After reading the post below about Jeff Thomson, which was also up at the Guardian bloggers' site, someone - 'TC Tiger' - left an intriguing comment: Were fast bowlers getting slower? TC went on to make the point that if they were, it would run counter to almost all of the rest of sport, in which performance levels ascribe an apparently endless upward curve.
As Thommo proved at lunch, memory is myth, or at least it can be, but through the grimy pixels of '70s TV, and the eyewitness evidence of those who were there, a consensus has emerged. Thomson and Holding were the quickest of their time and almost certainly quicker than anyone bowling today. They were never subject to the same technical and technological scrutiny, so we cannot be sure. They also had moments in the sun denied to some other very fast bowlers: Sylvester Clarke stalked the Oval like Grendel, a brooding outsider with the reputation of a killer. Wayne Daniel sent down lightning bolts at Lord's. Colin Croft was the nastiest, Malcolm Marshall the man with the skills of a surgeon, Ian Bishop, before his injury, was apparently the quickest that Graham Gooch encountered.
But the moments that lodged quick bowling in the contemporary consciousness, that made its legend, were created by Thomson and Holding. The last ten years have seen a revolution in batting technique, the last twenty have spanned the careers of men who hold almost every international record. Batting is hurtling forwards into its new era. On the shoulders of giants like Warne, Murali and Kumble, spin bowling is ferociously inventive and utterly relevant. And as for fielding... well... But quick bowling?
There has always been an element of perception about extreme speed, and it extends into other sports. A pal of mine was a pro tennis player, and he was talking this week about receiving serves of exactly the same speed from different players. Some felt like a 'sting' on the racket, while others hit the strings with unholy weight and were 'painful' to return unless struck absolutely sweetly.
Any batsman could relate to that. The concept of a 'heavy' ball is well established if not perfectly defined. Perhaps it bounces a little more and hits higher than expected on the blade, or maybe it decelerates less than expected off the pitch, but it announces itself one way or the other. Other bowlers are certainly, if imperceptibly, quicker 'through the air', their length usually fuller except for a horrible, skidding shorter delivery.
Holding's action was so pure that he was said to afford the batsman a perfect sightline, the ball visible from the moment his arm began to turn over. Thomson, with the ball drawn behind his back by the huge rotation of his arm, revealed it far later. This too would have had an impact on perception. The very best batsmen interpret a complex set of visual clues during the bowler's approach and delivery stride that act as an advance warning as to length and line. Each encounter between bowler and batsman is entirely individual, internally and externally, mentally and physically.
There are many other variables. the Perth wicket that Thomson bowled on was far different to the one that exists today, similarly Sabina Park used to shine like a dark mirror. The manufacture of balls, the demands of cricket boards and television, the all-round nature of the calendar, the variety of formats, the needs of coaches and teams, the earning potential of players; all mitigate the realities of out-and-out pace.
Modern coaching and sports science is also destructive. Injury prediction is a major part of their work, hence the desire to open up the engine and have a fiddle about. James Anderson and Steve Finn are obvious examples.
T20 cricket suggests that there is a role for a bowler who can produce four overs of extreme pace and go home. Shaun Tate and Lasith Malinga know that. Perhaps they hint at the future. It's not coincidence that their actions echo Jeff Thomson's.
Cricket has its facts and its figures, yet it is a game fired by the imagination. It exists in the mind as much as anywhere else, and as such it is susceptible to the seductions of memory and myth. Thomson and Holding live there. That makes them quicker too.
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