May 5, 2014

'You want to look into the batsman's eyes and see he doesn't want to be there'

Ian Bishop compares modern fast bowling to that of his day, and picks the best among Johnson, Steyn and Morkel

Fast bowling has had some sort of resurgence lately, especially the kind that Mitchell Johnson has brought in. What is your take on what has happened in recent years?
It was refreshing to see Mitchell bowl the way he has done. Coming through the late '80s and the '90s, there were probably more than a handful of guys who would have touched that pace. Waqar [Younis] started at the end of the '80s and early '90s. [Allan] Donald, myself and a few other guys were going on before that. There were probably a few more as well. In the recent previous generation, we had Brett Lee, Shoaib Akhtar and then things sort of flattened out. We have Dale Steyn, but he is a combination of swing and pace rather than all-out pace. So it was nice to see Mitchell give guys some sleepless nights.

He was bowling very fast and there was the threat of physical harm. That makes batsmen uncomfortable, doesn't it?
When we talk of fast bowling in the early '90s, [threat of physical harm] was a big part of it.

Mitchell hits good areas. It's the combination of pace and lengths that he bowls. You are also thinking as a batsman that "Gee, I can get my ribs broken, I can get my arm broken." Sort of like facing [Curtly] Ambrose in his prime and Allan Donald, and guys like that. To me, that is part of the real test of quality batsmanship. When you came up against West Indies in the early '80s, I would imagine that was a huge part of what a batsman felt. So as much as the quality of the skill, the physical threat really separates good batsmen from very good batsmen.

Johnson v England and South Africa, and Morne Morkel v Clarke, in that one session where he was just pounding Clarke. Why did Johnson have so much more success than Morkel?
I remember watching that spell from Morne Morkel live and tweeting immediately that if Michael Clarke got through it he would really value those runs, probably more than most of the other runs he'd got in his career. Because, at that time, I couldn't say if he could get through it, as he'd been hit in almost every place on his body. He did get through it and he did get a hundred and said he much valued those runs. It was probably [to do with a] fear in cricket that he hadn't experienced as often as guys in the past. It was almost a new dimension in some ways for him and it showed how good a player he is. He came through it. He took his hits. I am sure there was a broken bone somewhere, it was reported. And he scored his runs. Those were the sort of instances where you know not only the quality of the player but also the character of the player.

Morne Morkel is probably the second or third of the trio of Mitchell Johnson, [Dale] Steyn and Morkel. I would like to have added Steve Finn in there but he's gone off the boil.

What made Johnson that much more successful than Morkel?
I think it is just the sustenance of Mitchell Johnson's pace. Morkel bowled a nasty spell. But Mitchell was just consistently faster and on that pace for the series, for the year. We first saw him in the IPL, which preceded all of this harassment. I remember Simon Doull saying, "My god, Australia have to be crazy to not have picked this guy for the Ashes."

Something clicked just before the IPL and through the IPL that all of a sudden allowed this guy to bowl easily - and I say easily because he never looked to be putting in any great effort like other bowlers to bowl fast.

What role did Johnson's action - like a left-handed Jeff Thomson - play in him being more successful?
I'm sure it has its advantages. It's not often you see guys with that action and left-handed. In our time there was Wasim Akram, even though he didn't bowl at that pace, but he was quick. But I think if he was right-handed, and bowling as well as he had, he would have had a fair amount of success as well. I looked at Johnson's pitch map - the guy was hitting some really good lengths, and pace and consistency with it. I think if he were a right-hander or a left-hander, he would have had success. But certainly, being left-handed lent an edge to what he did.

Thommo was different. He was javelin-throwing, delayed action, but straight over the top. Mitchell's is a delayed action but more sideways. Should I duck? Is it short? If it is short, should I stand up and play? Whereas at Thommo's extreme pace you knew where it was going to come up at you. Mitchell sort of slides and comes up.

"Speed must be a desire, because you can't teach someone to run like Usain Bolt. You find a Usain Bolt, great, but you can't make someone run like Bolt. You can refine his action and technique after you find him, but the basic, natural element is pace"

What is your take on the overall Jonathan Trott situation? At the Gabba, he fell to Johnson's short-pitched bowling. Since then we have known that he has had other issues, but perhaps the Mitchell Johnson barrage was a catalyst that pushed things over the top for Trott?
I don't have an opinion, because I struggled to come to terms with the fact that a guy who had scored so many Test runs can actually sort of give in to a battle. I struggled to come to terms that Mitchell Johnson would have such an effect on such a good player. I know what Michael Vaughan said. I know what Michael Atherton said. They are coming from two polarised places, different views. The guy says he is ill. I'm taking him at his word. In sport, when you say you are injured, people usually don't believe them. I'd hate to think that he ran from a battle.

Johnson and Morkel actually hurt people, with sustained spells of physically intimidatory bowling. You said in an earlier interview that you didn't believe in causing physical harm to a batsman. Did that take away from your effectiveness to be a quick bowler?
I think I wanted to intimidate. Most fast bowlers want to intimidate. You want batsmen to be scared of you, but you don't want to break someone's arm or finger. That is another level. That wasn't for me. I didn't want to see it. But you wanted the batsman to fend and you wanted to look in his eyes and see that he didn't really want to be out there. That is what we call intimidation. We all wanted to intimidate but not to injure.

