February 24, 2010

Speed kills the fast bowler

Brett Lee's retirement marks another stage in the passing of a cricket species

With Brett Lee's Test retirement the game has lost another of its endangered species. The fast bowler capable of lightning spells is dying even though the men who create the bolts are stronger and fitter than ever.

Lee, who could touch 160kph, rates Test cricket as the game's pinnacle but his body, wrecked by years of feet pounding into the ground and arms slinging balls, won't let him play over five days. What is sadder than the resignation in Lee's eyes is a fast-bowling landscape without high-speed, high-class quicks.

His withdrawal leaves Dale Steyn as the only experienced paceman who is currently fit. Steyn has just played his 38th Test, half the number Lee managed, which makes him the grandfather of the modern fast-bowling generation. At 33, he has been broken by the trade.

Cricket's joke is fast bowlers are stupid, but the crowded schedules have forced them to become increasingly clever - and business-orientated - in their outlooks. Lee is hoping his frame allows him to turn out in one-day internationals and Twenty20s, a specialist path already being taken by Shane Bond and Andrew Flintoff. Given the gruelling demands of Tests, bowlers cashing cheques that fly around like old-school bumpers seems the smart thing to do.

Lee has had five ankle operations, a couple of bouts of surgery on his right elbow, back stress fractures, side strains and stomach tears along with the other daily aches that are, comparatively, so minor they don't get reported to the physio. It's not something batsmen or spin bowlers have to endure.

Jason Gillespie and Dennis Lillee, who are among Australia's great fast men, have praised Lee for the way he dealt with so many setbacks and bowled through so much pain. Only they truly understand the demands of slamming up to 20 times their body weight on to the front foot at delivery, for overs and days in a row.

Since the start of the millennium, the declining Makhaya Ntini is the leading fast bowler with 380 wickets, but he wasn't in the Lee-Steyn league for pace. Lee leapt for 310 Test breakthroughs, with his first game coming at the very end of 1999, and is second on a decade list that is full of quality bowlers but has barely a sprinkling of extreme speed merchants.

Lee has had five ankle operations, a couple of bouts of surgery on his right elbow, back stress fractures, side strains and stomach tears along with the other daily aches that are, comparatively, so minor they don't get reported to the physio. It's not something batsmen or spin bowlers have to endure

Shoaib Akhtar, who has appeared in 46 Tests, now talks more about comebacks than making them and hasn't played a five-day game since 2007, the year Lasith Malinga was last used by Sri Lanka. Captains wanting containment add to the problems.

Bond becomes as brittle as a drought-hit tree when he has to bowl over consecutive days and Flintoff could be super fast in bursts, but only when his ankles, knees and shoulders stopped groaning. McGrath, Pollock, Zaheer, Gillespie and Harmison were fast-medium, while Vaas and Hoggard, who also feature high on the list, were more medium-fast.

Kemar Roach and Mohammad Aamer have just started learning about how hard quick bowling is after emerging over the past year, but both have already experienced the discomfort associated with operating at more than 150kph. Roach's ankle is already requiring painkilling treatment, while Aamer missed a Test against Australia due to a groin problem. Those types of injuries don't win sympathy, but Roach can ask Fidel Edwards, who is stuck on 43 Tests, about dealing with discomfort in the 2000s.

The astonishingly quick bowlers are loved because they are frightening and rare. With Lee's departure a genuine speedster has gone and left little apart from Steyn. It's easy to long for previous eras when bowlers seemed faster than they were probably were, which is an unqualified judgement from a comfy spectator's seat.

In the 1990s, Ambrose, Walsh, Donald, Waqar and a young McGrath had more than 250 Test wickets for the decade. Marshall, Hadlee, Kapil, Imran and Botham achieved that mark in the 10 years before. They were greats, varying between fast-medium and flat-out, who operated on a diet of fewer matches and no lucrative Twenty20 distractions.

Australia's next long-term bowling hope is Mitchell Johnson, who hasn't missed a match in 32 Tests since his debut, but he's not super fast. Currently he is the third quickest bowler in Australia's Twenty20 team, behind Shaun Tait, who reached 160.7kph against Pakistan, and Dirk Nannes, who is regularly in the 150s.

Tait doesn't want to play Tests and early this week Nannes retired from first-class action. The longer game is just too hard and they get injured too often, which costs international caps and threatens IPL deals. Four overs at full throttle is the new dream, not 20 overs a day of grunt during two innings of a Test. Over the next couple of months Lee's creaking body will tell him if he can cope with even such a small amount of work.

Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Anand on February 27, 2010, 4:44 GMT

    andrew-schulz so u think u r reading the same thing being said abt aussies again and again huh? wonder why! maybe ..er..have you considered that there is some truth to it?! do you read popular magazines from your own country ?....like the peter roebuck one in SMH about how ponting should be sacked after that disgraceful Sydney test? sure a lot more indian fans are probably griping about that - thats simple a play of numbers with over a billion fans..but if you read around like NBRADEE from west indies mentioned aussies are consistently disliked for their persistent arrogance on the field barring a few notable exceptions ofcourse and Lee is one of the better blokes surely. so lets stick to that!

