There was a time in the 20th century when there were more class fast bowlers in the game of cricket than at any other. Between 1974 and 1994, pacemen emerged in different countries as though they were coming off an assembly line.
It made the game of cricket, which many call boring, an exciting spectacle.
From Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson, to Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Colin Croft, Joel Garner, the late Malcolm Marshall, Imran Khan, Sarfraz Nawaz, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Devon Malcolm, Bob Willis, Ian Botham, Allan Donald, Fanie de Villiers, Richard Hadlee, Courtney Walsh, Curtley Ambrose, Patrick Patterson and Craig McDermott, they were of several different types and temperaments as is to be expected.
But in one aspect they were all the same: they went out aiming to scare the batsmen into getting out and they mostly succeeded. At times, they resorted to verballing the batsmen as when Marshall reportedly told David Boon, “Are you going to get out or do I have to come around the wicket and kill you?”
Since the mid-1990s, the type of fast bowler who has been emerging has changed. There is an obsession with keeping the runs down, something which even started preoccupying the mind of Ambrose, once a bowler who had a deadly yorker that would send the stumps cartwheeling. The new brand of paceman was typified by Glenn McGrath who was overly keen on length and line and bored the hell out of those watching on.
During those two decades, there was every chance that there would be blood on the pitch before the day was out. After that, it became much less common.
True, since then we have seen the death of a batsman, Phillip Hughes, in first-class cricket in 2014, but that was due to an inadvertent accident rather than deliberate targeting by a bowler. It wasn’t a case of a bowler like Croft, an unpleasant man, who wouldn’t bother going over the wicket at all, but would come around the wicket right from the start of his spell. No, the man who caused Hughes’ death was Sean Abbott, not even one who bowls express pace, and one yet to ascend to the national ranks. A helmet with a flap at the back to protect Hughes’ neck would probably have saved him.
Where once the crowd looked for a particular paceman to come on and excite them, these days there are mostly yawns. And that’s because there is little to rouse the passions of those in the stands. The batsmen don’t need the kind of skills or bravery that players like Brian Close showed; on more than one occasion, the Englishman took repeated blows on the body in order to ensure that he did not lose his wicket.
These days, fast bowlers do not know how to get the ball to come up to the ribcage or chest and frighten the hell out of batsmen. There is a bunch of commentators who keep jabbering on about the speed of each ball, but when the bowler chooses to go past the off-stump or only focuses on keeping the runs down, what is the point? During the Ashes in 2019, there was much excitement when Jamaican-born Jofra Archer pinged Steve Smith on the noggin, flooring the Australian and ensuring that he would have to miss the next Test. But such occurrences are the exception, never the rule.
There were any number of spells bowled by pacemen in those 20 years which can be described as hostile. But since then, the cricket field has become a sedate place, where one is expected to be a gentleman, never a fierce competitor like Lillee, who once aimed a kick at the backside of Pakistan’s Javed Miandad. The latter charged down and tried to belt the moustachioed Australian with his bat. Oh, for a scene like that when Australia next plays a Test at home.
Things have got to the point that a few bouncers bowled during the first Test of the ongoing series resulted in the media resort to using the word “bodyline”. Yes, seriously! And we are talking here of bowlers like Tim Southee and Neil Wagner, more school teacher types, and hardly the sort to inspire fear in even a college XI. There is just one word for this: exaggeration.
This does not mean that bowlers cannot do their jobs well. No, they are efficient at winning games for their countries. Men like Mitchell Starc, Patrick Cummins and Jaspreet Bumrah take plenty of wickets and give Australia and India respectively an advantage. But it all ends there. You wouldn’t go to a ground specifically because one of them was going to figure in a game. On the other hand, it was well worth a trip to the ground to watch Holding skim over the surface with the grace of a ballet dancer, en route to creating havoc at the other end. The umpire hardly heard a sound as the man known as Whispering Death reached the crease and delivered the ball in one smooth motion.
So is cricket a better game today than it was in the 1970s, 1980s or 1990s? Most certainly not. There are a lot of international games, in all three formats. But it has become overly skewed in favour of the batsmen, to the extent that Australia even went to the extent of using sandpaper to roughen the ball in 2018 to try and get an advantage during a Test series against South Africa. Captain Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft spent some time away from the game for creating what came to be known as Sandpapergate.
I guess one has to be resigned to the placid spectacle. There is more than a little effort directed towards trying to hype things up by means of sound, colour and spectacle at the various grounds. But nothing will ever substitute for the sight of a Thomson thundering up to the crease, flinging his head back and hurling a projectile at some quivering batsmen 22 yards away. There was something earthy and primitive about it. Cricket is now too corporatised for there to ever be another Jeff Thomson.