Geoffrey Boycott answers your questions on all things cricket. Send your questions in here.

'Steyn the best in the world, Johnson at two, then Anderson'

Geoff Boycott on the fastest bowlers the game has seen, and the best among those currently playing (16:43)

Interviewer: Raunak Kapoor

February 26, 2014


Bowl at Boycs

'Steyn the best in the world, Johnson at two, then Anderson'

February 26, 2014

Excerpts from the discussion below.

Mitchell Johnson bowls to Hashim Amla, South Africa v Australia, 1st Test, Centurion, 4th day, February 15, 2014
"Mitchell Johnson can and wants to do psychological and physical damage to his opponent, and if he can see that he can hurt you, then he knows he's got you' © Getty Images

Raunak Kapoor: Hello and welcome to another show of Bowl at Boycs on ESPNcricinfo. Geoffrey Boycott joins me from South Africa. We have already seen an exhibition of fast bowling from both teams and I'm delighted that all the questions in today's show have to do with fast bowling. Geoffrey the first question comes from Vineet Anand in India.

He says: Watching the struggles of the South Africans against Mitchell Johnson in the first Test, I can't help but wonder, is playing fast bowling really all that difficult? Good batsmen, like the South African top order, shouldn't be troubled to the extent that they have been by just pace. I've always thought negotiating the moving ball is a significantly greater challenge than facing up to bumpers and bouncers. So my question is, which did you find more difficult to handle, extravagant sideways movement or genuine pace and bounce.

Geoff Boycott: Good question. Look, swing and seam or fast bowling both require a lot of skill to play against but, this is the big but, fast bowling can hurt you. At the back of all the players' minds, an average player, a decent player and particularly a tail-ender, is the fear of getting hurt, the fear factor.

Now, it's quite a lot easier in the modern game since players started wearing helmets and visors, and that started around the Packer series in 1978-79 in the second series, when a lot of players got these helmets and visors.

But even with that sort of protection, you can damage players. You can hit them on the head, on the hands, the arms, bleed fingers, hit them on the ribs and tail-enders and average batsmen never come across genuine pace. Even top batsmen, how many really really fast bowlers are there these days in world cricket? You've got three or four at the minute.

But whatever teams have a really fast bowler, not fast-medium, but really fast with genuine pace, then somewhere they will win Test matches. They win Test matches and series do fast bowlers. It's a fact of life.

If you go back to 1932-33, the Bodyline in Australia, one great fast bowler Harold Larwood from England beat Australia. He cut the greatest run-getter ever, Bradman, down to half. Averaging 99.9, he averaged 50 that series. He still averaged more than the others, but 50 was a lot easier to beat.

"Without movement, Jimmy Anderson hasn't got enough pace to give quality batsmen problems on flat pitches. That's the difference. He can reverse swing it but he's an artist. He's never going to physically hurt you"

Then you had Len Hutton's tour to Australia, they had Frank Tyson in the '50s. He beat Australia. They lost the first Test. Then you had big Lindwall and Miller in the '40s. They beat England home and away. Then it was about Lillee and Thompson in '74. They smashed England. Then you have the four great fast bowlers from the West Indies, even the fifth change, Marshall for Roberts, Holding, Garner, Croft. Through the middle and late '70s, they murdered everyone. They just kept coming at you. They didn't bowl half volleys or full tosses, they just came at you with a bang. They hit the deck, and people knew, they could genuinely put you in hospital. And that's the difference.

Extravagant movement and pace can be very disconcerting. Just like fast bowling. But movement in the air and off the pitch becomes more difficult if it's aligned with pace. That is the key, like Richard Hadlee, wonderful bowler, fantastic bowler. But again, there's no pain, no fear.

There's only the fear of getting out, but when you've got the fear of getting hurt and getting out, that supersedes everything.

RK: Thanks for your thoughts Geoffrey. Let's take the second one now, and you mentioned Michael Holding a little while earlier. The next question from Cliff Macdev in the United States is about Michael Holding.

Cliff asks: How fast was Michael Holding at his best? Can Akhtar or Lee or Thomson actually be faster? From having seen him live and also on television, I still find it hard to believe there were faster bowlers than him.

