Fads fade – as they should – but why do some of cricket’s dizzying array of techniques, quirks and idiosyncrasies lead nowhere, despite their success?
Nobody has bowled – before or since – like SF Barnes, the man I would most like to have seen play in cricket’s history. Though many cricketers have been as bolshie (well, maybe not quite as bolshie) no bowler gets anywhere near his extraordinary figures sprawled over decades – sure they were different days, but why didn’t his contemporaries deliver those numbers too? Those who did see him describe Barnes as many bowlers in one – a quick, a seamer, a swinger and (this appears to be his most unique quality) a fast-medium spinner capable of ripping it both ways. With all the talk of Moeen Ali finding that bit of zip at 56mph that makes all the difference, has nobody – not even Jade Dernbach – attempted to rip the ball at 75 – 80mph (rolling won’t do)? Perhaps if Shahid Afridi had greater respect for his frightening physical attributes, he might have properly developed that kind of delivery as a stock ball, but I can think of no other bowler in my time who would even consider the option. SF Barnes leaves behind a remarkable record, but no legacy.
We have more empirical evidence of Jeff Thomson’s bowling action. Innocuous at first, just a hair-bouncing jog to the crease before unleashing – with a straight arm – something akin to a baseball pitcher’s fast ball, his right hand touching the turf as his body arched back, before the ball was rocketed at the batsman (and, occasionally, at the stumps). Of course, the action stressed the body – fast bowling does – but it did not break it and Thommo enjoyed a long career, albeit without that literally shocking pace of his 1974-75 breakthrough series. Perhaps the bowler who most resembles the terror of the Poms is fellow Australian, Shaun Tait, who has something of Thommo’s slingshot pace, but little of his brutal accuracy. Tait isn’t quite the real deal though – Thommo stood up as he released the ball, resisting the easier option of squatting a little and rolling away off the pitch, making his deliveries lift horribly off a length. Maybe today’s biomechanics boffins would not like such extreme contortions at the point of delivery, but maybe they would help too. Perhaps someone needs to find a few old youtube clips and have a go at emulating the man often credited with being the world’s fastest ever bowler.
Mike Procter would have joined the great all-rounders of the 70s and 80s were it not for South Africa’s isolation – he had it in him to mirror Jacques Kallis’s figures, his bowling (just) outshining his batting. And no kid who grew up watching the BBC’s coverage of Gillette Cup cricket could ever forget the blond whirlwind who would hurtle into the crease before hurling the ball at the stumps. The action had something of Picasso’s cubism about it – routinely described as chest on and off the wrong foot, Procter appeared to give a 360 degree moving image to spectators, presenting his whole body at that moment of release. Add the billowing shirt and baying crowd and the poor batsman can barely have located the ball before it detonated the base of his stumps. There have been a few chest-on quicks since (Sylvester Clarke probably the sharpest) and a few wrong-foot merchants too (Chris Harris is probably still doing his thing in New Zealand even now) but no bowler has got near Procter’s “windmill in a hurricane” blur.
That there aren’t as many genuine quicks in the game these days is said so often that we don’t need the evidence of the speedgun showing new ball bowlers at 82 – 85 mph. Even an all-time great like Dale Steyn has to portion out his efforts on the international treadmill, seldom getting close these days to the 90mph that Allan Donald would reach routinely. So why don’t more opening batsmen adopt Matthew Hayden’s guard, a stride (sometimes more) down the wicket? Hayden’s method was rooted in his desire to intimidate bowlers (reversing the age old descriptor of “the bowling attack” into a “batting attack”) but it was also the product of his need to limit the effect of the ball swinging back into the left-hander’s pads, allowing him to plant that heavy front foot and bludgeon the ball. The option was only possible due to the body armour that protected Hayden from head to toe, making batting infinitely less physically perilous than a generation earlier. You do see batsmen taking guard outside their crease these days, but not often and seldom as part of a systematic plan to defeat the bowler.
Graham Gooch, notably, and one or two other batsmen in the 80s would “take guard” with their bat raised behind them, not quite baseball-style, more frozen in time part way through an orthodox stroke. Which was, of course, the idea, as it saved the time spent lifting the bat as the bowler released the ball, a distinct advantage when facing the quicks. Standing with bat cocked also ensured that the pick-up was straight, as there was no time for the bat to be pointed towards the slips on the way up (just watch early career Hashim Amla for an extreme example of that foible and then look at his numbers once he corrected it). Few batsmen stand at the crease in the full Gooch these days, with some talk that the stance limits scoring options or reduces power responsible for the technique dying out. I find that a little hard to believe as the bat, no matter when it is picked up, must reach a stationary point before it comes down to meet the ball – so why not identify that point in the stance?
As wicketkeeper Jack Russell’s famous hat became something like Trigger’s brush as his career entered its glorious Gloucestershire Indian summer, he would stand up in white ball cricket from first over until last. This tactic would pin the batsmen to the crease in powerplay overs, open up the stumping as a dismissal option and, most importantly, disconcert the man on strike who would feel his physical space diminished by Russell’s hyperactivity in and around the crease and his mental space compromised by the keeper’s constant chatter – not quite sledging, but not exactly designed to promote concentrating on the next ball. Keepers do stand up to pacemen these days, but usually as a result of a tactical ploy, seldom as an innings long strategy, a strategy that went some way to Gloucestershire’s winning five one day trophies from the six available in 1999 and 2000. With white ball cricket increasingly dominated by slow and medium pace bowling, why do keepers ever stand back?