The relative speeds of fast bowlers today and in the past is a perennial subject to which England batsman Alastair Cook recently gave fresh legs. He claimed that pace bowlers playing now every bit as fearsome as those in the early 1990s when the likes of Waqur Younis, Wazim Akram, Walsh and Ambrose, Bishop and Donald were around (
). Cook also contends that the bowlers of today must be quicker because in all other sports athletes have become fitter and faster (
As someone who has been watching first class cricket since the mid 1950s I would profoundly disagree with the contention that modern bowlers are bowlers are faster than those in the past and would go further and say that there is no Test bowler today who is of extreme pace. That is arguably a unique situation because until now every decade of Test cricket has been able to furnish examples of such bowlers.
The improvement of athletic disciplines argument does not stand scrutiny. It may be true that in pure athletic activities such as running and jumping improvements occur simply through more efficient training routines, although even there the qualification of improved tracks and running equipment is responsible for a significant part of it. There is also the shadow of performance enhancing drugs which probably were and are widely used. Moreover, athletics was amateur until a generation ago. It would be expected that full-time professionals would substantially improve on their amateur predecessors. The British Olympic sprinter Peter Radford , who won a bronze medal in the 1960 100 metres, has written interestingly on the standard of athletic performance before organised amateur athletics arose in the 19th century. He makes a persuasive case that the athletic feats of the 18th century - invariably achieved by professional athletes – may well have exceeded the performances of the organised amateur era until well into the twentieth century (
). It is also debatable whether faster is always better in the case of ball games. For example, Premier League football is very fast but is it better football than the slower football of the past when there was more dribbling and the ball was given away far less?
It is also debatable whether faster is always better in the case of ball games. For example, Premier League football is very fast but is it better football than the slower football of the past when there was more dribbling and the ball was given away far less?
Where bowling is concerned there is no improved equipment involved and full-time professionalism in cricket has been established for over a century and a half. Despite extensive testing in recent years drugs have rarely been discovered amongst first class cricketers. Nor is it easy to see how drugs would enhance a bowler’s speed. It is true that a steroids might build muscle, but bowling fast is not a matter of strength. Fast bowlers come in all shapes and sizes from the pint-sized Aborigine Eddie Gilbert in the 1930s – probably the man who bowled genuinely fast with the least physical resources – to giants such as Ambrose. Not only that but fast bowling methods vary enormously. Fast bowlers fall into two broad categories, the sprinters who get their pace from a fast, often long runup such as, Larwood or Hall and the strength bowlers such as Sylvester Clarke or Wayne Daniel. Actions can be divided into the side-on and the chest-on but there is far more variation than that. Get on YouTube and compare the difference between two side-on bowlers such as Jeff Thompson and Fred Trueman or two front-on bowlers, for example Bob Willis and Brian Statham. In short, fast bowling is such an individual matter that it cannot be meaningfully taught and attempts to “improve” actions can easily ruin a bowler vide James Anderson’s travails after the England coaching staff changed his action.
As for my personal witness of many bowlers over more than half a century, the obvious objection is that until the past twenty years or so there was little attempt to objectively measure the pace of bowlers. The advent of systems such as the radar gun and Hawk-eye then made measurement routine in international matches. Interestingly, the measurement of fast bowling over the past twenty years supports the idea that fast bowlers of today are certainly no faster than they were twenty years ago – which supports the idea that pace has not improved over a generation – and may suggest that present day fast bowlers have gone back on the pace scale because there is no one as today recorded as fast, either on individual balls or generally as Shoaib Akhtar or Allan Donald.
There are really two classes of fast bowler, fast and express. The fast bowler is someone like Finn or Statham: the express bowler a Tyson or a Holding. There are no bowlers currently playing whom I would class as express, but quite a few who would fall into the classification of fast. It is of course important to remember that fast bowlers do not maintain their pace throughout their careers or even for much of their careers. A good example is Dennis Lillee who was a genuine express when he visited England in 1972 but significantly slower afterwards as injury took its toll.
Before I was 15 I had seen Tyson, Trueman, Statham, Adcock, Lindwall, Miller, Davidson, Gilchrist, in action. I will not offer a certain judgement on their pace because a child, even in his early teens, is not a reliable witness to a bowler’s speed. However, I can offer an impressionistic memory of these players. Trueman, Adcock and Gilchrist struck me as magically quick, but Tyson was something else. I saw him bowl often and he invariably produced a response from the crowd I have heard no other bowler ever do: a regular shocked astonished gasp. I suspect he was the fastest bowler I have ever seen. Lindwall and Miller were of course near the end of their careers.
By 15 someone is in a position to make an adult judgement. I reached that age in 1963. Since then I would place these Test bowlers as fast at some time in their careers:
Trueman (bear in mind he was past 30 then), David Larter, Jeff Jones, John Snow, Statham (he maintained his pace well into his thirties) Ken Shuttleworth, Peter Lever, Bob Willis, Graham Dilley, David Lawrence, Darren Gough, Andrew Flintoff, Steve Harmison, Alan Pascoe, Rodney Hogg, Alan Hurst, Geoff Lawson, Craig McDermot, Merv Hughes, Jason Gillespie, Mike Procter, Dale Stein, Joel Garner, Colin Croft, Curtley Ambrose, Courtney Walsh, Kemar Roach, Dick Motz, Richard Hadlee, Wazim Akram.
and these as express in at least part of their careers:
Alan Ward, Devon Malcolm, Jeff Thompson, Dennis Lillee, Brett Lee, Wes Hall, Charlie Griffith, Andy Roberts, Wayne Daniel, Malcolm Marshall, Michael Holding, Marshall, Patrick Paterson, Ian Bishop, Peter Pollock, Allan Donald, Shane Bond, Imran Khan, Waqar Younis, Shoaib Akhtar.
