May 2, 2002

The 100 mph ball: did he or didn't he?

Jeff Thomson
Jeff Thomson - still going strong
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Charles Kortright. I mention the name only because nobody else has during the ongoing debate about the fastest bowler ever. Shoaib Akhtar and Brett Lee have, of course, been mentioned. So too have Harold Larwood, Frank Tyson, Michael Holding, Allan Donald, Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson.

Kortright played 160 matches for Essex between 1894 and 1907, taking 489 wickets at an average of 21.05. He was reckoned by some to be the fastest ever. Of course, they did not have speed guns to measure pace in those days. They did, though, have my grandfather.

He remembered Kortright bowling on the Old County Ground, Leyton, where one particularly quick delivery beat both batsman and wicket-keeper and crashed into the sightscreen. Not only did it hit the sightscreen but, according to legend and Granddad, it went right through it. Either Kortright was seriously quick or they had rotten sightscreens. Probably both.

I heard stories about Larwood from people who played with him. Bob Wyatt, vice-captain on the infamous Bodyline Tour, once told me that he stood at slip some 30 yards behind the stumps dreading that the batsman would get a touch. Larwood was that quick.

Larwood was before my time, though I have seen plenty of footage of the 1932-33 series. He certainly looked very fast, but am I alone in thinking that there was a distinct kink in his bowling action?

Tyson I saw in the flesh and he appeared frighteningly quick. So, too did Thomson. Holding and Lillee impressed with their grace and athleticism and Donald bowled an over that remains awesome in the memory. Not the one against Michael Atherton, but against Allan Lamb in a county match between Warwickshire and Northamptonshire. We were wincing in the press box.

All of these impressions of speed are totally subjective, which leads on to the accuracy and reliability of the speed guns in use today. There have been claims and counter claims about the one in operation on the day in question.

The company who are responsible for recording the ball claimed to be 100 mph, CyberNet, issued a statement about their "Stalker Sport" radar gun imported from the United States. "The speed radar gun was used in all the three one day internationals played in Pakistan. The accuracy is authentic and reliable as it can be tested with an internationally used speed-checking device.

"We have no interests of claiming any 'world records' or any 'official records' and are acting in the best interest of the game of cricket. Our technical personnel are fully trained in the operation and positioning of the gun for highest accuracy."

Against that, Jaco Kruger from EDH, the suppliers of the system used by television broadcasters TWI, states that "The measurement of speed through radar is a science in its own right and I question the results generated in Pakistan. When we entered the market six years ago in the UK, we were the first speed measurement system to be accepted by critics, players and sponsors.

"Our Speedball is in Pakistan with TWI and they have not been using it during the one-dayers due to conflicts that needed clarifying. It certainly wasn't down as widely reported. We are pushing hard to have it in operation for the Tests which will surely show up the untested system."

Dr. Paul Hawkins, the man behind another more sophisticated system, Hawk-Eye, states: "Our technology was used last summer to give the speed of the ball. No one got close to100 mph. Our technology is very accurate - and vision processing is generally regarded as a better technology to use to measure speeds accurately rather than radar.

"The other problem with radar is that there is no way of going back and verifying the result. Hawk-Eye saves the images so you can go back and look at them and confirm the results."

Shoaib Akhtar
Shoaib Akhtar
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While the technologists argue from one viewpoint, there is no shortage of opinion from players and officials.

The bowler himself, Shoaib Akhtar, said: "The speed machine is authentic and it should be acknowledged throughout the world."

The man always thought to be alongside Shoaib in the race to the ton, Brett Lee, was unstinting in his praise for his rival. "It's great that a person has finally clocked that 160 and I'm just really excited for him and really proud of him. It's a bit like that four-minute mile thing and for a person to actually finally achieve it is fantastic."

As for the authorities, International Cricket Council spokesman Mark Harrison pointed out that his organisation did not want to get embroiled in arguments about whether the record can be counted as being official. "There is no official ICC policy but we do regard it as an interesting part of the game. If it creates interest and spectator entertainment, that's a good thing."

It is interesting that both Shoaib and Lee have come under close scrutiny concerning the legality of their actions. There were not the slow-motion replays available to put the spotlight on Larwood, but there are for both the Pakistani and the Australian.

It is an emotive subject, but it appears that Lee has changed his action significantly since he burst onto the scene. He has probably lost a significant degree of pace as a result. I saw the footage of Shoaib bowling when he was first called for throwing. The cause for the umpires' concern was evident. There have been a number of other bowlers through the years who have raised eyebrows about the legality of their quicker balls. It has to be said, though, that TV pictures of the celebrated delivery in Lahore suggest that, on this occasion, Shoaib's arm was perfectly straight right through the action.

There is, however, something about those pictures that leave a nagging, if totally subjective, doubt nagging away in the back of the mind. The 100 mph ball was bowled under floodlights - seldom the best seeing conditions; it was a viciously in-swinging yorker; yet McMillan simply played down on the ball and kept it out.

It is interesting that Dr. Hawkins confirms that when using conventional radar as in Lahore, a ball of full length will produce a faster reading than one banged in short. It all adds to the arguments about just how fast that ball was.

One of the oldest records in Wisden dates back to "c. 1882." It was then, or about then, that Robert Percival is reckoned to have thrown a cricket ball 140 yards 2 feet on the Durham Sands racecourse. The date is imprecise, and so are all the details of the throw and even Percival himself.

Will, in years to come, the same doubts surround Shoaib Akhtar's feat? The answer is probably not. The carefree amateur days have gone for good. There will be standardisation of measurement and equipment and there will be an official record. Financial considerations will demand it. There is commercial capital to be made from a 100 mph bowler.

Shoaib has said: "With my fitness and the speed I am generating, I can deliver over 100 miles an hour any day." To settle all the doubts that exist, he might have to wait for the day when all the standards are set, and then, quite simply, do it again.