New golden age of Test quicks is enriching game
Pace stocks have never been so deep as spicy pitches, poor batting and lighter workloads help to create a ‘perfect storm’
In 1957, Harold Macmillan famously said the British had “never had it so good”. You have to go back to those times for when pace bowling aficionados last had it so good.
No pace attack in world cricket today can match that of the West Indies from the late 1970s to the early 1990s for sheer venom. But, the overall quality of global pace bowling has not been as strong as today since the Fifties.
Since the start of 2018, pace bowlers in Test cricket have averaged 26.1 per wicket – the lowest in a three-year block since 1956-58.
The three brilliant pace attacks that have been on display this English summer are a microcosm of the quality, and depth, of Test cricket’s pace stocks. Even during the West Indies heyday, plenty of Tests around the world lacked any standout quicks. But flick on any Test between the nine World Test Championship sides today and, unless it is between Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, viewers will be guaranteed not merely one brilliant fast bowler, but several.
But any acknowledgement that Test cricket is in the midst of boom times for pace bowling must accept that no one would mistake the quality of batting for a golden age.
“If we have a renaissance of fast bowling, I wonder if that has clashed with a not-so-great period of batsmanship,” says Ian Bishop, the former West Indies quick and now a leading commentator. “I believe we are seeing a time where batting is going through a redevelopment and the fast bowlers have come along at the same time and have been excellent. It almost seems like a perfect storm.”
Top-order batsmen have struggled to transfer their white-ball belligerence to the Test arena. In England, there is now a shortage of “top-order batters who are working on four-day skills, judgment around off stump and concentration”, says Mark Ramprakash, the former England Test batsman and batting coach. “This is a global thing because of T20’s see it, hit it, mentality – it has dumbed down batting.”
“Batsmen playing all three formats play more shots,” says Azhar Mahmood, the former Pakistan seamer and bowling coach. “This gives bowlers more chances to get them out.”
Yet batsmen have even become less robust when defending. From 2006-14, Test batsmen were out defending once every 78 balls, according to CricViz; that fell to every 66 balls from 2015-17 and has now slipped to every 54 balls as techniques have become more porous.
Spinners, strikingly, have not benefited from the same trends – the average against spin has been 34.1 since 2018.
A new fallibility among batsmen has coincided with a change in pitches. “I don’t want to see pitches where you can’t get bouncers above waist height,” Steve Harmison lamented a decade ago, railing against “chief executive pitches”.
Such refrains are seldom heard now. Administrators – including in England – have come to recognise that spicy pitches do more for the health of Test cricket than trying to drag out games until day five.
Pace strength is probably the most essential facet of building a Test side to succeed in all climes.
Cricket West Indies introduced bonus points for wickets taken by seamers in domestic cricket and camps for promising quicks.
The central place of pace bowling in Virat Kohli’s India is such that, in their last home Test, India’s quicks shared every wicket for the first time ever at home.
Central contracts have benefited pace bowlers more than any other type of cricketer, ensuring that quicks can adjust their workload so that they peak in Tests. In a Test career mostly played out before central contracts, Darren Gough played 248 first-class games; in a career that has coincided with central contracts, James Anderson has played 251 first-class games – but, so meticulously has his schedule been managed, that Anderson has played 154 Tests to Gough’s 58.
The relative lack of injuries among quicks in recent years suggests that knowledge of the science of pace bowling has also evolved.
The upshot of this new age of bountiful pace bowling has been to enrich the sport.
“Fast bowling has always been a beauty of cricket,” observes Waqar Younis, a pace great himself and now Pakistan’s fast-bowling coach. “It is good for the game that all these fast quality bowlers are coming around.”
Test cricket is a more vibrant, more essentially thrilling spectacle with fast bowling of the sort that England, the West Indies and now Pakistan have provided. And so, for all the fears about Test cricket’s long-term future, the cricket itself has seldom been so compelling.
‘Batting is going through a redevelopment and the fast bowlers have come along and been excellent’