Thursday, 27 June 2013

Are fast bowlers getting slower?

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.


Sumit Chakraberty said...

It's possible that because of protective gear and the nature of pitches, speed has lost its sting. Lasith Malinga too relies on variation to succeed, and Shaun Tait is a failure because he seems unable to do that. Maybe that's not such a bad thing, anyway. Subtlety is cricket's selling point, not raw power. - Cricketkeeper

alanmcl said...

I think the quick bowlers of old wouldn't have held a candle to modern ones. Pitches are truer, batsmen have helmets and high definition video and the crowded international calendar have demystified both bowlers and batsmen.

Thommo and Holding transported to today's cricket would be less fit and athletic versions of Shaun Tait and Kemar Roach. Mitchell Johnson and Tino Best transported back to an era of uncovered pitches and unprotected batsmen would be legendary forces of destruction, not to mention extraordinary fielders and athletes.

Coaches are better, athletes are better, skills are better. This is the reality, but you won't hear anyone admitting it.

Anonymous said...

Apart from cricket, I follow baseball quite avidly. I think a few parallels could be drawn between the two.

Let's take a speed. Say 90 mph, quite common among baseball pitchers. This velocity could be used in a 'variety' of pitches. E.g a 4 seam fastball. This is, in a nutshell, a fast bullet approaching a batsman with little or no lateral movement. It's a good old 'here's how hard i can throw-let's see if you can hit it or not' situation.

On the other hand, one could also throw a 90 mph 2 seam fastball. This is different because the ball is held differently and the Magnus effect that comes into play due to the seam part and non-seam part of the ball rotating and getting exposed to ambient air. The way a 2 seam fastball is pitched, there is more lateral movement. Which is also why it is harder to control.

The impact of these two balls (assuming they hit the same spot on the bat) on the bat swung by a hitter in an identical manner for the sake of discussion)would be different. The 2-seam ball would seem a bit more heavier.

Since cricket ball also has a seam and speeds such as 85-90mph are not uncommon, such phenomena could explain why the same velocity from different bowlers appear different. Of course, there is a difference of the ball not making any contact with the ground in baseball.

Also, the way velocity is measured is another factor. One typically uses a radar. It's a 'point measurement', if i recall correctly. This means that the velocity is measured at a certain moment. So clearly, the true velocity of the ball, say after it hits the ground and other nuances might be missed at times with a radar, as things now depend on how it is placed. Also, additional subtleties such as what happens to the ball after hitting the ground could also be missed in this quest for measuring the velocity accurately.

Next comes the 'mind games' part of it. As you rightly mentioned, some folks appear quicker since it is tough to locate the ball when they release it. The reaction time for a batsman/hitter, already quite small, is reduced even further. Naturally, these folks will 'appear' quicker.

So yes, I agree with you that quite a bit has to do with the mind but I am not sure if folks are getting slower today. Steyn, Brett Lee, Shoaib Akhtar, Shane Bond belong to a different era than Thommo, Holding, Croft etc. and they are pretty darn quick :)

Nice post and thanks for triggering a healthy discussion.


Brian Carpenter said...

Superb as ever, Jon, but it was Patrick Patterson (specifically at Kingston, 1986) whom Gooch has always described as the fastest bowler he ever faced.

He may have said something similar about Bishop, although my own memory of early Bishop has him as fast but not frighteningly so. Post-injury he became a classy swing bowler on the very sharp side of fast-medium.

Cricket Passion said...

Hello, Thanks for picking up very nice topic for blogging and I totally agree with you & at the same point very disappointed with current cricket trends.
It is true that nowadays speed and accuracy of fast bowlers are compromised like anything.
There are several points:
(A) As Asian cricket is dominating on International cricket so dominance of spinner on fast bowler will come into picture, it is quite obvious.
(B) Australia, England and West indies are the traditionally known as factory of fast bowler but somehow they are fail to produced quality fast bowlers.
(C) In Last 3-5 Years, Batsman are glorified like anything so there is no room for fast bowler to register there presence.
(D) Finally, we all as audition love cricket game where batsman blast on bowlers ,somehow we forgot the old memories of Fast Bowlers like Holding , Marshal and many mores.

Roller Press said...

I feel that bowlers are really have a great pace.
Veneer Pressing Machine

John Halliwell said...

Are they getting slower? I suspect you provide a pretty accurate assessment in that seventh para., OB.

I've just received a copy of 'Harold Larwood' by Duncan Hamilton, and this Australian music hall ditty from around 1933 caught my eye. How fast was Larwood when compared to Holding and Thomson? I guess we'll never know but by contemporary accounts he must have been up there with them:

'Now this new kind of cricket
Takes courage to stick it,
There's bruises and fractures galore.
After kissing their wives
And insuring their lives,
Batsmen fearfully walk out to score.
With a prayer and a curse
They prepare for the hearse,
Undertakers look on with broad grins.
Oh, they'd be a lot calmer,
In Ned Kelly's armour,
When Larwood, the wreaker begins.'

I wonder how much competition between bowlers drives up the pace? McDonald and Gregory, Larwood and Voce, Lindwall and Miller, Trueman and Tyson, Hall and Griffith, Lillee and Thomson, Akram and Younis, and that battery of ferocious 1970s/80s West Indians. Is it significant that John Snow, great bowler that he was, had no-one in England to act as a spur; he was alone in terms of raw speed? I occasionally revisit John Arlott's biography of F S Trueman and in Chapter 8: Gathering Strength, Arlott captures the great rivalry between Trueman and Tyson:

'Trueman knew well his main rivals and for several years he regarded every Yorkshire-Northants match as a personal contest between himself and Frank Tyson, whose description as the fastest bowler in the world he regarded as an affront. It was not simply a matter of impressing the (England) selectors, but of self-esteem. On this issue Godfrey Evans, who kept wicket to both of them at all points of their careers, says positively that, on the issue of pace alone, Tyson, in the period from 1954 until he damaged his heel in 1956, bowled faster than Trueman did at any time. He adds that in other respects, Trueman might be Tyson's superior; speed is not the criterion - except to fast bowlers.'