October 27, 2011

'If you play all forms of cricket, you may end up being mediocre'

Is fast bowling a dying art? Five former quicks answer questions on problems plaguing today's fast bowlers

Fast bowlers are on the verge of becoming an endangered species. They suffer many, and frequently recurring, injuries these days, owing in part to the volume of cricket being played. And fewer seem to come up through the ranks than before. ESPNcricinfo picked the brains of five of the finest of the species at a fast bowling conference organised by the Lord's Taverner's in London in September, to find out why the art of pace is on the decline.

Have relentless scheduling, placid pitches, and playing in three different formats without many breaks had an impact on the modern-day fast bowler?

Glenn McGrath Yes and no. To be a great bowler, to be successful, you have to be able to perform day in and day out, in different conditions all round the world, and then you can probably say to yourself, "I've done a pretty decent job."

I'm not sure what the exact problem is with modern-day fast bowlers: even in Australia a lot of quicks are getting injured. In 1995 I came back from West Indies and I had lost a lot of weight. I had torn my intercostal muscle, and I thought if I wanted to be successful at Test cricket and play a long time, I'd have to do something differently. So I found a guy and trained with him and worked as hard as I could to get physically strong, and that helped me stay in good shape. So whether scheduling these days is not allowing that recovery or time off to build your strength back, to get fit and get strong again… maybe that has a little bit to do with it.

Would I decide to play one form of the game to prolong my career? Some guys do that. I never wanted to. Test cricket and one-day cricket were two different formats of the game, with different challenges. You had to go with different plans, and I actually enjoyed that. Throw Twenty20 into the mix and again you need a different gameplan and a different way to go about it. So I would play in all three formats of the game.

Curtly Ambrose The workload is a bit too much, to be quite honest. I mean, guys are going from one tour to the next without having any time to recover. Your body needs time to recuperate. So some of the guys get injuries so often.

Richard Hadlee It is all about the bowling loading. If you condition yourself to playing three different formats, you train differently. And if you are alternating between different forms, you might not be right for one form or the other. In one-day cricket you tend to bowl more wide of the crease and angle the ball in to crack the batsman up. In Test cricket you want to get closer to the stumps, running the ball away, where you have the field set to catch. Now in Twenty20 you bowl similar to one-day cricket - wider, directly into the batsman to cramp him; the field is set differently.

It creates different stresses and strains on the body in trying to bowl differently. You cannot avoid that. You have to make a decision about what form of the game you want to really play. If you want to play all forms of the game, you find that you do not become effective in any, and that creates mediocrity.

Andy Roberts I do not think it is scheduling. I do not think the reason is the pitches. Pakistan have fast pitches? People are complaining about the lack of fast pitches, yet Pakistan have a number of great fast bowlers. It has nothing to do with a pitch, because the ball does not gather pace once it hits the pitch. You are fast because you are fast through the air. If you are saying you do not get response from the pitch, that is different. But do not say you do not have fast bowlers because there are no fast pitches.

How many great fast bowlers did you have in the history of cricket up to 1990? How many of those fast bowlers had back injuries? These modern-day fast bowlers do not bowl half the overs I bowled. In my first season in county cricket I bowled 800 overs between April and August. Then I went to India and bowled 200 more overs.

We used to have boots made to specifications. The boots today's fast bowlers wear are light, and that could also be a problem.

Clive Rice It is not about the workload. Just before I started playing, guys in England bowled 1600 overs in a county season. Guys today have it easy. The more you bowl, the better you become. Even when we were playing, there was a theory that we were playing too much. Playing in England, if you were not available to play all the time, with all the rain, you would not have played. If you had a sunny period then you bowled a lot of overs. You were tired, but you could only be pleasantly weary and you got on with it. And you learned. When you were bowling at Viv Richards or at Sunil Gavaskar, you told yourself not to bowl in the wrong spots, because otherwise you would disappear.

I am not sure why they are getting injured. Maybe they have moved on to playing on indoor pitches [in training], which have concrete bases that mess up your back. If there is a soil base, there is a bit more give.

It is up to the bowler to make sure he stays fit. A fast bowler, to me, is like a sprinter in athletics. You have got to be able to sprint, not just jog in to bowl. Then you can stand up to it. You see the guys with long run-ups, but you are not running 5000 metres. You have got to run in with a purpose.

Is speed overrated?

"Anyone who is a fast bowler wants to bowl as fast as he can and bowl the magic 100mph delivery. But at the end of the day you have to have control, bowling at a good pace"
Glenn McGrath

Hadlee Speed isn't everything. But if you have natural speed with a good technique, it is a good asset to have. A lot of youngsters are either too full or too short. But once they start hitting that magical length, beating a batsman off a length, where the batsman is not sure whether to go forward or back and is crease-bound, that is when the fast bowler is going to be effective. It does not matter if he is then moving the ball in the air or off the track. You are creating three ways to get the batsman out: caught behind, lbw and bowled. If you are too full or too short, you are only giving yourself one chance.

