The Wisden Cricketer - April 2008 March 26, 2008

Pace is back

In the early 2000s a pair of spinners took centre stage. But Warne is gone, Brett Lee is better than ever, Dale Steyn is making the headlines, and quicks are even thriving in India, traditionally fast-bowling's final frontier

Bad and back: Dale Steyn has averaged 19 since returning to Tests in 2006 © Getty Images

"Poetry and murder lived in him together," wrote RC Robertson-Glasgow of Don Bradman, but anyone who watched Michael Holding glide to the crease or heard the chants of "kill" as Dennis Lillee prepared to do his worst might think the conceit applies equally well to the fast bowler. Ever since George Brown of Brighton ended the life of an inattentive dog in the early 19th century with a delivery that beat the wicketkeeper and - so legend has it - went through a coat held by the trembling long-stop, the speedy have exerted their hold, both ghoulish and visceral, on spectators. Think of Harold Larwood and Bodyline, Frank Tyson, Lillee and Thomson, Holding's over to Geoff Boycott, Wasim and Waqar, Donald to Atherton at Trent Bridge, Shoaib Akhtar. "The fast bowler," wrote John Arlott in 1975 in his preface to David Frith's The Fast Men, "is the most colourful character in cricket." More than three decades later, is it wishful thinking to suggest that the colour is returning to a few characters' cheeks?

If we take as our yardstick a speed of 85mph - the likes of Thomson and Shoaib, bowler of the first recorded 100mph delivery in match conditions, are a subset of their own - then the global paddock looks nicely stocked. Australia have a more mature Brett Lee and an exciting Mitchell Johnson, even if Shaun Tait is temporarily out of action; England boast Stuart Broad, Ryan Sidebottom (quicker now than when Duncan Fletcher ignored him), Steve Harmison, and are itching for Andrew Flintoff's return, to say nothing of Simon Jones; New Zealand have - or had - Shane Bond; Pakistan have Shoaib, when fit, and the whippy, casual Mohammad Asif; South Africa can unleash Dale Steyn and, more recently, Morne Morkel; Sri Lanka can let loose Lasith "The Slinger" Malinga; and even West Indies can take their pick from Fidel Edwards, Jerome Taylor and Daren Powell. As for India, the days of the many-pronged spin attack of the 1970s are a distant memory: as with most other areas of the game, the world of pace is very much their oyster. "Fast bowling around the world is pretty healthy at the moment," says Troy Cooley. "These are exciting times."

Not least for Cooley himself. One of the game's most respected fast-bowling coaches, he was the puppet-master behind England's Ashes-winning four-man pace attack in 2005 before being poached by his native Australia in plenty of time for the return leg in 2006-07. It would be a gross exaggeration to say that Australia's 5-0 win was down to Cooley. But it would be equally wrong to ignore his contribution. After all, would Harmison really have begun with that scene-setting wide at the Gabba if Cooley's calming influence had been in England's dressing room rather than Australia's? Who knows? But what is clear is that back-room support in this non-stop era of international cricket is now a necessity rather than a luxury. And it seems to be paying dividends.

"The schedule can be a bit tough," says Dale Steyn, who - following South Africa's drubbing of Bangladesh - had taken 97 wickets at 19 each since returning to Test cricket in April 2006. "If you manage it well, you can get away with it. We have great support staff in South Africa, so if I have a day off, I don't get on my feet at all. They know all the requirements." The 24-year-old Steyn says he is yet to bowl within himself, which might explain why his Test strike-rate in the last two years has been a phenomenal 33. "I love the buzz of bowling fast," he says. "Yes, I do get a thrill from it. Morne Morkel is incredibly quick too, and that spurs me on. You think you've got to bowl quicker than the other guys because you don't want to lose your place in the team. Even the franchises are producing quick bowlers. The selectors have got a good thing going. Now I want to be the quickest in the world."

Steyn's instinctive enthusiasm - "When I fly from Johannesburg to Cape Town and look down at my country, it's amazing to think, 'Out of all the people to bowl fast for South Africa, they picked me'" - is a recurring theme among pacemen. Tyson spoke of the "glad animal action" of bowling fast. Lillee noted: "It's the sheer 'I can fly' exhilaration ... It's seeing that look of apprehension on your quarry's face." Thomson, his partner in crime, famously reckoned he just went "whang". Neither was he averse to the sight of blood. Each generation of quicks derives its own special pleasures.

