Fast bowlers are a dying breed, but as meaningless T20 statistics begin to tire, the quicks will rise again, writes Tom Eaton in the latest Business Day Sport Monthly.
I once faced Brett Schultz. Only for two balls, but I faced him.
That is, I was facing him when he turned at the top of his mark. By the time he let go of the ball, I was facing the other way, pressed against the side of the net, hoping that the squealing sound I was hearing wasn’t coming out of me.
The burly blond they called Bear was well past his prime, but, perhaps to see if the old lightning was still flickering in that left arm, he had wandered down to the university oval and wandered up to an open net.
I didn’t see him at first. I was too busy with a beautifully orthodox forward-defensive to some fresh air. (When I tell you I was a dreadful batsman, I’m being crassly self-aggrandizing.) But then I looked up, and felt my knees go weak.
I began to babble. I told Schultz my time in the net was up; that I was a 5th XI tail-ender; that I had to go to the toilet. But he didn’t care. He said, ‘It’s fine’ – oh Brett, it was so far from fine! – and went back to his mark.
In retrospect it was probably five paces. I think he was also rolling his fingers down the seam. Truthfully, it was lively spin. But I will never forget how big and goddamn strong he looked as he whipped his arm over, or how loudly the ball went ‘sput’ into the pitch, or how violently it hissed into the netting behind me.
I don’t remember how I got away, but I remember sitting on the grass, taking off my pads, and being struck by a realisation that made me feel light-headed.
It was, simply, that Schultz could have killed me.
I wasn’t wearing a helmet. With a small adjustment of his wrist and a little extra effort, he could have ended me.
I wouldn’t have been ‘roughed up’ or ‘worked over’ or made to ‘smell the leather’ or any of the other jolly phrases we all know. I would have been dead. Simply, pointlessly dead.
It was then that I finally understood what fast bowlers bring to cricket.
You don’t believe me? Alright. Remove the great fast bowler from cricket – the guy who can fire the ball 22 yards in half a second, aimed at the top of off stump or your throat – and what’s left? A game about angles, endurance, psychological pressure and self-discipline. It’s fun. It’s engrossing. Its skills are subtle and complex. In short, it becomes tennis.
It is the fast bowler, and the fast bowler alone, who elevates cricket from being a game to being an existential crisis. That’s because he’s the only person on the field who can kill you. He makes it, literally, about life and death, and in so doing, gives it its epic scale and emotional resonance. He makes it art.
That is, he made it art. Past tense. Because he’s more or less gone.
The great, predatory fast bowler is almost extinct. In fact, right now, there’s only one of them on the planet, and he’s rapidly nearing the end.
Not surprisingly, he is fairly pessimistic about the future of his species. Speaking to Cricket Monthly in March, Dale Steyn appealed for a rebalancing of the wildly skewed priorities of the game, pleading for pitches where bowlers can take 10 wickets (remember when that used to happen in ODIs?) and wrest the spotlight back from the rampant batsmen.
‘You need [bowling] heroes in the game,’ said Steyn, ‘where kids can say, “I want to be that guy. I don’t just want to be AB de Villiers. I don’t just want to be Virat Kohli”. Otherwise, bowling is going to disappear.’
(On the subject of disappearing, Steyn was even more blunt, saying that if the IPL was merely about batsmen earning millions for tonking bowlers out of the ground, ‘then who wants to bowl fast?’)
Of course, grumbling about the collapse of standards and longing for the good old days is an essential part of all sports: for over a century, old codgers have been writing off the younger generation as not fit to carry the boots of past greats. But when it comes to fast bowling, the decline is more than a mirage created by nostalgia.
Consider the current top 10 bowlers in the world (as per the official rankings at the time of writing). According to the anoraks who crunch these numbers, the best fast bowlers in the world right now are Stuart Broad, Dale Steyn, Jimmy Anderson, Trent Boult, Josh Hazlewood, Morne Morkel and, er, Vernon Philander.
Apart from the presence of Philander (a digital hangover from his spectacular first few seasons), it’s a fairly accurate representation of the fast bowling talent on display. It’s also a snooze-fest. Broad and Anderson can perform miracles with late movement; Steyn’s outswinger is beautiful when it works; Morkel is, um, tall; and Boult and Hazlewood are, well, there. But the only way that lot are sending a batsman to hospital is if he pulls a hamstring while running down the pitch to hit them over long-off.
You don’t even have to go as far back as the glory days of the West Indies to see just how meh fast bowling has become in recent years. Pick a random date in the mid-1990s (in this case, 3 May 1995), and you find a top 10 featuring Curtly Ambrose, Waqar Younis, Courtney Walsh, Wasim Akram, Fanie de Villiers, Craig McDermott and Ian Bishop. Those not quite good enough to crack the top 10? Allan Donald, Heath Streak, Kenny Benjamin, Darren Gough and a young Glenn McGrath.
Nostalgia may have embellished some of those names. Walsh and De Villiers were never express. McDermott was reliable rather than electrifying, and by 1995 Bishop’s career had more or less been ended by chronic injuries. But with the best will in the world, Stuart Broad is no Curtly Ambrose and Jimmy Anderson is no Waqar Younis.
