It begins with a riddle. In the 2003 World Cup a bowler ran in and delivered a ball outside off-stump. No wicket was taken and no run was scored yet the crowd erupted in applause. Why? The answer is that the scoreboard flashed up that the delivery was 100.7 mph, the fastest ball ever recorded. Shoaib Akhtar puffed out his chest in pride. He had claimed the ultimate bowling bragging rights. He had seized the Holy Grail. Speed is exhilarating in any sport and cricket is no different. So indulge me as I trace a brief history of the art of pace bowling and introduce you to some of its finest exponents.
In cricket’s earliest epoch, when the game was played by gentlemen with fulsome beards, pitches were uncovered. This meant that bowlers were assured of uneven bounce and pronounced lateral movement. Double-barrelled baronets could gently turn their arms, bag a five-for and head back to the oak panelled changing room to put their feet up on a chaise-lounge. As cricket became an established sport and test cricket became a regular feature of the summer’s sporting calendar, standards improved and wickets had to be earned. Military medium could no longer flatter a bowlers figures. Batsmen became technically accomplished, players became fitter and more committed and margins for error reduced. In a battle of attrition between bat and ball pace could be a decisive weapon.
In 1929/30 Don Bradman had averaged 149 on the tour of England and had been the key factor in the Ashes being won by Australia. England captain Douglas Jardine was proud and implacable and he plotted revenge. His weapon was to be pace and hostility. Fast bowler Harold Larwood was entrusted to spearhead the ‘Bodyline’ attack. In1932/33 fast bowling made headlines on the front and back pages. In order to negate the threat of Bradman, Larwood was instructed to bowl fast at the ribcage and hcordon of catchers formed an arc from point to square leg greedily awaiting balls fended off the bat and body. The tactic worked but was derided for being unsportsmanlike.England regained the Ashes but lost respect and the ensuing furore almost led to Australia withdrawing from the Commonwealth. Larwood himself was made a scapegoat and didn’t play for England again. Fast bowling was contentious but nevertheless had become universally recognised as a potent weapon.
Larwood and Bodyline put fast, hostile bowling on the map and Larwood became a model for the next generation of fast bowlers. After the Second World War a young Australian named Ray Lindwall took on the mantle of the world’s most feared fast bowler. His stock delivery was fast and full and he enjoyed nothing more than the sight of an off-stump cartwheeling, indeed he was to call his autobiography ‘Flying Stumps’. He used the bouncer as a surprise delivery with great success. He is acknowledged as a master of the physcology of fast bowling, manipulating batsmans’ fear to force them into playing tentative strokes, or rash swipes, to break the stranglehold. In 61 tests he claimed over 200 wickets.
England's post war bowling hero was the straight-talking Yorkshireman Fred Trueman. He shared some similarities with Harold Larwood. He was a strongly built mining man with raw pace who was the counterpoint to his impeccably tailored, privately schooled contemporaries, such as batsman, Peter May. Trueman would have considered modern fast bowlers as mollycoddled. He wanted to bowl as many overs as a captain would oblige him with. Blessed with the robust physique and stamina of a carthorse he was every captain’s dream. He established a fearsome opening partnership with Lancastrian Brian Statham and together they spearheaded the England attack for a decade. In 1964 Trueman went on to become the first bowler to claim 300 Test wickets. What marks Trueman out, as one of the finest fast bowlers ever to grace the game is that he was both stubbornly economical and a deadly wicket-taker. Over his career he took a wicket every 49 deliveries.
Several fast bowlers emerged in the early 1970’s. In Australia there was Jeff Thompson and Dennis Lillee. Thompson had an unorthodox, slingy, round-arm action reminiscent of Waqar Younis and Fidel Edwards. He was not a stock bowler and was generally employed to wreak havoc in short, sharp spells. He was never short of advice for batsmen and relished the contest between a ferocious quick and an obdurate batsman. Lillee was more orthodox than his new ball partner, with a rhythmic run-up and delivery. He was renowned as a fierce competitor and many batsmen wilted under his ferocious glare. Lillee suffered the fast bowlers curse of regular injuries but to his great credit he returned to great effect after a career threatening injury in the early 80’s and modelled himself into a highly skilled swing bowler. The pace may have gone but the ferocity, skill and commitment remained. Together, Thomson and Lillee put the ‘test’ into test cricket for any opposing batsmen.
