Forget wrist positions: just let them bowl
The best fast bowlers make it look easy. Michael Holding, Malcolm Marshall, Fred Trueman, Dennis Lillee are just four of the quickest to have glided up to the crease day in, day out. But increasingly, modern bowlers' natural instincts are constrained by the coaching books, and two of England's, Liam Plunkett and Steve Harmison, fluffed their lines with robotic predictability on the third day at Lord's.
What makes this all the more surprising is their form for Durham before the Test. Harmison, in particular, tore through county opposition with 27 wickets at 14.92. Bowling with venom, aggression and bounce, the Ashes nightmare looked to be a distant, horrible memory. Cushioned by England's sizeable first innings, Harmison's spell began promisingly. His first few overs were deliciously quick, bowling the perfect length and gaining his trademark bounce. The signs were encouraging and yet, remarkably, and not for the first time in his career, the more he bowled the worse he got. It was a mental rewind to the train wreckage that was his Ashes: the stray leg-side drifters; the wild wides; the expressions of forlornness and bewilderment. Off he went to chew the cud at cow corner, stroke his beard and shake his head. And we did exactly the same.
But he wasn't alone today. Liam Plunkett, with whom Harmison shared the new ball in the afternoon session, was similarly wayward and equally volatile. These are two England bowlers apparently in superb form for their counties, facing a West Indies team bristling with potential if short on confidence. Yet the more they bowled, the more the armchair fan was begging them to be taken off and given a dressing down. How can modern bowlers afforded so much coaching, help and advice and equipment look so short of international class?
Well, ironically, it is coaching which might eventually be the traitor in the dressing room. Plunkett is a perfect case in point. His ability is without question, but there are few bowlers whose actions look so mechanised and affected. A strong young bowler, apparently obsessed with fitness, he is equipped with all the necessary characteristics in which to bowl quickly. Yet his action looks forced, clunky - almost painful. Surely he didn't bowl like this when he was a teenager, tearing in for his league side in Durham? I can't imagine any youngster is queuing up to model their run-up on him, either.
The emphasis of the mechanics and technical specifics of the modern fast bowler have become an absolute obsession of the modern coach. Yet interestingly, when Harmison speaks of England's former bowling coach, Troy Cooley, he rarely talks of his technical prowess. Cooley was "more like a brother" to him, Andrew Flintoff, Simon Jones and Matthew Hoggard. Cooley was a mentor and a mate, someone who would have a word in their ear when he spotted something but, in general, the bowlers would be left alone. The consequent results were dramatically successful. Are we now seeing the negative impact of hours of videos, computers, 3D modelling and interminable replays, scrutinising the performance of every muscle they use?
Michael Holding, the most flowing and ferocious bowler ever to don whites, told Cricinfo in an interview last year of the importance running and sprinting has for fast bowlers. That the emphasis on body strength, while obviously an important factor for their longevity, is coming at the expense of what fast bowlers need to do: run.
With Peter Moores clearly keen on appointing his own staff, a bowling tutor is next on the agenda and Allan Donald is top of the list. No need for high-level coaching awards, qualifications and a CV dripping with references. Donald is one of them: a bowler's bowler, as natural as they came, successful at the highest level and respected both as a man and a performer. England need people like him, and quickly; forget computers, wrist positions and angles: just let them bowl.
Will Luke is a staff writer on Cricinfo