the park steyn is not fit so he bowls around 137 obly he also getting smashed by warner high quality pace makes huge difference

  • Dummy4 on January 30, 2014, 14:57 GMT

    Unfortunately most of those commenting here r just armchair critics & have never play competitive cricket let alone Hard ball cricket................I being a highly inconsistent bowler have myself observed that on a day when u have good rythem u ball fast with high arm action (The measure of pace is bounce of the same length on same pitch) apart from 1 or 2 top order batsmen all other struggle against u but on other days when u r focusing on good line length than pace & bounce all batsmen hit u for sixes of all your deliveries..........Similarly in batting pace & bounce is sufficient to make it tough to play, other bowlers have to produce lots of other things correctly (need to have great line length, ball lots of yorkers, mix pace, swing both sides- that only happens in conducive conditions) to avert being smashed let alone making it tough to play.

  • Dummy4 on January 30, 2014, 14:36 GMT

    Either u got to have speed or have height & hit the deck to extract bounce otherwise with swing alone u will soon be taken to cleaners.

    Indian swing bowler Mohanty was treated like a spinner by IJAZ AHMAD hitting 9 sixes in 1997 in his 138 of 80 balls .Indian bowlers have always received such a treatment despite having lot of swing. Ponting destroyed them in WC 2003 final. Miandad swung indian swingers all over the park in Sharjah cup final hitting 6 at will of last ball. Indian bowlers have always relied on swing & their ER being World's Worst itself tells how easy a swing bowler is for the batsman if he lacks pace & bounce.

    But only finest batsmen like Tendulkar, Desilva, Kohli, Devilliers can hit all fast bowlers deliveries all over the park. Mediocre batsmen can only hit half vollys from fast bowlers & can only manage to top edge fast bowlers' all other deliveries. If fast bowlers r provided 3rd man & f9 leg fine it is impossible to score boundary of them.

  • Dennis on January 30, 2014, 14:09 GMT

    Vernon is almost sure to get a run AGAINST Australia a few weeks hence.

  • Android on January 30, 2014, 10:56 GMT

    excellent article ,vern is a great example

  • v on January 30, 2014, 10:45 GMT

    Pure pace versus fast and accuracy versus accuracy with medium speed - that is where the discussion begins. Grade 3 - Pure pace (Brett Lee) gets min weightage as even above average batsmen would score relatively freely. Grade 2 - Accuracy with medium speed (Glenn McGrath) would always be preferred as batsmen will find it difficult to score freely. The odd pace change or bounce makes a strokemaker uncomfortable. Grade 1 - The third and rarest are those who are deadly accurate and have speed too (Dennis Lillee). These kind of bowlers are most in demand and this is where Darren Lehman comes from. Mitchel Johnson demonstrated this quality aganist England. He always had speed, but this time he was quite accurate.

    The measured speed and perceived speed are relative to how confortable batsmen are able to play the bowlers. However, speed does add to his aura when a bowler can also be accurate.

  • Simon on January 30, 2014, 2:25 GMT

    I don't think it's as much about the bowlers speed, as it is the commentators haste. Unfortunately a TV commentator isn't allowed to let a picture paint a thousand words, so they blurt inanities, easily disproved by the vision. The more we have displayed on the screen the less need there appears to be for commentators, but then what happens to semi educated players on retirement? The latest absurdity is being 'hip' by displaying public tweets on screen. You know, the things you read on your phone? Except commentators persist in reading them to us! Surely the equivalent of fending at a wide one!

  • Reg on January 29, 2014, 23:33 GMT

    NeutralKN makes a very interesting point. Actually, if ball tracking can accurately plot the position of the ball at two instants in its flight it should give a more accurate speed between the two. I've never been able to figure out just when a speed gun is taking its reading. Ideally it should be at the top of the trajectory, else a component of vertical motion might get added in. Contrariwise, swing or seam should reduce ball speed as measured purely along the pitch.

    A bit of proper physics might also improve the accuracy of measuring the "length" of a six. Rather than measuring the distance to the "point of impact" (which is obviously greatly dependent on terrain), it would be much more accurate to measure the horizontal distance to the top of the trajectory and doubling in.

    None of which affects Mr Wark's article of course. I suppose the point there is, if a bowler can do a bit with the ball, the faster the ball is going when he does it the worse it is for the batsman.

  • Gerald on January 29, 2014, 23:12 GMT

    @Stuart_online - Yes, of course. There is a wide spread conspiracy to spread the myth of Proctor.

  • Stuart on January 29, 2014, 18:12 GMT

    Another reference to perpetuate the myth of Mike Procter's "wrong foot" bowling action.

    Look at any clip of him bowling on youtube. Yes he was rather front-on at delivery, and yes he had a rather windmill action with his arms, but he was a right arm bowler, and clearly placed his left foot between the popping crease and bowling crease as he delivered the ball, just like any other right arm bowler.

    Humble apologies if there something really obvious that I'm missing here, or if indeed he sometimes did indeed bowl with his right foot front-most.