It was in the same decade that the West Indies garnered, excuse the pun, their fearsome reputation for fast bowling. The success of Wes Hall in early 1960’s had inspired a new generation of West Indian pace. The hard, grassless wickets of the Caribbean gave any aspiring quick, plenty of encouragement. The first pair to emerge in this golden era was Andy Roberts and Michael Holding. Roberts made his debut in 1974 adding some fire to an attack that relied on the accurate bowling of Vanburn Holder and Garfield Sobers. A year later he formed a ‘brace-of-pace’ with Michael Holding against an Australian team starring Thompson and Lillee. Holding was such a graceful cricketer, with such a rhythmically, fluid action that batsmen facing him for the first time must have been dismayed to find the ball bearing down at them at breakneck speed. There was no Merv Hughes style histrionics with Holding nor the bluff and bluster of Allan Donald. With such light steps and natural athletic rhythm he looked like he could bowl this fast all day. He soon forged a reputation as one of the most naturally gifted and elegant bowlers ever to have played the game and was given the wonderfully apt nickname ‘Whispering Death.’
By 1980 several more quicks had joined the ranks. Joel Garner, affectionately known as ‘big bird’ was the giant of the team, towering above mere mortals and using his height to extract steepling bounce. Next came Colin Croft, uncompromising and unforgiving. It was fast becoming an embarrassment of riches. Arguably the greatest of all was Malcolm Marshall. As with his contemporaries he had pace to burn but he allied this with unerring accuracy and a peerless control of swing and seam. He didn’t rely on merely blasting an opponent out but rather found and exploited his opponents technical weaknesses with complete control of his art. Such was the quality of the pace bowling resources that players of the calibre of Patrick Patterson and Winston Davis were limited to a bit part role. It was truly the place for pace and underpinned West Indian dominance of the world game in the 1980’s. The late 1980’s saw the emergence of Courtney Walsh, Ian Bishop and Curtly Ambrose. As a young man Bishop was as quick as anyone and his legendary tussle with Robin Smith was one of the fiercest sessions in test cricket history. Smith stood firm against a barrage of ‘chin music’ and didn’t even wince when he broke his jaw. Facing the West Indies in the 1980’s was as much about courage as technique and ‘the Judge’ was braver than most. Walsh and Ambrose formed one of the most successful bowling partnerships of all time. Walsh’s late movement kept the slip cordon busy while Ambrose’s steepling bounce saw batsmen ducking, weaving and more often than not fencing to gully or short-leg. Between them they claimed nearly a thousand wickets. It was something of a shock when the West Indies stream of fast bowlers appeared to dry up in the mid 1990’s, seeing a decline in Caribbean cricket, which has become endemic.
The Caribbean was undoubtedly the batting boneyard of the 1980’s. But other countries were grooming their own fast bowlers in a desperate attempt to achieve parity. While arguably not express in pace New Zealand’s Richard Hadlee was a fearsome prospect with a level of skill comparable to Marshall and Lillee. 1990 was a key date in the fast bowling timeline. It saw the emergence of three fast bowlers who would star in the decade ahead. Devon Malcolm was West Indian in origin but was thrust into the international limelight for England. He could be erratic and expensive but his pace was unquestioned. On his day he could be lethal. South Africa would have rued riling him during their 1995 tour. With his tail up and set on revenge he tore them apart with a fearsome spell of 9-59. Unfortunately he never found the control and consistency required at the top level and only took a modest 128 test wickets. In Pakistan Wasim Akram was wreaking havoc with left arm incendiaries arcing through the air and regularly cutting opposition in half. In 1990 he found a new ball partner in Waqar Younis. Waqar had an almost freakish ability to bend the ball through the air. He became renowned for booming inswinging yorkers that would invariably result in a wicket and more often than not, broken toes. He was even known to swing the ball both ways in the same delivery. Batsmen were utterly bamboozled.
The last of the trio was Allan Donald. He emerged as a prospect at Warwickshire with raw pace and a brimful of attitude and arrogance. He learnt to control his aggression and bowl with more discipline and when South Africa emerged from apartheid he burst onto the international scene. By the eve of the new millennium he had established himself as the archetype quick of the modern era. He was South Africa’s talisman and almost single-handedly made them into one of the top test sides of the decade.
