May 7, 2014

The last of the long run-up

The sight of a fast bowler running in from a distance, sometimes starting in a position only vaguely related to the position of the wicket, is a thrilling one. And it's increasingly rare now

Imran Khan turned from a stroll to high speed © PA Photos

One of the first days of county cricket I saw was at Hove, where Imran Khan and Garth Le Roux, Sussex's feared and noble quicks, took it in turns to rush down the slope towards the sea, the ball a fuzz of red from our side-on view.

What stayed with me was the sheer theatre of it all. Both Imran and Le Roux had great manes of hair that trailed behind them as they ran in from somewhere near the boundary: they looked like thoroughbreds on the gallop, throwing their heads back with a haughty kind of disdain as the hurried, discomforted batsmen thrust and parried. Then they would begin the walk back to their mark. Imran especially would amble as if he was out for a Sunday stroll. It was all part of it: the batsman had to contend with this dreadful, slow build-up to the next delivery, the agony extending and extending until Imran would at last spin on his heel and charge back at great speed, his final leap and coil full of that equine grace.

It was the era of the long run. Almost every fast bowler had one, and if they didn't have a long run, they would certainly have a quirky one. Michael Holding, the "Whispering Death" of legend, came in from so far out that even on the full boundaries at The Oval his mark seemed to be just a few yards from the fence. He appeared to skim the earth as he approached, the ground passing a hidden kinetic force up into his feet as his stride got longer and longer. Malcolm Marshall had a run-up like a scythe, a great semi-circle that he would inscribe with knees and elbows pumping madly. Bob Willis ran in a semi-circle too, his bowling arm waggling behind his back, his great mop of hair - tribute to his idol Bob Dylan - alive above him. Jeff Thomson turned sideways in his final few strides like a man about to launch a javelin. Dennis Lillee came in front-on until the very end, a bright headband dividing the jet-black locks above and below it.

Joel Garner had a much shorter approach than any of the others. He began in a crouch but then his giant limbs, all moving in apparently different directions, catapulted him upwards into a delivery stride that blotted out the sun. Colin Croft ran in fairly conventionally but then jumped outwards and away from the stumps as he speared the ball viciously throatwards.

Sarfraz Nawaz had a running style where he barely seemed to lift his knees. Waqar Younis brought us one of the last great runs, a vast, head-first charge taken up by the Rawalpindi Express himself, Shoaib Akhtar, a man who wrung every last second of drama from his flailing approach.

It seems to be over now, another part of the game that is yielding to sports science and the endless demands of the fixture list. Many of the greats could cut their run if they felt like it: Marshall developed a tactic whereby he would alternate between long and short run with no obvious difference in pace. Garner was wickedly effective in the old John Player League, where the run was limited to eight yards or so to ensure that 80 overs could be delivered in an afternoon.

There are still some wonderful sights. Dale Steyn has a tremendous, concentrated energy in his skittering stride. Morne Morkel is a present-day Garner. Mitchell Johnson looks like a malign cartoon character as his wrist ticks and his knees pump in the remodelled run that has brought him such success. Mitch understands the role of theatre, hence the moustache. But we have probably seen the last of the long run in, or any approach that begins in a direction only vaguely related to the position of the wicket. We should lament its passing, because it was a thrill to watch.

Jon Hotten blogs here and tweets here