It's the sheer 'I can fly' exhilartion...It's seeing that look of apprehension on your quarry's faceDennis Lillee

The question is, do the generations wax and wane as a matter of course? Is the current crop of emerging quicks merely part of cricket's natural ebb and flow? Mike Atherton, who faced some of the modern game's great new-ball pairings during the 1990s, agrees there was a "drop-off in terms of the quality of fast bowlers" in the years following his retirement in 2001. But he adds: "I wonder to what extent these things are cyclical." The power struggle between quick and slow over the last four decades suggests he has a point.

In the 1970s three of the five leading Test-wicket-takers were spinners: Derek Underwood (202 wickets), plus the Indian pair of Bishan Bedi (196) and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar (180). But by the 1980s only one slow bowler - Pakistan's Abdul Qadir (216) - made a top ten dominated by the West Indians and the four great allrounders: that decade Richard Hadlee, Kapil Dev, Ian Botham and Imran Khan claimed 1075 wickets between them. Shane Warne led the pack in the 1990s but behind him came five quicks and one almost-quick: Curtly Ambrose (309), Courtney Walsh (304), Wasim Akram (289), Allan Donald (284), Waqar Younis (273) and Glenn McGrath (266). And in the 2000s Muttiah Muralitharan, Warne and Anil Kumble lead the way. But Warne has retired, Kumble will soon join him, and - after the fallow period alluded to by Atherton - the picture is changing once more.

Not everything, however, can be put down to the self-regulatory nature of cycles. Improvements in physiotherapy have helped, even if Cooley stresses that fast bowling remains a "risky business". But Stuart Osborne, who has been the Sussex physio for ten years and has worked regularly with the England Academy, says technological advances have changed the nature of the beast. "Fast bowlers now are year-round athletes," he says. "They are fitter and stronger than when I first started in the job. The buzzword in the last five years has been 'core stability' - they work on different muscles now. You always get naturals, but there's a lot more help now for fast bowlers who are not as naturally gifted. Ice baths prevent stiffness in muscles and at Sussex we have a jacuzzi, as well as hot-and-cold contrast baths. Bowlers are screened regularly and there's an eye on workloads. There's been a sharp reduction in stress fractures."

Ishant Sharma took 4 for 38 against Australia in February, including Ricky Ponting with a brute of a lifter © Getty Images

Nowhere has this new tendency to prolong the life of the average fast bowler had more impact than in India. And this is where the argument really does depart from the cyclical. It used to be thought that the group most likely to smuggle secrets across borders were legspinners, misunderstood by everyone but each other. But the MRF (Madras Rubber Factory) pace foundation in Chennai, the brainchild of Lillee himself, has given fast bowlers everywhere the sense of a global community and Indians in particular the confidence to reach beyond their traditional stereotypes of beguiling spin and wristy batting. Zaheer Khan, RP Singh, Irfan Pathan, Sreesanth and Munaf Patel are all products of the foundation, as is India's bowling coach, Venkatesh Prasad. When Lillee told Prasad how his bowlers could best exploit the Fremantle Doctor during the recent Perth Test, it was confirmation that the fast-bowlers' union has moved way beyond the old agreement not to bowl bouncers at each other. India won by 72 runs.

TA Sekhar, who briefly bowled fast-medium for India in the mid-1980s, has been working with Lillee at the foundation almost from its very beginnings in 1987. "When it started, no one in India understood what it meant to be a fast bowler," says Sekhar. "They had no clue about training. Now young bowlers know about the three types of action: open, semi-open and side-on. They know exactly what they want to do and where they want to land the ball. Previously bowlers were always side-on. Awareness has improved massively. And they are learning how to swing the ball at pace, which is what they did in Australia. Only Brett Lee swung it for Australia, but all our boys were doing it."

Until the emergence of Prasad and Javagal Srinath, another graduate of the foundation, as an international-class new-ball pairing in the 1990s, India's lack of fast-bowling heritage had irked those who looked west and saw the Pakistanis churn out one loose-limbed tearaway after another. Sekhar attributes the discrepancy to nothing more than genetics - "Constitutionally, Pakistanis are bigger men" - but says this very awareness helped him and Lillee customise a training regime for potential Indian fast bowlers. Sekhar stresses the need for fitness and strength but also points out that the natural flexibility of most Indians ("We sit on the ground and cross our legs when we eat") has helped prevent back problems. "With Shaun Tait, we all knew he was going to have injury problems because of his action," he says. "There is an inherent risk of injury in bowling fast. The body is not designed to do it. You have to get used to awkward moments and do your training and weights, your yoga and Pilates. It's about core-muscle strengthening.