  • Naveed on February 25, 2010, 10:05 GMT

    Speed itself doesn't kill the fast bowler. What has more of an effect is the time they spend in the nets (sometimes concrete floors, covered with matting) and the amount of overs they bowl during their cricketing lifetime on various surfaces.

    I am led to understand Lee started at a very early age, add to this pressures of performing, the fact that his action went unchecked till he had injured himself, and you begin to see a picture. Now compound this with test matches and flat tracks and it becomes a truly "Herculean" feat to stay fit and fast for an extended period of time.

    We could learn something from the "old school" bowlers about longevity.

  • Bryn on February 25, 2010, 9:34 GMT

    Lee is easily the greatest fast bowler since mcgrath. and by the way mitchell johnson IS super quick if you watch him you will see him bowling consistently in the mid to high 140s and 150s thats quick as you get.

  • sumit on February 25, 2010, 6:09 GMT

    @CharonTFm On a forum/blog space following an article where everybody says what they feel I don't see why I should keep my comments to myself? Let me ask you if you have heard of 'bowling action remodeling'? If not then maybe you do a little background research on this, see if it can apply to Shaun Tait and then ask people to keep their comments to themselves. Otherwise maybe you should keep your comments to yourself!

  • Nipuna on February 25, 2010, 5:25 GMT

    Brett Lee is a great cricketer; but him retiring from the tests is perhaps best for him, Give him credit for the 300 wickets, but of late whenever he played he hasn't done as much as he would have liked (check out stats). But in shorter formats he has been superb. I have a gripe about how "experts" calssify bowlers "fast", seems to me this is a reputaion thing rather than actual speeds. For instance this article suggests Mitchell Jhonson as not genuinly fast, which is rubbish, the man has been hitting 150 plus day in and day out, he has bolwed quicker than likes of Steyn on a consistant basis. Sure he is slower than Nannes &Tait, Like Ponting stated Ausises are blessed with speed right now. While Malinga is mentioned here and he is one of the quickest in Sri Lanka, he is not exactly in the same league when it comes to pace (fastes he's bowled is 150, but that happens once in a bluemoon). In fact when Dilhara Fernanado & he's bowled together Dilhara has been quicker consistantly.

  • Chris on February 25, 2010, 4:05 GMT

    It's sad, but it's something that we all saw coming. Bing was a true sportsman; he played hard, but he played fair, something that the current "old heads" of the Aussie team don't do all that well. There haven't been that many more proud people to pull on the baggy green than Lee, and even fewer that enjoyed the contest more than him. In the end, you have to understand that cricket is a sport, and no sportsman can play forever, whether it's age, injury or form. Hope to see you on the park sometime, Binga; my slow ball is a killer.

  • Seb on February 25, 2010, 3:59 GMT

    chrisalis11 - a *weasel*?? Of all the things you could say about Brett Lee - a *weasel*???? I'm kinda speechless - a lot of unpleasant characters have played cricket for Australia over the years - and for other countries too mind you - but Lee is an old-style gentleman. Seriously. Let's not re-write history 5 minutes after he retires from tests.

  • Steve on February 25, 2010, 3:02 GMT

    There are many comments about how good Lee has been. Good, very good but not great. I tune in regularly to replays of cricket from years ago when the likes of Hadley, Lillee, Marshall, Ambrose, Holding etc were plying their trade and, whilst they were thrilling to watch with their ability to blast out batsmen, I sit back wondering how Lee would have fared on some of the pitches they played on. I remember diabolical MCG wickets with balls bouncing no higher than knee height. Lightning fast WACA wickets, wickets in the sub continent where balls virtually rolled along the ground, West Indian mine fields and English green tops. Hmmmm Lees 350 wickets on placid batting paradises put him right up there I reckon.

  • Michael on February 25, 2010, 1:45 GMT

    Ogu999 if you know Shaun Tait or followed his journey, you will know that he does not intentionally miss out on TEST cricket, his body cannot take the rigors of the way he bowls. His body cannot take consecutive overs bowling at 150+, and unless you can do that consistently yourself I would keep your opinions more general.

    As for 20/20 it's too quick to blame that for the demise of TEST cricket, its a form of the game that is apart of cricket now, and only true cricketers see that TEST cricket is the pinnacle of cricket, and if they do not aim for that then they have no reason to call themselves cricketers.

  • sumit on February 25, 2010, 0:33 GMT

    There goes another one and we know where! This is ridiculous! All these complaints of not being able to take 5 days of cricket are solely coming out of the development that now there is this demon called 20/20, yet better known as IPL. While I can understand Lee's case as I can understand Flintoff's and Bond's, what excuse does Shaun Tait have for not playing 5 day cricket at an age of 25? Like IPL- and its goons Modi and Pawar shut out ICL by strong arm methods-I feel the cycle has to complete by something shutting out the IPL shop for good. The current security situation is a strong contender to shut the IPL shop, and it just may be because Modi and Pawar have realized that there is no point in taking the circus abroad, as there is not as much money as there is in keeping the circus at home. Players security be damned! BCCI with Pawar and Modi only cares for more franchises, more celebrity, more money and an annual window as big as 3-4 months for their circus.

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