So that brings us up to 2003 and ‘that’ delivery by Shoaib Akhtar. Like a sub 10-second 100 metres the 100 mph barrier appeared to be at the very limit of humans’ physical ability. However, that delivery didn’t claim a wicket and Shoaib was by no means the most effective quick bowler of his generation. Pace alone didn’t and doesn’t make a bowler; it is merely a key ingredient. Take for example fellow Pakistani Mohammad Sami; undoubtedly quick but ultimately too erratic to warrant a regular place in the team. The same verdict would appear to have been reached in the case of England’s Steve Harmison. Although he has bowled virtually unplayable spells he has also leaked runs and surrendered momentum to the opposition too often. Although capable of bowling at 97mph his average in New Zealand earlier this year was closer to 77mph. This is proof that fast bowling is as much about rhythm as strength. In that series New Zealand were without Shane Bond who in a career foreshortened by injury and the lure of Indian dollars, proved to be one of the finest and most consistent fast bowlers of recent times. That accolade though must go to Australian Brett Lee who has added consistency, guile and patience to the raw pace and exuberance he possessed as a young man. He is regularly the top wicket taker in a series and has blossomed with the responsibility of being the senior bowler on the retirement of Glenn McGrath.
Fast bowling bragging rights have now fallen on two young bowlers. Lasith Malinga is one of the most intriguing prospects in international cricket. His slingy action is so unorthodox that many observers assume it must be illegal. In truth his delivery is above waist high, just, and his arm does go through straight. How he lands the ball consistently on the cut strip remains a mystery but he is genuinely quick and has proved a real handful. His contemporary is the South Africa Dale Steyn. He is very much in the mould of his mentor Allan Donald, strong, fierce and ultra-competitive. As he has matured he has shown an ability to swing the ball late at speeds consistently over 92 mph. He has raced to 100 test wickets in only twenty Test matches. He is the lynchpin of a South African attack that also includes Makhaya Ntini and the Morkel brothers. He is currently a more dynamic bowler with a greater ability to move the ball than Brett Lee. He has been key to South Africa inflicting on Australia their first test series defeat since 1993 this winter.
Fast bowlers have been conspicuous by their absence on the Associate scene. Indeed the lack of a penetrative wicket taker with the new ball has been a key factor in limiting Associates success against Full Member countries. Ireland’s Boyd Rankin showed in the World Cup that he was capable of troubling top class players with his pace and bounce and is certainly a yard quicker than any other bowler in the Associate scene.
Most of the top teams have a skilled seamer such as Edgar Schiferli (Holland), Peter Ongondo (Kenya), John Blain (Scotland), Binod Das (Nepal) and Hamid Hassan (Afghanistan) but they rarely register more than 82 mph. There are several bowlers that despite not being particularly fast do bowl with hostility. In this group I would include Nediah Odhiambo, Mark Jonkman and Henry Osinde all of which have the ability to claim wickets but can also prove expensive due to their lack of consistency. There are many arguments why Associate nations do not seem to produce fast bowlers. One is that the lack of grass wickets encourages medium pacers as they can get exaggerated movement off the seam. Another is that the lack of a professional coaching structure limits the chances of grooming talent from a young age. Reflecting on Associate clashes with Full Member countries in the last decade; the conclusion that can be drawn is that in most cases Associate bowlers have not had the quality or the pace to take regular wickets in the top order. Their best ploy has been to bowl tightly, stem the flow of runs and hope that pressure leads to a rash shot. It is my earnest hope that some Associate nations can groom genuinely quick bowlers who can get top class test batsmen hopping in the crease. My fear is that, as in the case of Denmark’s Amjad Khan, players with such potential are lost to their native countries by the lure of test cricket.
Copyright: Cover Point
Andre Van Troost
I’ll leave you with a reminiscence of one Associate bowler that was genuinely quick. Indeed for several seasons in the mid 1990’s he was arguably the quickest bowler in the world. Andre van Troost played professionally in England and South Africa and was shamefully quick. The trouble was that very few deliveries landed on the cut strip. Indeed his lack of control led to several hospitalising beamers. It was quite literally a disciplinary action. His outings for Holland were limited to the ICC trophy in 1996.It is regrettable that he did not play in the intercontinental cup where his pace would have provided a steep learning curve for associate batsmen. Perhaps unsurprisingly he retired early due to persistent injury. Bowling that fast is, it seems, unnatural.