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The beauty of pace

By BY Tony Cozier

AS Morne Morkel, South Africa’s towering fast bowler, peppered Australia’s captain Michael Clarke with an unrelenting bombardment of distinctly fast short-pitched bowling from round the wicket, the crowd at the picturesque Newlands ground in Cape Town for the opening day of the deciding Test of the three match series bayed for more. 

On television, Tom Moody, an Australian Test player of the previous era, compared the atmosphere to what it might have been in the Coliseum as the gladiators were pitted against the lions in Roman times. 

It was brutal. Clarke took fearsome blows to the body, the forearm and helmet as fielders clustered within sledging distance, waiting for the catch that wouldn’t come. The Australians were fighting not only Morkel but his lack of form since last summer’s Ashes Tour in England. 

Unlike Roberto Duran in his unforgettable 1980 return bout with Sugar Ray Leonard, Clarke did not plead “no mas”. He might have, after one crack on the left forearm that was immediately swollen like Duran’s eyebrows that night. After the team physio strapped it up, Clarke carried on; Australians pride themselves on their toughness. 

Michael Holding, alongside Moody observing the confrontation from the commentary box, recalled the days when he was an integral part of the West Indies fast quartet that dished out the same treatment to opposing batsmen and the bitter criticism, mainly from the English media, they endured because of it.

“I’m happy to now see that people are appreciating fast bowling,” he said. There was an unmistakable sense of vindication in his words.

David Frith, in his time editor of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack as well as Wisden’s monthly magazine, was the flag bearer of those disparaging the dominance of the West Indies’ fast bowlers. He wrote that West Indies’ unparalleled supremacy in the 1980s was “founded on vengeance and violence, fringed with arrogance”. He charged that the captain, Clive Lloyd, “changed the shape and the flavour of West Indian cricket by his strategy of mass bombardment”.  

Frith’s stance, generally supported in England, prompted the addition of two pertinent regulations by the ICC.

It limited bouncers to one an over (subsequently increased to two) and mandated a minimum of 90 overs for a day’s play. It didn’t require a suspicious mind to know at whom the changes were aimed. 

Imran Khan, Pakistan’s captain at the time and a mighty all-rounder capable of speed in the high 80s mph, saw them as “harmful for cricket”.

“England and Australia have been through a phase where they were being thrashed by the West Indies,” he said. “Instead of being fair about it and trying to beat them on their own terms, they are trying to handicap them.”

Wasim Akram felt it was to protect England’s batsmen.  

There has been no such carping this time, only praise for Morkel, Steyn and Johnson.

Michael Atherton, who had to deal with Curtly Ambrose (since Friday Sir Curtly) and Courtney Walsh as England opener, was positively joyful at the emergence of the new breed of fast men.

In his column in The Times newspaper of which he is now the cricket correspondent, Atherton wrote: “For too long, the game has been bound by the false notion that the most interesting spectacle is big hitting. The move to Twenty20 and shorter boundaries is based on the premise that six-hitting will attract the audience and grow the game.” 

He continued: “We have been looking in the wrong direction: fast bowling--and by that we mean genuinely fast bowling--has always been the game’s most prized asset and its most compelling sight. Six-hitting is common; fast bowling rare and, as we have seen lately, devastatingly beautiful.” 

“Devastatingly beautiful” were two words that never entered the opinions of Frith and the others so strongly against the West Indies fast bowling of the Eighties. 

Holding’s take on the 90-overs-a-day rule, supposedly brought in to further thwart the West Indies strength, was simple.

“It’s the quality of the cricket, not the number of overs, that attracts the crowd,” he reasoned.

He needed only to refer to the 85,000 plus that turned out for a day’s play in the Boxing Day Test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in 1984 or the money collected through the turnstiles at every venue where the West Indies played to emphasise his point.

Morkel and Dale Steyn, his partner in pace, have been largely responsible for South Africa’s position as the International Cricket Council’s top ranked team. Mitchell Johnson’s similar high octane aggression was the principal cause of Australia’s 5-0 thrashing of England in the recent Ashes.  

All are capable of over 150 kilometres an hour (93 miles an hour) speed. With the height of the West Indian giant of Holding’s time, Joel Garner, Morkel adds the dimension of steep bounce to his menace; Johnson’s slinging left-arm over the wicket method psychologically wrecked England’s batsmen. 

All are supported by fast men of quality--Morkel and Steyn by Vernon Philander, Johnson by Ryan Harris and Peter Siddle. 

They have followed the path trodden by Harold Larwood, who undermined Australia’s batting in the 1932-33 Ashes series that came to be known as the “Bodyline Series”, by England’s Frank Tyson, Fred Trueman and Brian Statham, by the Australians Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller and, in more recent times, Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson, by the Pakistanis Imran Khan, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis.

Imran’s simple reasoning is that, like everything else, “the balance redresses itself in time”.

There are no signs that the balance will shift back to the West Indies in the foreseeable future. Now South Africa and Australia have the big guns making fast bowling devastatingly beautiful once more.

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