Is this the dawn of a new pace bowling era? John Stern reports
The cricket played in England's first two Tests against West Indies was a throwback. While Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan were competing for the world wizardry award in Sri Lanka, something much more earthy and brutal was happening on the islands of the Caribbean. The pace, the bounce, the ducking and diving of the batsmen recalled the good (or bad) old days when West Indies dominated the world by rule of their fearsome foursome. The only difference was that England were not the only ones bearing the brunt of the onslaught. Fire was being fought with fire.
The 1990s will be remembered for the magical spinners and the emergence of two of the game's greatest batsmen, Brian Lara and Sachin Tendulkar. So far this decade has been a batsmen's paradise and bowlers the world over have been cursing that the balance of power between the game's two fundamental skills has shifted too far. Brett Lee and Shoaib Akhtar have carried the torch in recent years but controversies and injuries have checked their careers. Is what happened in the Caribbean a flash in the pan, a function of unexpectedly pacy pitches in Jamaica and Barbados, or are Steve Harmison, Simon Jones, Fidel Edwards and Tino Best part of a pace-bowling revival?
Michael Holding, the former West Indies fast bowler and now Sky Sports' commentator, is not optimistic: "I don't think fast bowling around the world is anywhere near the standard it was 10 years ago. There's no one I'd rate with Glenn McGrath and he's on the way out now. There's no one I'd rate with Wasim Akram or Curtly Ambrose."
But that does not mean Holding is not impressed with what he saw from England and West Indies. "Harmison bowled well. The pitch helped in Jamaica but you still have to get it in the right spot and he showed good control," he says. "Edwards has pace, of course, but he was asked to lead the attack in Jamaica which he shouldn't be doing." Going into the first Test at Sabina Park, the West Indies pace attack of Edwards, Best, Corey Collymore and Adam Sanford had played 24 Tests and taken 77 wickets between them. England's four seamers were barely more experienced with 65 Tests and 178 wickets between them.
The difference for England was Harmison's emergence as, dare one say it, a McGrath or Ambrose type of bowler whose unfailing control took pressure off the other bowlers. It was undesirable for Jones to take the new ball both because he is better suited to bowling with an old one but also because of the lack of cricket he had played since his knee injury in November 2002.
Less than a year ago Dennis Lillee described Harmison as "the future". He identified one problem with Harmison's action which caused him to stray down the leg side but said that Troy Cooley, the England fast-bowling coach, would fix it - which he did. Lillee describes Cooley as "my apprentice" and Cooley talks of Lillee as his mentor.
Cooley had a ringside seat to view both Holding and Lillee, albeit at the end of their careers, when the two greats played for Cooley's state Tasmania. He was a teenager in Launceston when Holding, recovering from a knee injury, bowled for Tasmania in 1982-83. "Seeing Holding bowl made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up," Cooley recalls. "Everyone I knew wanted to be a fast bowler; there were no spinners in my day." He played in the same Tasmania team as Lillee in 1987-88.
Cooley, 38, was regarded as one of the quickest bowlers to come out of Tasmania but had a no-ball problem. He retired in 1995 after an unremarkable 10-year career. Being a fitness fanatic he turned to running a gym, an occupation that only partly satisfied him. Then he was asked by Greg Shipperd, the Tasmania coach, to help coach the fast bowlers.
"This was in 1998 and even then you just had a coach and that was it," says Cooley. "A fast bowler might get told that he's falling away but no explanation about why it might be happening. Often you would get advice from a batting perspective: you have to keep tight or bowl a certain line. But the psyche of a batsman and a bowler are very different. I had started to get interested in biomechanics which strips things right back to basics and helps explain why your head falls over or whatever.
"The best pure coaching will always come from within the group of players but we've taken it further. It is possible to explain why things happen. But, if you're going to specialise, then you must have that grounding as to why things happen so you can give evidence to a player who you think should change his technique. And, if you supply good evidence, most people will want to take it on board."
There is no Troy Cooley in West Indies cricket and there does not seem much inclination to find one. Just as England spent a decade or more harking back to a perceived golden age of Botham, Gower and so on, so West Indies are rooted in the past. People listen only to what the former greats say and then curse that the current team are not emulating them. Asked whether there is a system to nurture West Indian fast bowlers such as Edwards, Best and Jermaine Lawson, Holding says: "There is no serious structure but that has never been the case in the Caribbean. Curtly Ambrose didn't come through a system. He just appeared and within a year he was playing for West Indies. I don't think you will find that, on a regular basis, fast bowlers will come through a structure like an under-19 team or an A team. Fast bowling is so explosive that it can just happen overnight."
