February 28, 2010

Don't let your babies be fast bowlers

Lee has quit Tests at 33, while Tendulkar, nearing 37, has a renewed urge to dominate bowlers. What message does this send to youngsters taking up the game?

If the well-known songwriting duo Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings were cricket fans, they would have added a phrase to the line from their popular hit: "Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys… or fast bowlers."

On the same day that Brett Lee announced the termination of his Test appearances in an attempt to prolong his cricket career, a sprightly Sachin Tendulkar was adding to his glittering reputation by amassing a spectacular double-century, the first in one-day internationals.

Lee, a genuine fast bowler, is 33. Tendulkar, a top-order batsman, is closing in on 37. Life expectancy may have dramatically improved since the 1960s but the medical advances don't apply to fast bowlers. In his illustrious Test career Dennis Lillee bowled nearly 2000 more deliveries than Lee.

Tendulkar was in attendance when Lee commenced his 300-wicket Test career with a memorable bag of five at the MCG. The difference being, at that stage Tendulkar had already been around for 10 years and scored a career worth of centuries (he compiled his 22nd in that Test). Another decade on, and the batsman is still operating like a long-life battery while the fast bowler is rapidly approaching his use-by-date. The assumption could easily be made that mamas should let their babies grow up to be batsmen.

Throughout his career Lee has displayed ample determination to recover from debilitating injuries. He always put in the hard work in the gym and on the running track to ensure each comeback was successful, but in the end a serious elbow injury was one operation too many. It's amazing that with so many setbacks he played his cricket with a ready smile and never a snarl.

And despite all the pain and endless rehabilitation work, Lee still saw fit to hand out some important advice while announcing his Test career was over. At a time when fast bowlers such as Shane Bond and Shaun Tait are showing a distinct preference for the shortest (and most lucrative) version of the game, Lee has advocated that budding speedsters challenge themselves by playing Tests.

Test cricket needs genuine pace bowlers to fully live up to its reputation of being the only thorough examination of a player. However, a youngster would be unwise to head down that career path if he doesn't possess a big heart, a capacity for hard work and a tolerance for pain.

That's not to say batsmen don't also require a big heart and a strong work ethic. No one has spent more time on his batting than Tendulkar who still hits numerous practice shots in preparation for special performances like the one in Gwalior.

When he was about the age Lee is now, it appeared Tendulkar's spectacular career was winding down. A series of injuries had robbed him of much of the sparkle that made his batting stand out above all but Brian Lara's. However, by gaining a second wind, Tendulkar has shown he has ample determination, a strong mind and a great desire to compete.

The urge to dominate, which defined his little-maestro period, was replaced by a more tenacious Tendulkar in his thirties, but thankfully the urge to dictate to bowlers has resurfaced of late

It's not just the number of runs he's scored in this prolific period (although four Test centuries in six innings is pretty impressive); rather it's the manner of his run-gathering. In his scintillating 175 against Australia and the double-century that demolished South Africa, it was his dominance that stood out. Both innings rattled along at much better than a run-a-ball,s and when he is regularly punching drives off the back foot you know Tendulkar is master of all he surveys.

The urge to dominate, which defined his little-maestro period, was replaced by a more tenacious Tendulkar in his thirties, but thankfully the urge to dictate to bowlers has resurfaced of late. Maybe with Virender Sehwag demolishing attacks he didn't feel the need to dominate. Whatever had been dragging on his batting reins was suddenly released for those two ODI innings and the little maestro made a couple of welcome reappearances.

For a while it appeared certain Ricky Ponting would surpass Tendulkar's Test aggregate and maybe even his tally of centuries. Now that a revitalised Tendulkar has shown a renewed thirst for runs and dominance, that's far from a guarantee.

However, if the cricketing mamas of this world ignore Lee's message and influence their young to eschew fast bowling, there's no guessing what massive run-making records a future batting maestro might accumulate.

Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is now a cricket commentator and columnist

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