Also Geoffrey, I'd like to add and ask, who were the fastest bowlers you faced and/or watched?

GB: Well you're dead right. Good question. There aren't faster bowlers than Michael Holding. Jeff Thomson was his equal. But you know, who was the fastest is relative to an odd mile an hour.

The real crux is harnessing that great pace that Thomson and Holding had with accuracy and getting wickets. They got wickets at a better amount of runs per wicket. That is the secret.

Brett Lee was a good fine athlete and a good bowler. Shoaib Akhtar bowled some very fast balls occasionally. He was a show pony. He was more interested in being acclaimed as the fastest bowler in the world than getting wickets.

He never seemed to grasp that it's about taking wickets and winning matches. It's not about just bowling a fast bouncer or a fast yorker or getting a wicket with the fastest ball.

Pace without accuracy is totally useless. He never won or helped to win enough matches. So he won't get the praise he could and should have done with the amount of pace Shoaib Akhtar could produce, and also he kept getting injured.

The great fast bowlers didn't keep getting injured. They kept going and winning matches and again when you have fast bowling, people don't come up against it. As a batsman, you can practice all kinds of spin and seam bowling in the nets and get on the front foot.

But the genuine fast bowlers don't come to you in the nets. They don't let you get on to the front foot. You can think about the beautiful cover drive, but you ain't going to get one. It's going to be up at your ribs, hitting you in the heart, throat, head, that's difficult.

You keep getting four, five balls up there, it just wears you down and it hurts if it hits you. And you need to have fabulous technique to play it. So all in all, they just destroy you mentally unless you're a really really top player. But you can't practice it much, 'cause there aren't many people around that can bowl like that.

RK: All right thanks for that Geoff, let's now take the question of the week, and we continue talking about fast bowling. Questions from Saroj from the USA and Jeremy from Australia.

The question they ask Geoffrey: Looking at the skill set of both Steyn and Johnson, who do you rate as the best fast bowler in the current game? Does James Anderson come close to these two?

Dale Steyn in action on the second morning, Middlesex v South Africans, Tour match, Uxbridge, July 5, 2008
"Steyn's got the aggression, he loves bowling, he's a fantastic craftsman and can skid the ball. And that was the greatness of Malcolm Marshall. Steyn reminds me a lot of Marshall" © Getty Images

GB: Jimmy Anderson has been and still is a superb, lively fast-medium, swing, seam and cut bowler. With movement, he's a magician. He bowls magical balls. He bowled one to Michael Clarke in the Nottingham Test match last year.

But without movement, Jimmy hasn't got enough pace to give quality batsmen problems on flat pitches. That's the difference. He can reverse swing it but he's an artist. He's never going to physically hurt you.

He tried like hell in Australia. Pitches were flat, and that Kookabura ball doesn't reverse easily. He is a class act, but he does need movement.

Now, Mitchell Johnson is all about pace, aggression, pain and intimidation. He can and wants to do psychological and physical damage to his opponent, and if he can see that he can hurt you, then he knows he's got you.

When you have a fast bowler in the team and he gets on a roll, it has throughout history blown teams away.

He's a hit-the-deck bowler. He needs a decent firm-ish pitch so he can get the bounce and the enormous lift he can get with his pace. And you don't get very many fast left-handers so you have that awkward angle across the right-handers to deal with.

Now he needs a fast pitch, not sluggish. If you saw in Port Elizabeth, sluggish pitch, low bounce, then you can nullify some of it because he can't get lift. Like a lot of fast bowlers haven't got the lift on the slowish pitches in India.

You've got to remember this, in the history of the game, the ball, when it hits the pitch, whatever pitch it is, swarms up, and we all say, that hurried off the pitch. It's a little bit of a misnomer is that because no ball gets quicker once it hits the deck.

Some balls, when they hit the deck, slow up more than others, like it did in PE for Mitch. But let me tell you, when this pitch comes up in Cape Town, that won't be low and slow.

Dale Steyn for me is the best fast bowler in the world. I've always thought so for years now and the reason for that is he can bowl on any surface. I believe he has enough pace and movement and skill to be a top bowler in any era that I've seen over 50 years.

