I was one of those child cricketers who used to run it to bowl at 100mph and bowl about 50mph. My idols at the time were the likes of Waqar Younis and Allan Donald and the West Indies at the time were still in their relative heyday of pace bowling even if they were reliant on the greats, Ambrose and Walsh.
I am also one of those people who loves cricket history and I used to look up (pre-internet days) the fast bowlers of the past. You could go back to Spofforth, Ernie Jones and Tibby Cotter. An Englishman called Charles Kortright was the first to claim the unofficial title of the fastest bowler of all time. The cannot be corroborated and most modern observers are of the opinion that it is between Frank Tyson and Jeff Thompson as to who is the legitimate claimant to the throne of the fastest of all time.
It was the fast bowler that put bottoms on seats. The dual between paceman and opener invariably set the scene for a match. Those who saw Mike Atherton and Allan Donald''s exchange at Trent Bridge in 1998 as I did on TV will not forget it. Only a generation ago we had Brett Lee, Shoaib Akhtar, Steve Harmison, Shane Bond, Mohammed Sami, Fidel Edwards and Makhaya Ntini among others. Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel are still going and Mitchell Johnson has only relatively recently called it a day but there seems to be a dirth of genuinely fast bowlers.
One of the questions that seems to exercise the minds of cricketing aficionados is that actually constitutes fast? In my mind an ability to regularly bowl above 87mph is what constitutes out and out fast. So what is happening?
Certain countries have a tradition of fast bowling, notably Australia, Pakistan and the West Indies. English county cricket tends to be the domain of the medium and fast-medium bowlers over more recent decades and India, the home of the spinner. Improvements in pitch quality has gone some way to evening up the countries but this tradition still seems to be maintained. This is significant with the high profile of the Indian Premier League although the Big Bash does still seem to have a number of fast bowlers.
Administrators have never been keen on fast bowlers, particularly when they blast an opposition out to end a five day test in three days. Intimidation also tends to be frowned upon and rules have been changed to negate the bowlers ability to intimidate. And now 20/20. When this format of the game first started, my great concern was what it would do to spin bowlers. The answer is that it has given them a new lease of life and it is the fast bowler that has struggled. Good batsmen tend to like pace on the ball at the best of times and the way mishits also now seem to go for six means the margin for error is now almost non-existent. Everything is geared towards the batsman making big runs.
Moving on to the science and health bit, Dennis Lillee once said that a fast bowler is never really injury free. The Australian Shaun Tait is a prime example of the strain a bowler can put on their bodies to generate high pace. The weak points for the fast bowler are pretty much any joints and, more significantly, the lumbar spine. Stress fractures of the lower back, particularly given the significance of the trunk to bowling fast, can end careers. If you are a talented cricketer, why put your body through it? Why put your body through such extreme force only to watch the batsman mishit it for six?
The hope would be that the restriction to four overs per bowler might prolong a career rather than the 20 over a day test match but with the future of Tests under scrutiny, the future of fast bowling could be bleak. This would be to cricket's great cost. Back in Edwardian England, innovative spin bowling was once the name of the game before being phased out, presumably for the crime of being too successful.
If cricket really wants its fast bowlers then there a few measures it can take. Firstly, let coaches encourage and develop it. Secondly, prepare pitches that give the fast bowler some encouragement and thirdly relax the laws on wides and short pitched bowling which are so geared towards the batsmen.
Cricket needs fast bowling and they still do exist but they are the exception rather than the rule. The game also needs medium pace and spin bowling and it would be equally wrong for us to go back to the 1980s when spin bowling seemed to be at a low ebb and West Indies inspired fast bowling at its peak. The fast bowler is no brute. The very best are craftsmen who blend their fire with trickery. The hope is that cricket does not let the fast bowler quietly slip into history.
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