England are crying out for a really fast bowler. Nothing new about that. We haven’t had many in the sixty-two years since Test cricket resumed in 1946.
One of the first articles I remember reading said there would never be one till housewives no longer had to produce a ration book to buy beef. Perhaps so, but a crop came along in the 50s: Fred Trueman, Brian Statham, and the fastest of all for a couple of years, Frank Tyson. How fast was Tyson? When, at The Oval in 1956, Tony Lock caught the Australian opener, Colin McDonald, one-handed, inches off the turf, at short-leg, I reckon he was the only man in the ground who saw the ball leave McDonald’s bat.
Then came a gap of a few years till, first, John Snow and then Bob Willis. Snow was really quick when he felt like it, which wasn’t that often, and Willis, now the genial hanging judge on Sky’s Verdict programme, could be very nasty indeed. He didn’t do much with the ball, but, as some Edwardian said of C J Kortwright, there wasn’t time.
Since then, not a lot: Darren Gough, Steve Harmison and Andrew Flintoff who towards the end of his career made himself bowl really fast by sheer will-power, it seemed. One or two others may have been brisk at times, but really there have been fewer truly fast English bowlers in six decades than the West Indies produced in the 1980s alone.
Now the pundits say Durham’s Mark Wood is our best hope. An engaging chap and useful enough batsman, Wood can be really quick, despite his short prancing show-pony run-up. There’s just one drawback. He doesn’t seem to take many wickets, and when he does, they come at a pretty high cost.
Now it may be the case that you won’t win the Ashes in Australia without at least one bowler who is genuinely fast, and the evidence of the last hundred years seems to support this. But things are different in England.
Of course good fast bowlers are effective here as they can be almost anywhere, but if you consider Australia, then their two most successful new-ball bowlers in England in the last forty years were Terry Alderman and Glenn McGrath, neither of express pace.
Alderman, not much more than a quickish medium to fast-medium, acquired such a mastery over Graham Gooch that Gooch’s answer-phone message was reputedly, “Sorry, I’m out, Alderman bowling”; and Gooch was a great player of really fast bowling with a fine record against the West Indies. McGrath achieved a comparable dominance over Michael Atherton, though Atherton successfully defied the West Indian pacemen and South Africa’s often terrifying Allan Donald.
There were fast bowlers in the recent bad-tempered South Africa-Australia series – Mitchell Stark, Pat Cummins, Kagiso Rabada – but they were outshone by Victor Philander who is a bit more than military-medium, but not that much more.
Yet he takes wickets, lots of wickets – and has done so in England and Australia as well as in South Africa –because he consistently bowls a good line and length and moves the ball late, in the air and off the pitch, while his accuracy makes scoring difficult and puts pressure on the batsman.
Figures are often deceptive, but over the years they don’t lie outrageously. Philander’s 204 wickets at 21.6 each in 52 Tests show that an opening bowler doesn’t need to be fast to be effective, even a match-winner.
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James Anderson and Stuart Broad have been demonstrating this for years.
Anderson’s record in English conditions, especially in the second half of his long career, is second to none. He may still occasionally send down a truly fast ball, just as Ian Botham sometimes did, but like Botham he is a bowler who depends on control and the ability to move the ball either way, in the air and off the pitch.
Like Botham, Anderson has days when he seems all but unplayable, and you have indeed to go back to the young Botham, before his back went and he put on too much weight, to find a better swing-and-seam bowler in English conditions.
His partner Broad runs him close. Indeed, in England anyway, with Anderson and Broad fit, England haven’t really needed someone really fast, no matter how welcome such a bowler might be.
What they have needed is a bit more variety in the second string, and of course a spinner who not only takes wickets as Moeen Ali has done at home anyway, but can bowl 20 overs for no more than 60 runs in the first innings of a Test.
Of course we would love to have a really fast bowler again, because fast bowlers are exciting, and some are beautiful as well as alarming – look at that famous still of Fred Trueman’s delivery stride.
Everybody loves watching fast bowlers, and, while there are batsmen who truly love the challenge they present, the truth is that fast bowlers are frightening. I can’t remember who said, “ none of us really likes facing the quick stuff, but some of us show it more than others”.
Quite so: fear takes wickets, as when a batsman is caught off a ball coming at his chest or head and he tries to fend it off. Brian Close would lower his bat and let such a ball hit him but not everyone is like Yorkshire’s Spartan boy, or like Bill Edrich who, having been knocked out by a short ball from Tyson, remarked “it never hurts as much as you think it will.”
“What’s the best way to play Ray Lindwall?” a young batsman asked Len Hutton. “From the other end”, replied the Master.
The search for a speedster will continue. It is perhaps even more urgent for England’s new chief of selection, Ed Smith, to be casting his net to catch successors to Anderson and Broad who must both be in the evening of their careers. Sometimes, quite often really, the end comes suddenly for any sportsman. One year you are still a champion, the next, something has gone – rhythm, snap, whatever.
“One day a rooster, the next a feather duster”, as Alan Jones, coach of the 1984 Grand Slam Wallabies, put it.
Casting his eye over prospects, Ed Smith will doubtless be eager to promote anyone who regularly delivers the ball at more than 90mph. But I trust he won’t be obsessed by the need for speed. Someone remarked the other day that Yorkshire’s young Ben Coad, who takes lots of wickets cheaply, wouldn’t do because he isn’t quick enough. Why, when Coad took 3 wickets in 10 balls to break the back of Essex’s second innings in that remarkable match at Chelmsford, one of them was a catch taken by wicket-keeper Jonny Bairstow standing up to the stumps. This will never do.
Well, I daresay the writer is too young to remember, or to have thought of, Alec Bedser, one of the greatest of new-ball bowlers – 236 Test wickets at less than 25, 39 wickets in the 1953 Ashes series. Alec Bedser liked to have the keeper up at the stumps; it helped him, he said, to bowl a full length. Look at score-cards and you’ll find a good many cases of “c Evans b Bedser”, also “st Evans b Bedser”.
All the same, as one who has followed Yorkshire since Len Hutton was my hero, I rather hope Ed Smith doesn’t call young Ben Coad up yet. But, if he does, I hope he insists (if he’s empowered to insist) that the coach plays him, and doesn’t just have him hanging about with the England squad ‘for experience of the Test match atmosphere’.
Better experience would be taking more wickets for Yorkshire. Bowlers, as one of the Professors used to say, learn by bowling.