"After some trial and error at the start the system has evolved at the school over 10 to 12 years and now we're seeing the benefits."

Fast bowlers are the strongest kind of cricketer and yet the most delicateStuart Osborne

Sekhar speaks in reverential terms about the skills which Lillee, who has first-hand experience of serious injury after missing nearly two years of Test cricket in 1973 and '74 while he recuperated from stress fractures of the back, imparts to a new generation of fast bowlers during the seven or eight weeks he spends annually at the foundation. "He is the best fast-bowling coach I have ever seen. He makes it very simple. There isn't too much theory. He watches a bowler once in the flesh, then again on video, and then he can say what's going wrong. He can see in real-time what other coaches only see in slow motion."

Fast bowlers everywhere clearly agree. The counties now send between 15 and 20 bowlers to Chennai every year, with Mick Newell, the coach of Nottinghamshire, admitting "the boys hang on Dennis's every word". He adds: "Dennis is very big on injury-prevention coaching. He's always looking for straight lines. He builds actions and spots bowlers who are likely to run into trouble." Newell credits Lillee with helping Sidebottom, in early 2004, to find the swing into the right-hander which has changed his career. Lillee lined him up straighter, kept his wrist behind the ball and got the seam straight. Makhaya Ntini and Mitchell Johnson have both paid visits to the foundation - Johnson took five wickets in a one-day international at Vadodara not long after - and Sekhar is particularly proud of the improvement made by Mohammad Asif, who reportedly amazed onlookers when he returned from a stint in Chennai with a regular outswinger and an extra yard of pace. No matter that Asif represents the arch enemy.

It might irk Sekhar that he is yet to work with Ishant Sharma, the 6ft 4in, 19-year-old prodigy from Delhi who persuaded the owners of the Kolkata franchise in the Indian Premier League, to fork out £475,000 for him at the recent IPL auction: only three players cost more. Instead, there is genuine excitement in his voice. "Ishant Sharma is the most exciting talent going around," says Sekhar. "He needs to fill out a bit, and I hope he doesn't fall into the trap of listening to absolutely everyone. But he uses his body very well, has a good wrist position and good bounce. And he excites people." It is symptomatic of fast bowling's ability to stir the emotions that Sharma's spell to Ricky Ponting in the fourth innings at Perth - 38 deliveries, 15 scratchy runs, plenty of fresh-air gropes, and finally, a misery-ending edge to first slip - is already the stuff of folklore.

Makhaya Ntini lags behind three spinners in a list of Test wicket-takers in the 2000s © Getty Images

Cooley, another Lillee disciple, provides the non-Indian perspective. "It's great to have the facilities there in India, because it's one of the hardest countries to bowl fast in. You're putting bowlers in very uncomfortable positions. It can be 40 degrees, there's the humidity and the fact they're no longer at home. You work out pretty quickly who's got the right attitude that champions need. You learn fast bowling is a tough job."

But is it too tough in an era where there is already talk of squeezing the packed schedule into even fewer weeks to accommodate the IPL? After all, as Osborne points out: "Fast bowlers are the strongest kind of cricketer and yet the most delicate. They are the thoroughbreds, the ones who need the most work done to them." Most experts agree that the sheer volume of cricket should militate against day-in, day-out, express-pace bowling, and point towards Flintoff, Shoaib, Bond and Simon Jones as examples of players unable to shake off long-term injuries. But this overlooks the number of problems avoided with the help of the back-roomers - Cooley says managing the players' fitness is a "huge part" of his job - and the recent trend of moving away from so-called mixed actions, where shoulders and hips are not in alignment. Atherton wonders whether there might be another problem in the long run. "Administrators like pitches to last for five days," he says. "You don't seem to get many pitches around the world any more where the captain will stick the opposition in, so it becomes harder for fast bowlers to find wicket-taking opportunities on the first morning."

It might be true that the days of a Test team collapsing to 2 for 4, as England - Atherton included - did on the first morning at Johannesburg in 1999-2000, will become increasingly rare. But with Chennai now established as the international fast bowler's home away from home, captains forever on the lookout for a cutting edge on pitches that demand a bit extra, and the physiotherapists among the most important people in the dressing room, the best fast bowlers ought to be superbly looked after. For all the concerns, it might just be that there has never been a better time to bowl quick.

Lawrence Booth is a freelance cricket writer and author of the Guardian's acclaimed online column The Spin. This article was first published in the April 2008 issue of the Wisden Cricketer. Subscribe here