So where have the great fast bowlers gone?
One answer may be that they’re being taken out of the game before they even get a chance to dominate it.
Despite sporadic tragedies like the death of Phil Hughes, it remains an indisputable fact that the most dangerous thing you can do on a cricket field is bowl fast. Admittedly, no young quicks have been killed by bowling, but they are being injured in droves.
Study after study repeats the same findings. Fielders damage their hands, knees, shoulders; batsmen have their fingers cracked; now and then they’re hit on the head or in the ribs. Wicketkeepers get dodgy knees and ankles, and sometimes some nasty dental rearrangement. But the number of these injuries is dwarfed by the astonishing attrition rate among fast bowlers.
It’s possible that the modern young paceman is bowling fast too soon, too often, and with not enough qualified coaching to help him smooth out a potentially damaging action.
But it’s not just his body that’s trying to eject him from the game. His craft itself has become a liability in ODIs and T20s. And that’s not a happy place to be when T20 is writing your cheques.
Great fast bowlers have always been fuelled by blazing self-belief. Some even claimed to be offended by a batsman who thought he was good enough to counter-attack. As they ran in, they thought, ‘How dare this bottom-handed hack take guard against me?’
But is that still the case? When a 24-year-old turns at the top of his mark today, does he still believe he is the game’s ultimate enforcer? Given his history, I simply don’t see how that’s possible.
Born in 1992, he was about five or six when he began to shape his cricketing world view. An obsessed new convert taking his bat to bed with him, he heard stories from old men about an age in which fast bowlers broke arms and noses.
It sounded exciting but it didn’t match what he saw on TV. Donald worked over Steve Waugh and Mike Atherton, but for all the oohs and ahs, the batsmen won. Waqar and a creaky Wasim swung the ball and bowled some nice spells, but he wished the old men would stop going on about ‘toe-crushers’ because nobody was having their toes actually crushed. He gasped when Shoaib Akhtar bowled the fastest ball ever, but nobody was running away to square leg. And so he learned that fast bowlers were respected (enough to make him want to be one) but that they didn’t actually hurt people any more. Those dangerous days were over.
As he started playing cricket at primary school, and gorged on the glut of ODIs in the late-90s, he learned the ethics of cricket. He discovered that it was rife with sins – dropping catches, getting run out, not walking if you nicked it, questioning the umpire – but as he played more games, he realised that one sin towered over them all.
It loomed over every single ODI he watched, darkened every single U10 game.
Cricket’s one unforgiveable sin, he learned, was to concede runs.
Soon, he rejected the wild men he had admired – forces of nature like Shoaib – and began to worship the patron saints of constriction, misers like Shaun Pollock and McGrath.
He grew into his body, played more competitively, and now every delivery confirmed his beliefs. If he bowled short and batsman ducked, his captain warned him not to ‘waste’ his energy. If the batsman pulled it, his captain told him to pitch it up. Truly, he now saw, the fast bowler’s job was to land the ball somewhere hittable and hope.
This is why I suspect that the modern fast bowler has grown up besieged by doubt. Instead of asking, ‘How dare he stand there?’ he’s wondering, “Dare I try a short one?’ When his captain calls him up from fine leg, he should be muttering, ‘Good, let’s clean up these f***ing clowns.’ Instead he’s thinking, ‘Don’t get hit.’
Cricket writers are fond of signing death certificates. Most of us have, over the past few decades, announced the death of off-spin, all-rounders, opening batsmen, umpiring, Tests and ODIs. In this very magazine I wrote a piece explaining why T20 signalled the end of slow bowling. And yet every time, the corpse has gasped, lurched upright, and wandered out of the mortuary.
Which is why I’m not going to make the mistake of announcing the death of fast bowling.
Yes, pace is being legislated out of the run-obsessed game. Yes, cricket is now in thrall to unsophisticated hedonists who need their thrills to be cheap, fast and obvious. Yes, it makes very little sense for any young player to become a fast bowler. But I suspect the scales may yet tilt back some day.
That’s because you can’t change the laws of physics or the limitations of the human eye. True pace will always defeat reflexes. Always. And in 20 or 30 years, once the current generation has grown tired of gorging on meaningless runs and hollow spectacle, it will start looking for new thrills. Real thrills. Real meaning. Something that elevates a game into an existential crisis. Then, I think, the fans will start to rediscover cricket’s greatest thrill: the old life-and-death struggle of speed and aggression against reflex and courage.
It will be bloody. By then, the global batting culture will be so far removed from the defensive, technical mindset of the ’80s (the heyday of pace and the apex of batsmen’s ability to play it) that nobody will know what to do with a ball lifting sharply off a hard pitch.
There will be complaints. Fans will be horrified by seeing their batting idols, who normally average 100, flinching and being whacked in the chest and nicking off for 50. It will, in short, be Bodyline all over again. And the art of fast bowling will be rediscovered, and the whole circus will start afresh.
The fast bowler is dead. Long live the fast bowler.