One other thing needs to be taken into account. Until the reform of the no-ball law in the 1960s which replaced the back-foot law with the front-foot law, pace bowlers could quite legitimately bowl from significantly closer to the batsman. Any pace bowler could easily gain 18 inches beyond what is permitted today and some bowlers by the practice of dragging gained three feet. A yard closer to the batsman makes a significant difference to the reaction time available to the batsman.
Genuine fast bowlers like elephants are difficult to describe but you know when you have seen one. Perhaps the most telling sign is a top class batsman playing much more deliberately than usual. I am constantly reading or hearing that X or Y bowls at 90+ yet when I see them in the flesh they do not strike me as express. I have not seen a bowler new to first class cricket who struck me as extreme in pace in the past ten years. Finn is the probably the fastest bowler regularly playing county cricket, but his pace at best is no more than that of David Larter of Northants and England from the 1960s, a bowler Finn much resembles in physique and method.
As for the claim that the average pace of bowling is faster today because players are fitter and can sustain their pace for longer I have my doubts on that score. Of those modern bowlers who are claimed to be fast such as Stuart Meaker, when I have seen them they bowl the odd fast ball but for the most part are fast medium. The modern pace bowler’s proneness to injury also argues against a higher average speed because they so often carry an injury.
Johnny Bairstow displayed some uncertainty against Kemar Roach’s fast bowling in the recent Tests against the West Indies. This has been ascribed to a lack of genuine fast – and the extinction of express - bowling in county cricket these days. There may be something in this because there are few bowlers in county cricket even of Finn’s pace. This was not so in the past. For example, in the 1960s there were many bowlers who played little or no Test cricket who were at least as fast as Finn. In 1965 county batsmen Harold Rhodes, Jeff Jones, Butch White, Bob Cottam (fast when he first appeared), Alan Brown, David Sayer, Ken Shuttleworth, Peter Lever, John Price, David Larter, John Cotton, Fred Rumsey and Geoff Hall They were in addition to Snow, Statham and Trueman, the latter two being still able to bowl a fast opening spell – I saw Trueman knock Mickey Stewart’s bat out of his hands twice in an opening spell very late in Trueman’s career – if unable to sustain their pace throughout the day.
Steve James writing in the Telegraph lists the current bowlers who have clocked 90 mph or better “at the National Cricket Performance Centre in Loughborough, using their own testing equipment, there is a list of current fast bowlers who have been clocked at 90mph (not that Roach was bowling at that pace; he was only at about 87mph at best). It includes those who have been picked by England, such as Broad, James Anderson, Graham Onions, Stuart Meaker, Steven Finn, Chris Tremlett, Jade Dernbach, Ajmal Shahzad, Liam Plunkett, Sajid Mahmood, Steve Harmison, Simon Jones and Amjad Khan, as well as others such as Mills, James Anyon (Sussex), Mark Footitt (Derbyshire), Boyd Rankin, Chris Wright (both Warwickshire), David Griffiths (Hampshire) and Matthew Dunn (Surrey). Another Surrey youngster, George Edwards, is close, as is Kent’s Matt Coles.” (
). It is one thing to achieve such a pace occasionally in practice, quite another to do it in match conditions and do it consistently. I would also question 90 mph as the benchmark for fast bowlers and the measurement of pace by modern methods. If the likes of Meaker and Finn are bowling at 92 04 93 mph, the likes of Hall, Holding and Marshall must have regularly bowled at 97-100 mph because the difference in their speed compared with Meaker and Finn is the difference between a regulation fast medium bowler delivering at around 80 mph and Meaker and Finn at their fastest.
Why have fast bowlers largely gone out of fashion and genuine expresses giving a good impression of an extinct species? A case might be made for modern pitches, especially Test pitches, being on average much slower and less bouncy than those of yesteryear, the ever increasing protective equipment and the tighter restrictions on short pitched bowling. But probably the most likely explanation is the introduction of central contracts and the ever swelling international calendar. In terms of overs, bowlers do not play more than they did fifty years ago and in most cases less even if all the limited overs cricket is added to the first class cricket, but they do have a travel burden much greater than previous generations of professional cricketers. The increasingly harum scarum fixture list has the effect of fast bowlers being not overbowled but underbowled . This, together with injuries resulting from fast bowlers being asked to throw themselves around in the field in a manner which would have been deemed unseemly by earlier generations of quick bowlers, makes them generally less fit to bowl than previous generations. Note that I don’t say less fit in the athletic sense but fit to bowl. There is a difference. Bowlers get fit to bowl by bowling not running for miles or lifting weights.
Can it ever be shown objectively what the speeds of bowlers in the past were? It might be possible to calculate speeds from pre-Hawkeye era footage (from 1990 onwards) and then use the same technique for footage from the Hawyeye-era where a speed has been calculated using modern methods. That would both serve as a check on the accuracy
of modern methods and give a reference point for bowlers from all
periods for which film exists of sufficient speed to give a realistic
representation of the action. All that needs to be done to be done is
to measure the time of the ball in the air from, say, leaving the
hand to pitching and the distance covered – its line of trajectory not the distance down the pitch – to the ball pitching. Taking the measurement at pitching might remove biases from short and fuller length balls and short and taller bowlers.