A few weeks ago international cricket moved onto the slower pitches of Bangladesh for the World Twenty20. The sport now travels across the continent for the IPL.
But who said pace was dead? Over the last few years, many have bemoaned the lack of genuine fast-bowling. To an extent, they have been spot on. It’s been years since bowlers have not just bowled quick, but have done so with control and intimidation.
The Test series between South Africa and Australia earlier this year had it all. Between Mitchell Johnson and Dale Steyn – to an extent, Morne Morkel as well – batsmen were bobbing and weaving, with unplayable deliveries croqueting around their heads. It’s been a while since fast-bowling looked this good.
Johnson was particularly fearsome. Since returning to Test action in the Ashes in Australia last year, he has picked up 59 wickets at an average of 15.2. All those in just eight Tests while hitting the 148kmph mark consistently. Watching him bowl from square-leg is a sight to behold.
Steyn produced a similarly fascinating spell of bowling in Port Elizabeth to destroy Australia in the second Test while Morkel’s fiery duels with Michael Clarke made for great viewing too. It was reminiscent of the 1970s when there was an abundance of pace battery that captured the imagination of many.
Sight to savour
Even Michael Holding, a pace ace of his generation, savoured what he saw.
“Most people who watched that series were enthralled by the fast-bowling, it’s a very special part of cricket,” Holding told Al Jazeera. “It adds an extra dimension.”
It has been a while since there were two or three bowlers in one series which made players constantly fear injury and that fear became a reality a few times. Ryan McLaren was felled by a bouncer and ended up in hospital with concussion while Clarke credited the Aussie physio for getting him out on the park after his Morkel duel saying “without him, I would not have been able to walk”.
Holding believes players are getting hit more often because of the protective gear they wear.
“They’re not watching the ball as well as they used to because they think if they’re wearing helmets, there won’t be any serious damage. When you know that if you get hit you’ll get hurt, your natural instinct will help you protect yourself.”
Fast bowling is a unique art and it’s not something which can be taught. In recent years, very few quicks have been able to not only hit their speeds consistently, but also manage to use their skills. While some elements of Johnson’s game might be innocuous – his speed is accurate and swing is conditional – but he is likely to stray a few times during an over.
However, it’s the fear factor induced by Johnson which has made him so effective.
His strike rate of a wicket every 32 balls in the last eight Tests is impressive. But what is most fascinating is that he managed to get those wickets by softening batsmen up with pace first – it’s not something many get right.
Fast-bowling is a very special part of cricket. It adds an extra dimension.”
Morkel tried to take on the role of being that mongrel, compared to being the usual ‘bowling dry’ bowler, but his wickets column remained starkly bare, despite good pace and bounce. For Holding, it was encouraging to see Morkel be aggressive, but feels that he was not used properly.
“It was good to see him run in, be aggressive and bowl fast. But he needs to think more about the way he bowls. At the end of the day, there was nothing in that fourth column. That bit of play between him and Clarke was good for the spectators, but he didn’t get the man out.”
A half-broken Steyn did take wickets, though. Unwell in the first Test, back to his usual self in the second and struggling with a hamstring injury, Steyn had pace, intimidation and 12 wickets for his efforts.
The three pace aces all entertained in their own unique way and these performances could encourage a new and younger generation to follow suit. While it can’t be taught, fast bowling is something which can be encouraged. Curtly Ambrose started off playing basketball, but was encouraged to switch to cricket. Ian Bishop was an opening batsman at school but had the physique to bowl quick and was encouraged to do so.
Statistics will be rattled off in years to come about Johnson and Steyn and their individual spells as well as careers but fast bowling simply cannot be reduced to those stats. Johnson forced batsman to play 20 percent more than the South Africans did in the first Test. Steyn has gone wicketless only once in his 72-match career and has never gone more than three Tests without taking four wickets in a match.
Steyn and Johnson are also exceptional in a ‘batsman friendly’ era. With an average of 1,000 runs scored per Tests these days, Steyn’s average of 23.01 is impeccable and Johnson’s average of 27.42 is equally impressive. As Vernon Philander once said, ‘stats don’t lie’, but they also don’t tell the whole story.
What really sets the enchanting fast bowlers apart from everyone else is their ability induce fear and doubt in even the most experienced players. Players who have their every movement and routine memorised, can be made to look like club cricketers on the day when a scary fast bowler shows up.
Pace of this kind is rare, but when it is found, it should be treasured and celebrated.