Thursday, 2 August 2007

The decline of pace

One of the main factors contributing to the run soaked 2000s has been the lack of top quality Test pace bowlers. The decline has been so marked that since the recent retirement of Glenn McGrath it is hard to name one great quick bowler currently plying his trade. Shaun Pollock comes the closest, but his form has not been brilliant of late and he has a poor record against the best team of his era, Australia.

There are plenty of good seam and swing bowlers and even a few genuine fast bowlers, but none of them can be considered great, let alone all-time greats. It is a serious dearth, which threatens to make life even easier for Test batsmen, who continue to plunder runs and bolster their averages on batsman friendly surfaces.

The fast men

Of the current crop of pace bowlers only a handful can be considered fast. The best of these at the moment is, without doubt, Makhaya Ntini. His determination and enthusiasm, allied to ferocious pace, make him a fearsome prospect for most Test batsmen. Coming in from wide of the crease his deliveries often seem to spear into the batsman, forcing evasive action or uprooting stumps. Unfortunately, Ntini has a great achilles heel - his home bias. On his familiar South African pitches he averages a majestic 22.53, putting him up there with the greats, but take him away from home and the average plummetts to 38.08. For this reason, very good bowler that he is, Ntini cannot be considered great.

If his body was able to bear the strain of Test matches, Shane Bond might have achieved greatness. He has all the attributes and has used them in the 16 Tests he has played to claim 74 wickets @ 22.10. But such a short career (in terms of matches) does not yield enough evidence to know how good he really is.

Another injury plagued bowler is Shoaib Akhtar, though he has managed to take the field for Pakistan in 43 Tests. In this time he has amassed 169 victims, but has rarely been consistent through a series, let alone a season. When he is on form he can be devastating, but against the two best batting line-ups of his era, Australia and India, he has rarely found his best.

Brett Lee, who came to Test cricket in a blaze of glory, fell away badly and was dropped for over a year and a half. Since his return he has shown some good form, though mainly against the West Indies, who must now be considered one of the weaker Test nations. Despite his improvement, Lee still averages 31.60 and has a poor economy rate. He has also struggled against the old enemy, England, as well as Pakistan.

With 83 wickets to his name @ 30.73 Lasith Malinga is emerging as a quick bowler with real talent. His unusual, slinging action was used to much effect in the recent ODI World Cup. Yet he has not shown this devastating form consistently in Tests. There is surely much more to come from the young Sri Lankan, but he is still very much a work in progress.

The England duo Steve Harmison and Andrew Flintoff often bowl in the early nineties, but usually average in the late eighties. They fall somewhere between the genuinely quick bowlers mentioned above and the numerous fast medium and medium fast bowlers that ply their trade in Test cricket. Both hit the pitch hard and can extract lethal bounce, yet neither can be considered more than very good, occasionally brilliant. Harmison is too inconsistent and his average is creeping up, whereas Flintoff is wonderfully consistent, but rarely rips through a side.

The rest

There are a number of good swing bowlers in Test cricket, though most rely on conditions to help them and some can be cannon fodder when the ball fails to swing. Amongst the best is the veteran Sri Lankan, Chaminda Vaas. So often underrated this hard working left armer is always ready to give his captain another over. Vaas usually bowls with miserly accuracy, achieving the astonishing economy rate of 2.66, despite playing so many of his matches in unhelpful conditions. The only things mitigating against him are his average, just 29.21 and his relatively poor record against India, Pakistan and South Africa.

England's Matthew Hoggard is the form swing bowler in Tests. He has consistently broken opening partnerships and is particularly unforgiving against left handers. His dogged attitude and ability to bowl well even when there is little swing around has made him England's best pace bowler in recent series. But for an injury this summer he would surely have added to his tally against the West Indies and India. Only his average of 30.03 and his poor form against Australia and Pakistan can be held against him.

A couple of high class newcomers, Mohammad Asif and Stuart Clark, have the potential to stake their claim to be regarded amongst the best. Both have excellent records in the short time they have been playing Test cricket, but will need to test themselves against all opponents in all conditions before a verdict can be reached.

Of the remaining Test bowlers currently playing there are plenty of other newcomers, as well as some more seasoned campaigners, but none with track records that suggest they will be great or are more than fleetingly brilliant. When you consider how many of the best pace bowlers of all-time were playing in the 70s, 80s, and 90s it is hard to see how we have reached such a famine in the 2000s. Pitches can be blamed for some of it, but I remember those greats often taking wickets on flat surfaces. Whatever the reasons for it the sad truth is that there are few quick bowlers currently playing Test cricket who can strike fear into opposing batsmen and the game is all the poorer for it.


Tim said...

Very interesting piece, Nick, and particularly relevant regarding the Greatest Test XI too.

I think Asif is the real deal (though maybe not an out-and-out quick) and I also like Malinga and Tait, even if they may well never achieve real consistency. The late developer Clark aside, the cupboard is only getting barer, with Pollock and McGrath at either side of retirement, Gillespie and Lee getting on, and Bond and Akhtar both seemingly unable to play with regularity.

Richard Lake said...

I wonder if this is indicative of the tread mill that is International cricket. Being a fast bowler is the hardest part of the game physically (so I'm led to believe - I bowl gentle off-spin). Two years on from the Ashes win, none of the four English quicks are currently bowling, and as you say, the quickest bowlers around the world are droppong like flies.

Unless less cricket is played internationally, these break-downs are going to keep recurring and fast bowlers won't have a long enough career to be set apart as top class bowlers.