Martin Johnson column – Pace… it’s what we all want to see in the game

As I looked up to see one of the world’s deadliest fast bowlers about to enter his delivery stride, I remembered the advice of my old school cricket master. “When you’re up against extreme pace, it’s important to think only positive thoughts” he said. And so I followed his advice to the letter.  “If this means I end up plopping my teeth into a glass before going to bed every night” I said to myself, “at least it will put an end to all that tiresome flossing.”

I hadn’t been expecting to face Whispering Death, who’d been persuaded by my so-called mates to switch nets when the touring West Indians – over in Australia for a triangular one-day series – and the English media team preparing for the hack’s equivalent of the Ashes, found themselves sharing a practice session in Perth.

Thankfully, the bowler took pity on me by replicating one of the Daily Express man’s non-spinning donkey drops I’d been gorging on for the previous half an hour, but needless to say, I’ve bored many a dinner companion with the story of the day I faced Michael Holding on the world’s bounciest pitch and creamed him through the covers for four.

There is nothing quite like the sight of a fast bowler in full cry, assuming of course that you’re sitting 100 yards away in the safety of the Compton Stand tucking into a chicken leg and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, rather than 22 yards away quivering underneath a helmet.

We can all admire the surgical skills of a Jimmy Anderson, moving the ball wickedly late to induce an outside edge to slip, or the snake charmer guile of an double-jointed oriental twirly man, making the ball bite, leap and turn past a groping forward defensive.

But there’s something primeval about the genuine fast bowler, and nothing quite compares to the uniquely gladiatorial atmosphere generated by watching a batsman having nothing but a four-inch wide piece of wood with which to defend his stumps, his toes, and his nose from an extremely hard missile coming at him from upwards of 95mph. Which is why it’s a shame the South African’s will be without Dale Steyn this summer, and why everyone – with the exception of England’s batsmen – will be hoping that the 22-year-old Kagiso Rabada can make the step up, as many sound judges predict, to team enforcer.

It might be asking a bit much for, say, a Cook versus Rabada contest to be as gripping as the Atherton versus Donald encounters that were once a feature of England-South Africa Test matches, but if we can get anywhere close, even the corporates might push the smoked salmon to one side and come out onto the balcony to watch.

There have been many memorable batsman-fast bowler confrontations in recent memory, a fair number of them involving Atherton. Maybe it was his habit of giving the bowler a confrontational stare after a delivery that’s just fizzed past his helmet grille. It wasn’t only Donald who sprouted a pair of horns after the Atherton glare, but it put another 10mph onto the likes of Courtney Walsh and Wasim Akram as well.

Fast bowlers (and we’re talking properly fast here, and not medium pacers who can slip in the odd quick one from time to time) don’t come along that often, mostly because it’s clearly not that easy to propel a cricket ball for any meaningful length of time at warp factor speeds. And even those who have the ability to bowl fast don’t always have the radar to go with it. This summer’s TV promotion will doubtless figure footage of Devon Malcolm cleaning up the South Africans with his 9 for 57 at the Oval in 1994, but no-one was in greater danger of copping one in the head when Dev was bowling than his own short-leg fielder.

Another reason genuine home-grown fast bowlers are relatively few and far between is that English conditions, as a general rule, favour either swing, or medium-paced seam. Dibbly dobblers, as the latter used to be called, and who were once so boringly dominant in English domestic cricket that Ted Dexter – shortly before becoming chairman of selectors in the late 1980s – launched a find-a-fast-bowler campaign.

Ted’s idea, having secured the sponsorship of a Yorkshire brewery,

was to send out application forms to the nation’s pubs inviting budding fast bowlers to send them off to Lord’s. Amazingly, no-one stopped to think that all these forms would be getting filled in at round about 11 o’clock at night by patrons of establishments called the ‘Dog and Partridge’, and who, with ten pints of Old Dogbolter safely down the hatch, imagined themselves to be a combination of Larwood, Tyson and Trueman rolled into one.

There was also a period in English cricket when it was thought that all budding fast bowlers worked down a pit, and that the Test and County Cricket Board should have appointed Arthur Scargill as chief scout.  Sadly, though, it’s been a long time since England produced a fast bowler either straight out of the pub or straight off a night shift.

The glamour involved in being a fast bowler has persuaded many a player into deluding themselves that they are quicker than they actually are, and back in the 1980s there was always entertainment to be had at Grace Road when Gordon Parsons was steaming in for Leicestershire.

Gordon had a run-up which, when operating from his customary pavilion end, fulfilled at least one aspect of Ted’s scheme by starting from somewhere in the region of the members’ bar. It was a terrifying blur of arms and legs, and the fact that the ball then came out at such a leisurely pace that Gordon almost overtook it, didn’t persuade him to stick to what he was actually very good at. Which was swinging it late at a brisk, but not very macho, medium pace.

Many aspire to bowl fast, but few succeed. The only other bowler I saw with a similar discrepancy between length of run-up and velocity of delivery was an Australian club cricketer called Norman ‘Stormy’ Gale, who once opened the bowling for a Western Australian Country XI against England in Kalgoorlie. Or he would have done, had he not fallen over in his delivery stride and been carried off.

This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, May 26 2017

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