Wednesday, 2 January 2008

Lee, Steyn and a most welcome revival

In August Nick wrote a very fine piece lamenting the decline in pace bowling. From the halcyon days of the mid-90s, when opening batsmen were tormented by the likes of Wasim and Waqar, Curtley and Courtney, Donald et al, the quality of quicks has undeniably declined. Moreover, those few opening bowlers who have excelled in the 2000s, principally McGrath and Pollock, have tended to be miserly rather than lethal in pace.

Belatedly, however, the real pacemen seem to be back. A pair of lightning-fast slingers, Shaun Tait and Lasith Malinga, helped make the ODI World Cup more tolerable. Mixing devilish, late-swinging yorkers with inconsistency, they were invariably enthralling to watch: no one knew what was going to happen next. Their actions are so unique that modifying them appears close to impossible, which means they will never become masters of line and length. A good thing too: the more individuality in the game the better.

It has been in recent Tests, however, that the quick-men have reaffirmed their supremacy. Dale Steyn ravaged the admittedly brittle Kiwi battling line-up with consecutive match ten-wicket hauls, indicative of a special talent. His forte is, like so many quicks, the yorker, aided by a terrific bouncer. Although less idiosyncratic than Tait and Malinga, Steyn's action also has a welcome unmodified air, allowing him to generate supremely late swing. Armed with new and old ball alike, he has the ability to create carnage when he gets it right.

For all the exploits of Tait, Malinga, Steyn and the exciting Aussie left-armer Mitchell Johnson, the man who has been most impressive is anything but a new-comer. At 31, Brett Lee should slowly be metamorphosing into a line-and-length merchant. Instead, he has responded magnificently to the task of leading the attack in the post-McGrath era. His joie de vivre and blistering pace have never been in doubt. But now there is more late swing, greater consistency and an improved cricket brain; Lee can work batsmen out as well as blast 'em to the Pavillion. Worryingly for fans hoping Australia's impregnability will be challenged, he seems to be turning into the consummate quick bowler, a fusion of consistency and raw pace, able to be effective even on the least responsive of tracks.

This is not to belittle masters of swing and seam like Stuart Clark and Mohammad Asif, but cricket needs the fast men. Most encouragingly, the West Indies' shock win in South Africa owed much to Jerome Taylor and Fidel Edwards, who could just help to revive the great tradition of West Indian quicks. It has taken too long, but pace really does seem on the up. Just as well, too: watching Lee at his most hostile steaming in to Sangakkara, counter-attacking with audacity and elan, was to witness amongst the most exhilarating sights the game of cricket can provide.


Nick Gammons said...

Tim, it is good to see the return of top quality pace bowling. I still think there is some way to go, but Lee and Steyn are certainly showing what an asset a genuine quick bowler is.

It is no coincidence that England had three quick bowlers in their prime when they beat Australia in 2005.

I'm looking forward to seeing Steyn this summer and hoping the English batsmen are up to the pace challenge.

John said...

What is demoralizing is the almost absence of good subcontinental pace. I get the feeling that Lasith has turned into a line-and-length warrior much before he was supposed to. Shoaib can be counted on for 6.2 overs per Test match, and there is no one else. India has NEVER produced an out-and-out quick. Munaf remained just hype, and there is nobody else on the horizon who can beat the bat for pace.