Have you had chats with Michael Holding, Joel Garner, Andy Roberts and Colin Croft about this aspect of fast bowling?
Andy Roberts was the first person I got into contact with as a young pacer. He came to Trinidad to coach, but it was basically on the physical demands of fast bowling and the methods and techniques of it. Mikey, same thing - a very decent guy. He talked about being tough when we played in Derbyshire together but never really about intimidation. Crofty was a very hard man, and remains a very tough competitor today. He didn't mind intimidating and, I suppose, if you got in the way and got hurt, Crofty would say it wasn't his fault. We didn't have extensive conversations on intimidation. It was purely about how to get wickets, how to be fit, how to carry ourselves as fast bowlers, but never about hurting people.

Gideon Haigh wrote in an article that he talked to some of the coaches in Australian clinics, where it was all about batsmen. Then Mitchell Johnson comes along and suddenly the coach has a long line of 13-14-year-olds picking up the ball, marking long run-ups, wanting to be fast bowlers. Was it something like that that got you into fast bowling?
Yeah, my formative years in cricket were between 1980 and 1984, my four years of high school. At that time West Indies were the top team in the world under Clive Lloyd. A part of the aura of that team was the batting of Viv Richards, Greenidge and Haynes, but also the fast bowling. I started out as a batsman, because a lot of our cricket is about batting, but then gravitated towards fast bowling out of necessity. We always tried to mimic the West Indies fast bowlers. I don't know why that stood out. Maybe because there were four of them. It was a rare thing. Myself and my group of friends always tried to copy every fast bowler - probably sometimes four in one!

Who was the fastest bowler you ever played with or against?
Measuring the pace is always tough. I thought Waqar at his peak was the fastest that I ever played against. When we went to Pakistan, certainly from my point of view, we were glad he wasn't the type of guy who enjoyed bowling short. He liked bowling at the stumps and very rarely bowled a short ball. But he was unbelievably quick through the air, which was different to some of us in that we pitched it short a lot more. Allan Donald in his prime was a handful as well. Those two guys stand out as the fastest that I played against. At the back end of my career, Shoaib had started his journey in Test cricket. He wasn't at his peak yet.

Why do you think there was a fall in the number of quick bowlers around the world? We see some are operating at 135-139kph with the ability to swing the ball but not at genuine pace.
It is very hard to sustain that sort of pace over a career. Shoaib did well, Brett Lee did well, but they had their injuries too. Unless you are in peak physical condition and are a superb athlete, it is hard to sustain that pace over a period of eight to nine years. You can be quick but can you sustain 90-95mph? I don't think so. There is a lot of cricket played out now too. Look at the Indian fast bowlers. I think some of these guys have been so promising but after two to three years are just medium pace.

Does structured coaching have anything to do with it? Because genuinely quick bowling, as Wasim Akram says, cannot be taught. You have to be born with it.
Some guys can be over-coached, but your overall ability needs to be refined. Some of the most beautiful actions were of fast bowlers. If you look at Brett Lee's action, it is a perfect action. Allan Donald's is smooth, flowing, it is fantastic to look at. Once you find a natural pace, there must be a streamlining of it.

Imran [Khan] was a bit before my time in his prime, but I was watching tapes of Imran when he just started, and it's like he had three different actions: at the beginning of his career, in his prime, and towards the end of his career. He was raw, then he was refined, and then he was economical. I guess it was the same for [Richard] Hadlee, but I wouldn't call him an out-and-out quick. Andy Roberts, for sure.

There must be some element of evolution and coaching in the refinement of a fast bowler, but there must always be first and foremost the desire to bowl as fast as you can. Speed must be a desire, because you can't teach someone to run like Usain Bolt. You find a Usain Bolt, great, but you can't make someone run like Bolt. You can refine his action and technique after you find him, but the basic, natural element is pace.

From the current lot, you mentioned Steyn, to some extent, Mitchell Johnson and Morkel. Let's assume they are all perfectly fit and performing at the peak of their powers. Which one would you pick?
Who would be the best? Steyn would definitely be the most complete, in the sense that he swings the new ball and he reverses the old ball. He has a great feel for bowling. He just knows how to get rid of someone. Johnson has the edge in pace but doesn't have the range of skills Dale Steyn has. That is not picking on Johnson. Everybody can't have the same set of skills. But Steyn has many.

How do you see the future of fast bowling in cricket, especially with the shorter formats dominating the calendar?
It is a challenge. When I saw Pat Cummins in the Champions League, I thought, "My god, another one on the horizon." I don't know what will become of Pat with all the injuries he has had. Mitchell Starc is another one who was sharp but who is constantly faulting, but he's still very young. There are so many different versions of the game. I wonder whether it's too challenging for the guys to sustain that edge and compromise that edge of pace in order to sustain themselves, particularly across the shorter formats and then blend into Test cricket.

The game seems to be constantly moving in favour of batsmen. How do you redress this imbalance between bat and ball?
Pitches, just pitches. It is similar to Mitchell Johnson coming on the scene. Suddenly Johnson arrives and people look as though they have never seen a fast bowler before and they are getting hurt. Similarly, as soon as you see a pitch with a little bit of spice in it, batsmen play as if they have never held a bat in their hands. Any time you see a pitch that has something in it, the game is a totally different game, with a little bit of seam and bit of bounce.

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