Apparently its one of the questions old pros get asked all the time. “Who was the fastest?” Depending on generation, they might have answered: Larwood, Tyson, Miller, Thompson, Holding, Croft, Marshall, Bishop, Younis, Donald.
There’s just something about watching and talking about fast bowlers that’s exciting. Listen to commentators and summarisers and you’ll hear their cadences and word frequencies speed up. The adrenaline hits them as well; if not as much as it does the batsmen.
As a teenager I toured Barbados and realised (a) I wasn’t any good anymore and (b) I needed glasses when I heard the ball go past my nose as much as see it. I’ve also been in a net at Gover’s and had the machine cranked up to 90 – but they made sure it was on a different line to me.
So whilst I’ve never faced really express bowling for real, I’ve had enough of a taste to understand the gut churning adrenaline + fear combination it could have on heretofore supreme international sportsmen. We’ve all seen it; where they’ve been completely done for pace. Where a man with such exquisite eye hand co-ordination as David Gower had no answer to Waqar Younis’s inswinging yorker, or Graeme Hick had a tough first series against an attack he’d pasted for Worcs.
All of the above is sort of an introduction as to why I loved the current SA v Aus series. There are two champion fast bowlers that currently deserve to be mentioned with the list above. Dale Steyn has 350 wickets @ 23. That stands the test of time as pretty incredible. Mitch Johnson is in the middle of an incredible purple patch, where he has 9 wickets at 13.14 in his last six Tests. Add in Ryan Harris and Morne Morkel as pretty outstanding No2s (especially Harris) and it’s been pretty special.
The series narrative has been constructed by fast bowling, and the batsmen’s ability to cope with it. We’ve been amazed at Warner and ABdV’s skills, and possibly most important their bottle. They’ve got their head around what has got to be done. Unlike Graeme Smith, who looked pretty much done with cricket at the end. Great player that he has been, I wondered if, and commented on a Guardian over by over, how good he would have been against sustained real pace. Rob Smyth of the Graun suggested that “all players of his generation should have the same asterisk next to their name in Wisden, but he probably would have found a way”. Probably, I reckon.
I don’t think any great batsman can really be great if he hasn’t been through the fire. This is why Viv is the best for me. He took on and played Lillee, Thompson and Imran, three of the fastest ever. Whilst wearing a cap. Christ that man was and remains the epitome of cool. That walk. That voice. Smoky velvet with a razor’ edge. Smokin Joe.
Of course some could handle pace and weren’t great. Two of my favourites, Robin Smith and Alec Stewart averaged big against some very good windies attacks, and Waqar and Wasim, but ran for cover when spinners came on. I’ve seen some great spin v bat confrontations. Particularly Muralitharan v Thorpe one year at the oval. It was compelling. Two great champions.
But i tell you what it wasn’t. Surrey vs Hants, A blazing hot lords Nat West 60 over final. My birthday. Gower was smashed out for pace with a ball none of us could see, and send shivers through the crowd. “Did you see that? That was FAST”. Adults cursed, and boys whistled and we all wished we’d been born with a body that could do that.
For all of Gower’s effortless grace, he was just blown away. Then it was the contest the full house wanted. Waqar vs Smith. First ball was through him with 95 mph in swing . Crowd roared. Second ball, bit of width. Reached the point boundary in about 0.25 of a second. More roars. Then we were on the edges of our seats as the confrontation ebbed and flowed like a boxing match. If I had the time, I’d find the fight that would match it. Perhaps not as great a narrative as; “they told me you were washed up joe”……”they lied” left hook; but it was every bit as epic as the great British middleweight fights of the 90s.
Actually fast bowling and boxing have many similarities. It’s about the fear and overcoming it. Having a strategy but adapting to reality. Being born with a body that can be physically honed to perfection (so not me). Fast twitch muscles and a high pain threshold (nope). And finally both keep us on the edge of our seats, our mouths open in amazement, as we rise to our feet in a moment of communal joy as the in swinging yorker / left hook to the body homes in on its target.
If I could have a life skill, I’d be able to play the piano like marcus roberts, or play soprano sax like Branford Marsalis. But for one afternoon, I’d be a (very white, very South London) version of my beloved Curtly Ambrose.
As a teenage wannabe fast bowler, I had big white sweatbands and a waggle of my wrist pre delivery, that were a direct copy of my favourite bowler. I even copied his response when asked to remove them by a snotty opponent. I beamed him, then knocked out his leg stump with an I swinging Yorker. I wasn’t embarrassed because I was 15, and that’s what Curtly did. Dad wasn’t impressed.
Arise Sir Curtly and other great fast bowlers. May you continue to terrorise batsmen and bring joy to the rest of us.