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’

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport / Cricket - By Tim Wig­more

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’

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