McGrath My hero was Dennis Lillee. You look at the Windies teams of the 1970s and '80s - they were incredible, with all their fast bowlers running in, bowling like the wind. Anyone who is a fast bowler wants to bowl as fast as he can and bowl the magic 100mph delivery. But at the end of the day you still have to be consistent. You have to have control [while] bowling at a good pace. I tried to bowl as fast I could, but I had reasonable control, so that helped me.

Rice Everyone likes to bowl 90mph. And if you do bowl that sort of speed, the guys batting are under a great deal of pressure because of the speed at which it is coming. It is like driving a Formula 1 car to driving a salon car - there is a huge difference. So the bowler should find out how quick he actually he is, and then when he finds what this top pace is, he should settle down. Vary your pace by bowling 90% and 100%.

Are fast bowlers over-coached?

Ambrose Back in my time I was never really coached, per se. I learned my craft as I went along. And because I am a very, very proud person I wanted to be the best at what I do. I wanted my team to be the best. So I was forced to learn and learn quickly. But I believe guys should be coached, because when you are in the middle you [the bowler] do not see everything. When you are playing, you focus on some things, but you do not readily see the mistakes. That is where the coach comes in. The coach can point out the mistakes that you make and tries to correct them.

But we tend to rely too much on technology when coaching. I am not saying you cannot use it, but sometimes technology is overused. Whatever you put in the computer is what it gives out. The best form of coaching is in the nets. You can go on a computer and map out strategies about getting batsmen out, and everything looks perfect. But when you go in the middle, it is a different ball game altogether. What happens if the batsman decides to change his way of batting?

McGrath When I was young I did not have any coaching or did not model myself on anyone else. The first time I had coaching was when I was 22 - with Dennis Lillee - and that was more about refining my action. Sometimes these days young bowlers can be over-coached. They could be over-bowled or even under-bowled. You have to let the guy find his own action - as long as it is not a mixed action which is going to cause stress fractures. If he has got a good basis to build the action on, then let him go and bowl as much as he wants to.

Hadlee We bowled and bowled and bowled. We ran. We did not use the gym as much as they do today. You have computers telling you what you are doing right, what you are doing wrong. Those tools are useful to have, but sometimes simplicity is the best way to go.

Roberts The teachers who turn into coaches, coming in with their scientific approach to fast bowling, are causing the decline of fast bowling. They are literally changing a fast bowler's action, from using the body to using shoulders. You cannot bowl fast for long with your shoulder. I am not against the biomechanics, but bowlers are being over-coached and the coaches are coaching the wrong way.

Rice We learned certainly from watching other guys bowl, and copied them. Today if a coach has got a particular idea he is trying to instill in a person, maybe that is over-coaching the guy, because that is not the nature of how he wants to bowl or how his body is letting him bowl. As a bowling coach you just need to give him advice in terms of improving his skills and getting the simple things done right. If you change the action and stuff like that, then there will be problems.

Has Twenty20 watered down the fast bowler?

Hadlee It is a very destructive game for all cricketers, honestly. They get into bad habits. What sort of rhythm can you get into by bowling four overs in two different spells when you have got only 12 minutes to bowl in a match? You cannot become efficient with restriction and limitation in the game like that.

Roberts If you have a good fast bowler, he would be more effective in Twenty20 cricket than anybody else. If you bowl a 95-100 mph delivery, it would be very, very difficult for anybody to slog you over long-on or long-off.

Ambrose Twenty20 to me has a part to play in cricket because it is exciting and fans love excitement. But it is a game for batsmen, really. However, it should not affect the fast bowler because you are only bowling four overs maximum. As a matter of fact it could be a learning process for the bowler. Twenty20 can be a sort of stepping stone for a fast bowler to work out ways of containing the batsman when he is really going at you.

Has cricket generally made it harder for fast bowlers to succeed by protecting batsmen too much?

Ambrose There is nothing in it for the fast bowler. Modern-day cricket favours the batsman in every aspect. The pitches are mostly flat and not conducive to fast bowling. Then they have this one-bouncer-per-over rule.

McGrath I do not mind it too much. Hopefully the rules do not change too much. At the end of the day you have to be able to adjust. As a bowler you cannot just say, this is the way I bowl. If the rules change, you adjust accordingly.

I am very much a traditionalist. The way it is being played, I prefer to keep it that way. The modern-day cricketer is playing the same game we played 10, 20, 50, 100 years ago. There have been a few rule changes in this time, but I am fine.

Rice It has even become harder for fast bowlers bowling at tailenders, because now they bat with the helmet on and all the padding in the world. When we bowled at them I would say to the tailender, "Are you trying to prove you are a batsman? If you are I am going to hit you in the head."

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo