Pankaj Agarwal | Sunday December 18, 2016

Diminishing Art of Fast Bowling

 
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During a routine chat with Cricket junkies, one chap asked: “Did you realize that two of the greatest pace bowlers of current age Dale Steyn and James Anderson are in the last phase of their career; so who would be next big name in pace bowling?”

The question was so pertinent and the answer was difficult. You can hardly think of a name, which can be said as the future of pace bowling. With little deeper pondering, it could be easily make out that pace bowling is an art which is on the decline for actually quite some time and Dale Steyn and James Anderson can be among the last real crusaders for a long time to come.

Why this question haunts is that for fans of my generation, pace bowling remains a nostalgia and there are reasons. We started the following game during the early eighties and lethal pace bowlers were ruling the scene. Among Indian player itself, young Kapil was the poster boy of Indian Cricket that time. Kapil was in sublime form and at the age of 21-22, he had already attained a cult status. He had even eclipsed great Gavaskar in popularity and he was all over there in TV ads even at that primitive stage of Television in India. (Remember Palmolive, Rapidex and Kalpa Soap).

The first Test series which I remember was India tour of Pakistan in 1982-83. India lost six Test series by a margin of 3-0. We helplessly saw Imran Khan destroying Indian batting by top-class pace bowling. Imran was at the peak of his career and claimed forty wickets in the series. The defeat was so humiliating and impactful that Gavaskar was sacked from the captaincy after the team returned.

But it was West Indies, who was ruling the roost with its truly intimidating bowling attack. The first series, which I followed match by match, was West Indies tour to India in 1983 for a six Test series. Newly crowned World Champion India again lost six Test series by the same 3-0 margin. It was not just a loss but sound hammering. This time around, it was Malcolm Marshall & Michael Holding, who devoured Indians. Both were awfully quick & accurate and together they claimed 66 wickets.

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So in those days the impression was clear that it was pace bowlers who controlled the game. For us, they were superior species than others. Those earlier days as a Cricket freak invoked a typical fondness for genuine pace bowling, and for me it remained the most alluring facet of the game. There are endless memories of great campaigners of this art.

The pacers of West Indies were at their zenith during that time and not only Indians but batsmen across the world were simply capitulating while facing them. They were unplayable and West Indies was routing teams in series after series. Their ferociousness can be gauged by the fact that during 1984-86 West Indies demolished England in a five-Test series by a margin of 5-0 twice. In England during 1984, and then in West Indies in 1986. Curtly Ambrose and Walsh continued the tradition. They were less frightening than their predecessors but they were effective and accurate. Walsh was the highest wicket taker in Test Cricket when he retired. Ambrose claimed more than 400 wickets in Test Ambrose was very accurate. Once at WACA Perth, in a Test against Australia, Ambrose clamed seven wickets in the span of 32 balls by conceding just one run.

India had a 3-0 drubbing in West Indies in 1989. Marshal, Walsh and young Bishop destroyed Indian batting line-up and claimed 53 wickets between them.

After Ambrose and Walsh and Ian Bishop, the decline was rapid and now the quality of pace bowlers of West Indies is zilch.

We could not see plenty of Richard Hadlee as India did not play much with New Zealand during the eighties. But Hadlee undoubtedly has been the most alluring bowlers of all times. His run-up and bowling action was a singer performing a raga. It looked as if he was bowling without putting much effort. He was highest wicket-taker in Test cricket with 431 wickets in 86 Test matches. A pace bowler maintaining a strike rate of five wickets per match is an extra-ordinary achievement. And it tells what Hadlee was.

Then there were two Ws from Pakistan, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, who ruled the decade of the nineties. Both of them were a genius and a luxury to watch. I still very painfully remember that how Wasim finished Srikkanth’s career in 1989 Test series. Wasim was unique and very lethal with his quick arm action & sheer pace. In 1992 final, he produced two back to back gems to dismiss Allen Lamb and Chris Lewis and pull the match for his side. At his peak, Waqar was unplayable too. He had that unique art to bowl in-swinging Yorkers at a fearsome pace. His Yorkers used to be toe-crusher, literally, Legend of Wasim and Waqar is exemplified by a Test played at Hamilton in 1993. New Zealand had a Target of just 127 runs in the fourth innings to win Test. But then Waqar and Wasim struck with five wickets haul each and wrapped New Zealand on just 93. It was pace bowling at very best. Both were fast, accurate & nerve-wracking and they were swinging the ball in an insane manner.

When South Africa made comeback in the international arena in 1991-92, the world came to know the brilliance of Allan Donald. He was like a hidden gem till then. Like Hadlee, Donald had a beautiful run-up and bowling action; he was very accurate and quick. There was a time when he was called quickest white bowler in the world. I particularly remember a Test against India at Durban in 1996. India could manage 100 and 66 in two innings. Donald led the charge with 9 wickets.

Glen McGrath was another bloke who adorned the art of pace bowling during 1994-2007. He was much disciplined and unbelievably consistent. McGrath played his last Test in 2007 and after him, no Australian bowler could even reach anywhere close to his stature. With the retirement of Brett Lee and Mitchell Johnson, there is hardly any potent pace bowler in Australian line-up.

Indian fans remember that how Sachin Tendulkar was cleaned up by a deadly in-swinging Yorker of Shoaib Akhtar and crowed went berserk at Eden Garden Kolkata in 1999. Shoaib could not deliver much but he was quickest of all.

However after Waqar, Wasim & Shoaib, Pakistan could never produce a bowler of their stature and lately whole Pakistan cricket has gone into desolation because of match fixing scandals and security reasons.

Dale Steyn probably is last of those great pace bowlers. Dale like Waqar is spot on and has that uncanny ability to swing the ball at top pace. After 85 Test matches, his strike rate is just under five wickets per match, which is incredible.

Change is constant and ever going process. Cricket is no exception. Over the past decade, Bat has started dominating Ball and pace bowling is the major casualty of this change. T-20 Cricket and improved protective gears can be the possible attributed reasons.

Whatever it is, fans like me who always find pace bowling intoxicating are eagerly waiting for the next Marshal, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Glen McGrath.

Trust me that chances for having them in near future are not very bright.

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