November 27, 2007

Pace is back

Lee, Steyn, Shoaib - the quick guns are in business again. The gods have acted

Waqar, is that you? Steyn is congratulated after he cleaned up at Centurion © AFP

At the start of the 2007-08 season, things weren't looking good for fast bowling. Pitches were tending to be flat or slow or both. Injuries were rife. Shoaib Akhtar was being even more of a prima donna than before, Shane Bond and Simon Jones were forever injured, Glenn McGrath had retired, Shaun Pollock was down to medium pace, and Brett Lee was still spraying it around like a 20-year-old, at the age of 30. The men who opened the bowling for the ICC World XI against Australia in 2005, Steve Harmison and Andrew Flintoff, were both ailing badly for different reasons.

The world's leading Test fast bowlers were all less than legendary figures. Either they were honest triers like Makhaya Ntini, Stuart Clark and Matthew Hoggard, or they were mercurial types like Zaheer Khan and Andre Nel, or they were promising ones like Mohammad Asif, Lasith Malinga, and Sreesanth. In the two-year period to October 1, 2007, four of the top five Test wicket-takers were spinners - Murali, Warne, Kumble and Panesar. Monty's terrific in his way, but there ought to be more than one fast bowler in the world who can outgun him.

Just in time, the gods of pace noticed what was happening. When Brett Lee wasn't looking, they tipped a magic potion into his energy drink, which made him as accurate in whites as he is in pyjamas. The first rule of batting in a Test against Australia is usually "Tuck into Brett". But in their first taste of him, at the Gabba, Sri Lanka's batsmen could hardly hit him off the square: he was allowed to bowl 17.5 overs of McGrath-like miserliness, and finish with 4 for 26. After that, the runs column went closer to normal, up above three an over, but the wickets kept coming steadily - four every time. Lee had some help from Australia's batsmen, who were so dominant that he never faced a ball himself, but the series belonged to him.

Lee rose to the occasion just when Australia needed him, with McGrath and Warne gone and Stuart MacGill half-fit. Meanwhile, the gods turned their attention to South Africa, who had been held together by Ntini and Pollock for a few years but needed something less like Sellotape and more like a spearhead. Cometh the hour, cometh Dale Steyn.

In Pakistan, controversially preferred to Pollock as Ntini's new-ball partner, Steyn took a vital five-for to seal the first Test. Back home, he tore through New Zealand's batting like a man possessed - swinging the ball at pace and achieving the sort of strike-rate that hasn't been seen since Waqar Younis's heyday. Even the best fast bowlers usually need to bowl 40 or 50 overs in a match to collect a ten-wicket haul. Steyn managed it in 31.3 overs at the Wanderers, and then, to show it wasn't a fluke, in 24.3 at Centurion. His strike-rate for the series was 16: the stuff of fantasy.

When one fast bowler is on fire like that, the others merely have to be warmed up. Nobody else did anything special for Australia or South Africa, but both teams won their series with crushing ease. South Africa are now back as a team to be reckoned with in Test cricket. Along with India, they look a better bet to be second in the world than a wobbly England. But even England may have hit on a new fast bowler. Ryan Sidebottom, who was admirable in a solid, Hoggard-ish way in the summer, found some extra horsepower during the one-day series in Sri Lanka and went over 90mph.

When he got back there the other day, his place was reported to be in doubt, rather bafflingly. Now, with the injuries to Harmison and James Anderson, Sidebottom is surely back in pole position. At Kandy on Saturday, he should take the field in a Test overseas for the first time, and in an England team alongside Hoggard for only the second time. Some people say they're too similar, but as they're both prepared to bowl all day, swing the new ball, cut the old one, land it on off stump, and generally get on with the job without complaint, Michael Vaughan might be happy to have four of them.

In their previous joint appearance, against West Indies at Chester-le-Street last summer, these two old swingers shared ten wickets. With the contrasting, bang-it-in style of Stuart Broad in support, plus a few wily reverse-swung dibbly-dobblies from Ravi Bopara, England have a chance of stealing a win - Murali permitting. And pace bowling, thank heavens, is back from the dead.

Tim de Lisle is the author of Young Wisden (reviewed here) and a former editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly. His website is here