March 31, 2013

A dark horse in the fast lane

The Ashes will be decided by the better pace-bowling attack, and Australia have plenty in that department, including the young sensation Chadd Sayers

While Australia's spin-bowling cupboard appears to be as bare as Chris Martin's head, fast bowlers abound Down Under. The strong, admirable James Pattinson heads the attack, with the indefatigable Peter Siddle by his side. Mitchell Starc and a rejuvenated Ryan Harris make up the Big Four, while Jackson Bird, who reminds one of a young Glenn McGrath, must join that illustrious foursome for the Ashes series.

A dark horse hoping for an Ashes run is 25-year-old South Australian Chadd Sayers, whose medium-fast outswing returned him 48 wickets in nine Sheffield Shield matches. As the new kid on the block (in 12 first-class games he has taken 59 wickets at 20.25), Sayers is not exactly odds-on for an Ashes berth, but the Australian selectors would do well to give him consideration, for the way he got his wickets has attracted much attention.

Sayers bustles into the crease and maintains his fast-medium stuff over long periods. He has stamina and belief, but above all else he gets the ball to swing away late, reminding us of how a similar bowler, Terry Alderman, reduced the great Graham Gooch to near mediocrity on the 1989 England tour, when he emulated his 40-plus wickets in the Test series of 1981. Sayers is no flash in the pan. He often clean-bowled many a good batsman with a late-swinging ball that swept past the outside edge to hit the top of off stump. That particular delivery happened too many times during the summer for anyone to suggest that it was a fluke.

If Harris is felled by injury, I'd go for Sayers ahead of a long list of hopefuls, including Tasmania's workhorse Ben Hilfenhaus, whose arm is a lot lower now than in his halcyon days, when he was able to do as Sayers does - move the ball away from the right-handers late, thus making the batsman commit, often getting the outside edge.

The exciting thing about a genuine swing bowler is that a team doesn't have to depend so much on reverse swing.

Before Craig McDermott, during his brief stint as the Australian bowling coach, told his men to bowl a fuller length to enable the ball to swing, most of them were hurling the ball into the pitch. This meant the ball rarely had time to swing. It was called, I believe, back-of-a-length bowling.

There was a time during the 1990s when few countries, if any, had genuine swing bowlers. This led to reverse swing becoming a greater force than ever, because batsmen throughout the world had forgotten how to play the swinging ball. When Waqar Younis started to bend his reverse swingers like a David Beckham long strike at goal, you'd think the Pakistani had reinvented the wheel. Truth is, if a batsman doesn't get to play quality swing of the conventional kind he will struggle when the ball starts to reverse.

Thanks to McDermott, Australia got the message about conventional swing when he advised his bowling charges to pitch the ball up. As soon as the fast bowlers pitched the ball fuller, surprise, surprise, they started to get it to move about. It was hardly rocket science. Mitchell Johnson reclaimed his deadly late inswinger to the right-handers, Starc revealed his talent in like fashion, and so it went on. I played in an era when every state and Test team had bowlers who could swing the ball.

Ashes series are traditionally won by the team with the best fast-bowling attack. This was true even before 1921, when Australia's Ted McDonald and Jack Gregory gave skipper Warwick "Big Ship" Armstrong the gift of pace

Reverse swing didn't mean a lot then because batsmen knew how to cope with the late-moving ball, whether it was a shiny new ball or a scuffed-up one that went Irish. Sayers gets the ball to move late. He bowls a bit faster than Bob Massie, who took 16 for 137 in an amazing debut at Lord's in 1972.

Massie and his team-mates learnt after that game that the England captain, Ray Illingworth, took his team to a hotel and got them to watch a replay of all the wickets that fell. Apparently the film somehow got flipped, with the result that the England team watched with hilarity a left-handed Massie bowling to a right-handed John Edrich and a left-handed Geoff Boycott. It ended in farce and Illy's mob ended up doing what they should have done from the outset - gone off together for a cold pint.

Whether or not the dark horse Sayers gets an Ashes start is not Australia's greatest concern, for they have great riches in pace bowling. As it was for West Indies in the 1980s, when the likes of Andy Roberts, Joel Garner, Michael Holding and Malcolm Marshall blazed their way across the world, paving the way for a new set of pace bowlers led by Curtly Ambrose, Australia can be content with the standard of its young fast bowlers. Outside of the five best - Messrs Pattinson, Siddle, Starc, Harris and Bird - there are Johnson and Hilfenhaus, both successful, Test match-hardened cricketers.

You get the feeling that Starc, with his swing and pace and terrific batting, has stolen Johnson's thunder, while Sayers looks more dangerous than Hilfenhaus. Allrounders Luke Butterworth and James Faulkner are also in the mix, so too Josh Hazlewood and Nathan Coulter-Nile.

The Australian selectors know that Ashes series are traditionally won by the team with the best fast-bowling attack. This was true even before 1921, when Australia's Ted McDonald and Jack Gregory gave skipper Warwick "Big Ship" Armstrong the gift of pace, like others who followed also did: champions such as Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller, Alan Davidson and Graham McKenzie, Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson, Glenn McGrath and Brett Lee.

England found willing executioners of Douglas Jardine's Bodyline plans in Harold Larwood and Bill Voce. Later came the lion-hearted Alec Bedser, Frank "Typhoon" Tyson, Brian Statham, Fred Trueman, Bob Willis and Andrew Flintoff.

Today England have a splendidly balanced attack, which includes James Anderson, whose consistency in bowling late outswingers at a lively pace has troubled all and sundry, Steven Finn and Stuart Broad, backed by the world's best offspinner, Graeme Swann.

Australia may pick two spinners (if they can find one other than Nathan Lyon), but no matter, Swann will easily outbowl them. It is pace that will decide this series, and whichever team's batsmen are able to cope best against a constant barrage of fast bowling will win.

We've seen pathetic Australian performances with bat and ball in the recently completed series in India, and England's miraculous escape in Auckland to avoid a series loss against New Zealand on pitches that were as sluggish as strips of rolled plasticine. However, we all know that Australia and England will put on a great show in the battle for the Ashes.

It promises to be a feast in the fast lane.

Ashley Mallett took 132 Tests wickets in 38 Tests for Australia. An author of over 25 books, he has written biographies of Clarrie Grimmett, Doug Walters, Jeff Thomson and Ian Chappell

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