March 10, 2010

Quick money trumps hard yakka

Twenty20 offers fast bowlers their most convenient stage. It will be a pity if it becomes their only space for expression

Fast bowlers don't actually like bowling. Labourers don't like digging holes. Give them a chance to put their feet up and have a cup of chai and they'll grab it with both hands. After all, it's hard yakka, causes blisters and bad temper and exhaustion, and meanwhile the pretty things flick through lifestyle magazines.

Pacemen are not uplifted by their calling. The activity itself gives them little satisfaction. Often they can be heard grumbling about wretched little spinners taking cheap wickets with their trifles, and professional batsmen carrying huge lumps of willow allowed to stand 22 yards away lest the ball inconvenience them in some way. These pampered clowns wear suits of armour and still flee as soon as a dark cloud covers the sun. Often they stand in the slips urging on their hewers of wood and turners of sods with claps and calls and other dubious contributions. Meanwhile referees sit in their armchairs ready to pounce on any outrage perpetrated by the long-suffering leather flingers, who trudge back to their marks and summon the effort needed to send down another thunderbolt on another pitch as lively as a suet pudding.

Poets can purr all they like about smooth run-ups and rhythmic deliveries and the beauty and ugliness of it all but the practitioners themselves hope the captain wins the toss and nothing thereafter enters his head or leaves his mouth except those priceless words "we'll bat". To that end speedsters often glare at the pitch and now and then, in the immortal words of Joel Garner, tell their benighted leader, "It isn't as green as it looks." Only in fond imagination do fast bowlers flex their muscles in the rooms, chomp at the bit and resemble a horse snorting on the starting line.

In truth, most pacemen are inconveniently bright. Indeed, they dedicate their years in retirement to proving the point by writing books, serving on boards, becoming coaches, funding films, commentating and so forth. Great heavens, some of them even take proper jobs, a manoeuvre that has not appealed to too many batsmen or spinners.

Of course, exceptions exist. Mr Jeff Thomson has never gone out of his way to change the raw impression created on hot afternoons in Bankstown as club batsmen found themselves fending off missiles from him and Len Pascoe, a man of similar persuasion but blessed also with the quixotic outlook apparently commonplace in Balkan males.

Thommo and Pascoe belong to the old school. Fred Trueman had the same idea. Contrasting them, John Snow wrote poetry, Bob Willis swooned over JS Bach, and Frank Tyson took to writing and teaching. Most fast bowlers object to their caricature as the witless workmen of the game. They know they are misunderstood and underappreciated. They know that captains, batsmen most of them, think they can be switched on like an electric lightbulb. Captains don't understand the intricacies of the operation, the wonder of the gathering and release, don't realise that footholds and wind and ball and so many other factors can make an immense difference to a bowler's performance. They simply regard it all as the moaning of prima donnas. Truly, it is a thankless task.

When forced to take the ball, most speedsters put aside their despondency at being so rudely obliged and put on a fair impersonation of hostility and eagerness. Some stoop to pantomime villainy, a role that requires a good deal of glaring and, at the very least, a satisfactory moustache. Dennis Lillee and Merv Hughes were the leading advocates of this school of thought, but history suggests that even village teams almost compulsorily contained a fiery fellow of the same persuasion.

Fast bowlers keep going and the reason is simple. It is no small thing to be the fastest gun in town. It's no small thing to see fear in the eyes of batsmen and stumps flying in all directions. It's no small thing to see a legcutter clip the outside edge or a batsman fend a bumper to short leg. Speedsters take the new ball, charge to the crease and put every ounce of their strength into their work. No one else can do that. A hush can go around the ground as they start their run; the tension on the field can be palpable. It does not happen every time but it occurs often enough to make it worthwhile.

Of course a lot of fun was taken out of the game when helmets were introduced. Banning wet pitches was bad enough but the new-fangled protection given to batsmen was the crucial change. No rule since the imposition of straight-arm bowling has had such a powerful effect on the fragile balance between bat and ball, and more specifically, tentative bat and angry ball.

As it happens my modest career spanned the divide. Helmets were a creation of the 1974-75 series in Australia. I remember watching the highlights on television late at night in some outpost on the cricketing road and recall the shock as John Edrich and company ducked and dived and took blows. Rearing deliveries bruised their bones or took their wickets or landed with a thump into distant gloves. Till then genuinely fast bowling had been a test. Suddenly it had become an ordeal.

Then a new form of the game arrived: an exciting version that seemed to favour batsmen but in fact revived quick bowling and wrist spin. In a trice speed was important again. Suddenly captains and coaches needed bowlers capable of something extra

For a few years afterwards county batsmen disdained metal lids. It was generally agreed that courage had a part to play in batting, and anyhow the helmets resembled those worn by motorcyclists. They were heavy, dark and seemed to send the wrong message. Gradually the view changed. The emergence of a fearsome battery of West Indian speedsters was the last straw. In the mid-seventies Viv Richards used to arrive at the Somerset rooms to say, "Another ambulance called to Bournemouth today." It was not to collect an old-timer. Andy Roberts, his ferocious mate from Antigua, played for Hampshire that year and possessed the deadliest bouncer in the game. By the 1980s most batsmen wore helmets. Richards was an exception. He said it slowed him down. He was also an extraordinary player of great courage. From 22 yards away I saw Wayne Daniel bowl a bone-shaking beamer into his ribs. Richards did not blink.

Naturally fast bowlers resented the armour and felt their best weapon had been taken away. Was cricket no longer a man's game? On the hardest days they could be confident of picking up a few cheap tail-end wickets as scared batsmen kept their occupation as brief as respectability allowed. Somerset had its share of timid players and no one expected them to contribute much when Sylvester Clarke or someone of that ilk came to town. Now even the most abject creatures had the gall to linger at the crease. Fast bowlers felt betrayed.

Inevitably a backlash ensued and it came in the form of reverse-swing and ball-tampering. Nothing had been heard of these operations till the advent of helmets and flat pitches. Bowler used to raise the seam, but that was mostly to assist spinners and medium-pacers. Now late swing against the shine was favoured. Of course administrators tried to ban it as they try to ban every ruse dreamed up by bowlers, and inevitably the bowlers became more subtle and the practice became more widespread.

As time passed, though, outright pace became increasingly irrelevant. Injuries had a part to play in the decline. Their causes are hard to pin down. Some blame modern lightweight boots because they offer little protection to the feet. Others argue that fast bowlers are expected to play in too many forms of the game and to move between them regularly. Then there are those who say fast bowlers play too little. They point out that the great West Indian bowlers remained fit yet most played cricket all year round, turning out for counties in their off seasons. Wes Hall belonged to this school of thought. His main regret as a cricketer was that he had not played county cricket. He believed that bowling all year round prolonged careers because bodies became accustomed to expectations. The stopping and starting were the problems. Others suggest all the different deliveries demanded nowadays ruin rhythm. No fast bowler of the previous generation bothered with a slower ball. To advocate them was to invite ridicule.

Regardless of the reason it's clear injuries took a terrible toll and fast bowling fell into apparently inexorable decline. The averages in the last decade were dominated by precise practitioners like Glenn McGrath, Shaun Pollock, Jason Gillespie and Chaminda Vaas. Makhaya Ntini prospered as well, but with movement not raw pace. A few survivors emerged. Until recently the West Indians still fielded a couple of champions. Shoaib Akhtar was fast enough but not fit enough, Allan Donald was superb and later Brett Lee came along, but increasingly cricket was safe and sensible.

Hereabouts the game seemed to be up for outright pace. And then something happened, a new form of the game arrived: an exciting version that seemed to favour batsmen but in fact revived quick bowling and wrist spin. In a trice speed was important again. Suddenly captains and coaches needed bowlers capable of something extra.

Fast bowling was in demand. Huge IPL contracts were offered to Kemar Roach and Shane Bond. Suddenly those committed to the absolute only had to bowl four overs a match. Shaun Tait and Dirk Nannes promptly packed in first-class cricket and concentrated on Twenty20. Andrew Flintoff retired from Tests and made himself available for shorter and more lucrative versions of the game.

Tait aimed for the fastest ball in history. Roach made batsmen weave in the old way. Nannes looked as strong as a shire horse. Batsmen were harassed and hurried. Of course, it does not last long; a few thunderbolts and then peace returns.

And yet the solution contains its own crisis. It is all very well for fast bowlers to deliver shafts of lightning for a few overs in a domestic competition in India but that does not help Test cricket. If anything, the position is becoming worse than ever. Before long anyone wanting to see some genuine fast bowlers will be obliged to attend a 20-over frolic. No one can blame the speedsters for taking the fat cheque and the easy way out. Naturally they fear an imminent breakdown. All the more reason to cut the corn while the sun shines.

At present fast bowling resembles a great actor whose flagging career has been resurrected by a role in a sitcom. It's better than nothing, yet the feeling endures that the point has been missed. Defeat can be devilishly clever. Sometimes it arrives looking a lot like success. A fast bowler in full flight counts among the most glorious sights in the game. All the evidence indicates, though, that it is going to be reserved for the least rewarding format.

Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on March 12, 2010, 9:55 GMT

    gr8 article once again by the genius peter roebuck. The decline of genuine fast bowlers and Lee being the last of that great generation and the arrival of wannabees like sreeshant, will taint the game significantly. However, I still believe in bowlers like Bolliner, Hllfenhaus, johnson, anderson, steyn and parnell. Pace bowling along with genuine swing is a valueless commodity. If flat pitches and crap like the ipl continue, then cricketing world would loose a very valuable asset. God Save Cricket. Its actually possible if former players and the MCC do something that will stop T20, and revive Ye Olde' cricket once again where even a solid defence or a straight fast ball were appreciated magnificently.

  • Zsam on March 11, 2010, 15:21 GMT

    The slowness of pitch worldwide that has come about due to wear and tear is also one reason that discourages express bowlers to emerge. Indeed it would be a pity to see this breed vanish, for not only would fast bowlers leave in that case, but also it would be an end of high quality batsmanship of fending off aggressive express bowlers, through hooks shots etc. Infact it would be enlightening to know how many good players of hook shot there are currently compared to an era when bouncers were more prevalent!

  • PAVAN on March 11, 2010, 3:18 GMT

    @Bollo I do partly concur with your observation since 2000s, that Aus, SA has circa 20% more results than those played in India. Like I said, Wimbledon and French open are different. one other factor mate, is the bench strength and attitude. I must say that India lacked a lot in bowling dept. till 2007. I was there in MSG for 2003 Boxing Day test and in Perth for 2007 test. Though Sehwag ripped Aus bowling attack in first innings, Indian bowling were comparable to a club team then, loosing miserably to Aussies. Untill 2007, India did not have that "ummf-factor" in the bowling dept. In footballs' terms u can say defenders transformed into offenders. Poorbowling + attitude + sloppy fielding only acted as catalysts towards a DRAW, where as overseas, atleast two of the above factors were missing. Bottomline, post 2007 check stats Draws Vs Results in India.

  • Afsar on March 11, 2010, 1:55 GMT

    @Bollo - the reason for most number of matches drawn in India is not for batting pitches... to win a test match you need to take 20 wickets... even its a bouncy pitch provided to Indian bowlers.. they cant take 20 wickets consistently except some flashes from zaheer or bhajji. For the other teams who come to India, is always hard to take Top 6 batsmen twice in a test match ( Sehwag, Laxman, Gambhir, Dravid, Sachin, ganguly (2000 - 06), jaffer (plays well in India) and Dhoni(from 2005) ). any team will find difficulty to out those players twice consistently.. if india had bowlers like Mcgrath or Akram or even Shakib-al-hasan then india wud have won lot of matches.. so blaming on only pitches is not good. i accept the pitches are more flat in india as everyone complains india produces turning tracks... why shud india produce bouncy tracks to produce result.. why cant good turners to get result?

  • Perry on March 10, 2010, 22:53 GMT

    The concern should be just the opposite. Who would want to be a bowler with a 4 over restriction. 20/20 should not have over restrictions at all. If someone's bowling well let him continue for 10 overs. The four over restrictions is going to make it almost mandatory that every player be an all rounder. It'll just dilute the quality of play

  • Paul on March 10, 2010, 21:34 GMT

    Interesting. Why is a one-dimensional express bowler a joy to behold, but a batsman who is only a slogger an object of derision?

  • Kevin on March 10, 2010, 21:32 GMT

    I disagree. First off I do not see what it is meant by spinners are taking more than fast bowlers. In fact, I would be more inclined to think the other way around. In some places around the world (especially in India), when they say there is something in the pitch for bowlers, the "something" is so slight that it is barely a challenge for the batsman. I miss the days where batsman and bowlers would be equally challenged... nowadays, the only "test" in test cricket is the "test" for bowlers. The only bowlers I have seen in the last couple of years who have went above this barrier are Murali, Warne, McGrath, Ntini, Lee, Harbhajan, Kumble, Pollock, Vettori, and Vaas.

  • Dummy4 on March 10, 2010, 20:24 GMT

    Too long an article to read !!

  • Arosha on March 10, 2010, 18:37 GMT

    Even during the last decade there were few extremely fast bowlers who had some lengthy careers.Brett Lee may now be at the twilight of his career, but Dayle Steyn is still going strong.Shoab Aktar is pretty much stuck a bit short of 200 test wickets.In addition there were few others like Shaun Tait & Jermaine Lawson who were really quick in their pomp, but didn't play the game on a consistent basis.In '90s, the world saw the very best of Waqar Younis along with some other very fiery operators such as Curtly Ambrose & Allan Donald.So it's more or less the same if you consider the extreme pace bowling; always there have been few serious operators bowling over 150 kmph on a consistent basis.Even among the so called terrific bowlers of '70s, only Thompson & Holding would have clocked 150 kmph on a consistent basis.Unfortunately the speed guns were not so common those days unlike today, in addition batsmen didn't have the protective gear as well which made their pace look a lot exaggerated.

  • Gautham on March 10, 2010, 17:33 GMT

    Scores of above 300 are commonplace now. It's disheartening to see one fastie after another retiring from longer forms whereas batsmen continue to play into their late 30s. Not to point at any one batsman, but, we need some boost from ICC for the bowling.

    But then, 80% of cricket fans want high scoring matches. Where's the joy of bowling out teams for 100 odd runs?

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