Nothing in sport is more tantalising than brilliant performers perennially unable to leave their mark on the biggest stage. If Shane Bond is to avoid his fate, it will largely be due to his exploits at the upcoming World Cup.
Bond is 31. For a fast bowler, this is normally the time for adaptation - pace is declining and real nous is needed to halt the inevitable decline. Yet Bond, since returning from his latest stress fracture, has consistently managed to record speeds in excess of 90mph.
Bond is one of very few fast bowlers in the modern game who can threaten the world’s best batsmen on benign surfaces; he is a tearaway also adroit at the subtler art of reverse swing.
His records – averaging 22 in Tests and just 19 in ODIs – are extraordinary. But the possessor of one of the world's finest yorkers has been in action far too rarely. In the six years since his debut, he has appeared in just 16 out of a possible 40 Tests, and only 59 ODIs – barely half the games New Zealand have played.
In his spasmodic international career, Bond has already produced numerous moments of genuine brilliance. His consecutive five-wicket hauls in the Caribbean, which secured New Zealand’s first ever Test series victory there, was testament to his quality: how often has a Kiwi been the outstanding fast man in the West Indies? In March 2006, Bond delivered another phenomenal spell against the same side, taking five wickets as New Zealand edged home by 27 runs. That included Brian Lara: Bond’s hostility and unremitting accuracy accounted for the record Test run-scorer first ball.
A charge frequently levelled against performers whose success is only fleeting is that they never proved themselves against the best. With Shane Bond, such an accusation cannot hold. In 11 ODIs against Australia, he has a stunning record: 34 wickets at 13. His havoc-wreaking spells of 5-25 and 4-38 during the 2002 VB series helped to ensure the competition was not lost amidst the sea of one-dayers. But his sensational spell in the 2003 World Cup cemented his reputation, regardless of whether he ever comes near repeating the feat again.
It was in this Super Six game that Bond proved on the world stage that, when fit, he is the consummate fast bowler. He had the height to trouble the world’s best with the bounce he generated. But it was his sheer pace and accuracy in pitching the ball up (he resisted the fast bowler’s temptation to bowl too short) that threw the tournament winners into disarray. Bond’s incredible spell reduced Australia to 84-7, before the double act of Michael Bevan and Andy Bichel again bailed them out. Yet in the months that followed, when Bond should have been confirming his status as one of very few genuinely hostile bowlers in World cricket, he endured a relentless series of injuries that kept him out of international cricket for more than two years.
But Bond is mentally very strong and was not deterred when, almost inevitably, he was soon injured again following a low-key comeback in Zimbabwe in August 2005. In recent one-dayers, he has been back to his devastating best, taking a hat-trick against Australia in the CB Series, then scything through their top-order in taking 5-23 at the start of the black caps’ memorable Chapell-Hadlee Trophy whitewash. A quite remarkable caught-and-bowled off Cameron White illustrated Bond’s extraordinary athleticism.
Knowing another major injury could terminate his career completely, Bond will be eyeing up the forthcoming World Cup as his defining moment: if his blend of express pace and guile can inspire memorable progress, Kiwis will remember him more in gratitude than frustration. His hostility visibly lifts New Zealand; they become a far more threatening side with an alternative to military medium. Sagacious skipper Stephen Fleming, however, will continually face a dilemma when utilising Bond. His preference seems to be to use him for five overs at the start, three in the middle of the innings and two at the death, though he will have to think on his feet.
The current international band of pacemen is the worst in memory – with Brett Lee injured and Shoaib Akhtar highly doubtful, who is there but Bond to fly the flag of old-fashioned fast bowling in the Caribbean? With pace-bowling standards universally so poor, outstanding batsmen such as Ricky Ponting are seldom truly tested. New Zealand and neutral fans alike need Shane Bond back and firing to help restore the balance between bat and ball. Conversely, Ponting, who, remarkably, averages just 17 facing Bond in ODIs, may be harbouring secret hopes that the fast bowler's comeback is short-lived.