Edwards impressed Lara in the nets at Bridgetown last year and, with a single first-class match behind him, was thrust into the Test side. The other side of the coin is that one village in Barbados, Boscobelle, can produce three current West Indies bowlers: Edwards, his half-brother Pedro Collins and Collymore. That seems too much of a coincidence. Best helped himself by seeking out advice from Wayne Daniel, the former Middlesex and West Indies fast bowler.
Cooley, for all his appliance of science, agrees that fast bowlers are born and not made. "I have always loved fast bowling and any team would have four or five real quicks if they could," he says. "But genetics won't allow that to happen. We have to be good at identifying bowlers and we're getting better at that. Then you have to look after them in a specialised way. Coaching is only going to limit injuries. Bowling fast is still a very unnatural, high-repetition action."
Coaching at the top level in England is increasingly structured, with Cooley's aim to have a squad of bowlers who can be rotated to cater for the volume of international cricket played. "I put out a challenge to all the England fast bowlers: you have to be stronger, faster and fitter. You don't want to be going into the next game sore and sorry because it just doesn't work."
Harmison's well-documented training sessions at Newcastle United have clearly been a factor in his success, though the benefits have been as much mental as they have been physical. "He realised the work that was required," says Duncan Fletcher, the England coach. "We realised about three years ago that he was a bowler England needed. A few of the players realised the hard work that was required and I think that started in Bangladesh. You can't stand still. I read about Einstein: he tried things over and over again." While Holding's judgement about the state of fast bowling is clearly laced with disappointment at West Indies' plight, Cooley is simply excited about the possibilities of a new generation of young quicks. "Fast bowlers are a very exciting part of the game. People want to see bowlers with good pace and good aggression. The challenge goes out to every groundsman to produce the best pitch he can."
According to Chris Wood, the ECB pitches consultant, pitches ought to be improving all the time. "The pitch in Jamaica had clearly matured. I was very surprised when they played on it after only six months in 1998. In England we reckon that a new pitch takes three years to be ready for county cricket and up to five for international cricket. We are making much better use of pitch technology and innovation which can only improve the pitches."
Wood cites the example of a pitch-planing device which shaves the top of a pitch rather than having to dig it up before relaying it. There are climatic differences around the world that contribute to the way pitches are. But Wood is confident that greater use of technology and the sharing of ideas internationally will lead to better pitches with more `carry', which is what has the fast bowler drooling. The height that a ball passes the batsman is less an indicator of a pitch's pace than the height at which the wicketkeeper takes the ball. Pitches, like living-room carpets, simply wear out and tire. The Oval is a classic example here. For years it was the quickest pitch in England until it became a slow turner. Wood believes that the recent relaying of the square has brought some of the famed pace back. Holding points out, though, that few pitches in the Caribbean have recently been that conducive to fast bowling. It is a chicken and egg situation: if youngsters see fast bowlers being successful then they want to be like them.
It is a moot point whether the bouncer-restriction rules have curbed fast bowlers' powers. Holding does not think so. "Common-sense bowling is not about balls going over shoulder height. It is all about from the shoulder down where the damage is done. The bouncer rule should make no difference to a sensible bowler." McGrath even believes it helps bowlers. "The bouncer rule adds a bit to our armoury and it keeps the batsmen guessing," he says. "It got to a stage where they wouldn't even worry about the short ball."
The one-day game has had an effect on fast bowling, as has the amount of cricket played. With one or two exceptions, bowlers rarely run in from the sightscreen in the way Holding, in `Whispering Death' prime, used to. "Run-ups are very individual things," says Cooley. "If you want a long run-up, then take one but make sure you have the fitness to back it up. Also, most kids have come through a one-day system these days and there simply isn't time for huge run-ups." In the days of the old John Player League, there was a white line at each end to restrict bowlers' run-ups and ensure each innings finished on time. That sort of stricture would be redundant in the modern game.
Very little is genuinely new. The pop music of the 1980s has been recycled, so why not the chin music? The new generation of quicks might not be able to play for 15 years like Courtney Walsh; they will do well to match the wicket-taking exploits of Warne and Murali. But they should certainly be worth watching.
Thanks to Titan Groups, (0870 753 0503)
This article was first published in the May issue of The Wisden Cricketer.
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