He has outswing, he can reverse it like he did at PE, in fact when he gets a slow surface, reverse swing is vital and he is the best example of pace and reverse swing since Waqar Younis. Waqar was an absolute magician at it.

For him, he looks smaller than Mitchell Johnson. He doesn't depend on hitting the deck like a lot of fast bowlers do. So he's got the aggression, loves bowling, he's a fantastic craftsman and can skid the ball. And that was the greatness of Malcolm Marshall at 5ft 9. He got wickets all over the world.

Dale Steyn reminds me a lot of him, wonderful bowler, the best.

RK: So if I had to ask you to rate them, it would be Steyn one, Johnson two and Anderson three?

GB: Oh Mitchell Johnson at two definitely. Because you're only going to get a wicket or two that's sluggish. And even then, he will get a wicket with the new ball, tailenders will still be frightened, so he's still going to be in the game and there's an intimidation situation. When he's in the team, people are going to look around and wonder when is he going to bowl next? It happened in the Bodyline series with Larwood.

And there was a time when Harold got hit on the foot and wanted to go off, and Bradman was still in, and Harold wanted to go and get treatment and the captain said, no you stay on until Bradman gets out.

Then people try and play shots before the great bowler comes back out and so they get out in the process. And that's what happens with Mitchell Johnson.

RK: So would you have liked to play any of these bowlers in your time Geoff, or maybe now even. You fancy going out there and teaching them a lesson?

GB: Oh, I'd have loved to, not now, I'm too old but I'd have loved to have batted against them, I would have taken a single and got to the other end!

RK: All right thank you very much Geoffrey Boycott, we will talk to you in two weeks' time. The third Test in Cape Town starts on March 1, and we will of course get Geoff Boycott's thoughts on that and a lot more. Do send in your questions via our our feedback form and we'll be back to answer them. Until then, goodbye.

Posted by Zahidsaltin on (March 1, 2014, 0:25 GMT)

If I have to choose between the two medium pacers, Andersen and Philander, I will pick Philander but third best fast bowler for me will be Mohammad Irfan, Although his records in the few matches which he has played, do not show anything to boast about but going by his bowling at 145+ and then his hight of 7,1 is pleasant to watch.

Posted by vik56in on (March 1, 2014, 0:00 GMT)

A correction ! Marshall is actuall 5'11 .I don't know how the idea of him being 5'9' got around !

Posted by   on (February 28, 2014, 19:13 GMT)

Steyn is the man.....respect from Pakistan

Posted by ISB_ACC on (February 28, 2014, 5:46 GMT)

Steyn is a real hero..... Superman......... (sri lankan)

Posted by   on (February 28, 2014, 5:29 GMT)

I don't think Anderson deserves to be named the 3rd best currently. That Ashes tour was horrible.

The best bowlers in the world - despite lack of swing or movement or pitch conditions should still be able to hold their own.

Instead, England largely lost the Ashes in part because Anderson did absolutely NOTHING when they were used to him performing so well in the past.

The best just don't go missing so badly - sadly.

Posted by   on (February 28, 2014, 2:20 GMT)

Please add Karnataka's Brahmin tiger - Javagal Srinath.

Posted by Zahidsaltin on (February 28, 2014, 0:00 GMT)

Mr. GB, Shoaib Akhtar surely had many injuries but his record is easily compareable to some of the greats. His strike rate of 45, average and wickets per match are supurb. His ODI record is even much better.

Posted by Zahidsaltin on (February 27, 2014, 23:56 GMT)

I never actually found out why people rate Lille so highly. He played 96 % of his matches in England or Australia where in his era, wickets were tailor made for fast bowlers. Only time he visited Pakistan, he got 3 wickets in a 3 test series at an average of 95. His visits to SL and India were similarly costly affairs. In contrast, Imran, Wasim, Waqr and Kapil (medium) took most of their wickets in subcontinent where Lille was proved to be worse then the local Club level bowlers.

Posted by HennopsRiverEnd on (February 27, 2014, 20:48 GMT)

@Cricket_Writer we've got to put things into perspective. If SA were to play as much ODI's as say India or Australia we'd be talking a different story. Steyn has already reserved his place in that all time greats' list. Enjoy him while he's still around.

Comments have now been closed for this article

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