Thursday, 27 June 2013

Are fast bowlers getting slower?

After reading the post below about Jeff Thomson, which was also up at the Guardian bloggers' site, someone - 'TC Tiger' - left an intriguing comment: Were fast bowlers getting slower? TC went on to make the point that if they were, it would run counter to almost all of the rest of sport, in which performance levels ascribe an apparently endless upward curve.

As Thommo proved at lunch, memory is myth, or at least it can be, but through the grimy pixels of '70s TV, and the eyewitness evidence of those who were there, a consensus has emerged. Thomson and Holding were the quickest of their time and almost certainly quicker than anyone bowling today. They were never subject to the same technical and technological scrutiny, so we cannot be sure. They also had moments in the sun denied to some other very fast bowlers: Sylvester Clarke stalked the Oval like Grendel, a brooding outsider with the reputation of a killer. Wayne Daniel sent down lightning bolts at Lord's. Colin Croft was the nastiest, Malcolm Marshall the man with the skills of a surgeon, Ian Bishop, before his injury, was apparently the quickest that Graham Gooch encountered.

But the moments that lodged quick bowling in the contemporary consciousness, that made its legend, were created by Thomson and Holding. The last ten years have seen a revolution in batting technique, the last twenty have spanned the careers of men who hold almost every international record. Batting is hurtling forwards into its new era. On the shoulders of giants like Warne, Murali and Kumble, spin bowling is ferociously inventive and utterly relevant. And as for fielding... well... But quick bowling?

There has always been an element of perception about extreme speed, and it extends into other sports. A pal of mine was a pro tennis player, and he was talking this week about receiving serves of exactly the same speed from different players. Some felt like a 'sting' on the racket, while others hit the strings with unholy weight and were 'painful' to return unless struck absolutely sweetly.

Any batsman could relate to that. The concept of a 'heavy' ball is well established if not perfectly defined. Perhaps it bounces a little more and hits higher than expected on the blade, or maybe it decelerates less than expected off the pitch, but it announces itself one way or the other. Other bowlers are certainly, if imperceptibly, quicker 'through the air', their length usually fuller except for a horrible, skidding shorter delivery.

Holding's action was so pure that he was said to afford the batsman a perfect sightline, the ball visible from the moment his arm began to turn over. Thomson, with the ball drawn behind his back by the huge rotation of his arm, revealed it far later. This too would have had an impact on perception. The very best batsmen interpret a complex set of visual clues during the bowler's approach and delivery stride that act as an advance warning as to length and line. Each encounter between bowler and batsman is entirely individual, internally and externally, mentally and physically.

There are many other variables. the Perth wicket that Thomson bowled on was far different to the one that exists today, similarly Sabina Park used to shine like a dark mirror. The manufacture of balls, the demands of cricket boards and television, the all-round nature of the calendar, the variety of formats, the needs of coaches and teams, the earning potential of players; all mitigate the realities of out-and-out pace.

Modern coaching and sports science is also destructive. Injury prediction is a major part of their work, hence the desire to open up the engine and have a fiddle about. James Anderson and Steve Finn are obvious examples.

T20 cricket suggests that there is a role for a bowler who can produce four overs of extreme pace and go home. Shaun Tate and Lasith Malinga know that. Perhaps they hint at the future. It's not coincidence that their actions echo Jeff Thomson's.

Cricket has its facts and its figures, yet it is a game fired by the imagination. It exists in the mind as much as anywhere else, and as such it is susceptible to the seductions of memory and myth. Thomson and Holding live there. That makes them quicker too.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Thommo at lunch

It was a few hours after David Warner had taken a swing at Joe Root in a Birmingham bar, and Jeff Thomson was standing in a marquee full of people with a microphone in his hand. We were there to play six a side cricket, but the rain was coming down and the buffet was excellent, so Thommo had a full house.

He was wearing the hooray uniform of red jeans and a blue blazer; set upon his broad shoulders and pipecleaner legs it made him look like the kind of guy who joins a soap opera and makes off with the unsuspecting widow's money.

Next to Thommo was David Steele,  the bank clerk who went to war and spent consecutive summers defying the pace attacks of Australia and West Indies. They fell quickly into type. Thommo stood with one hand in the pocket of his red jeans looking out across the room, while Steele managed to turn off two microphones as he was talking; interrupting his own gentle anecdotes about getting lost in the Lord's Pavilion, and being paid in lamb chops for every run he scored by a local butcher.

Thommo by contrast told a single story ('I haven't done this one for a while...' ) which was about the dismissal of Keith Fletcher at Sydney in 1975.

'Me and Dennis had a plan,' he began, 'which was to kill the pricks. A couple of them had already gone to the hospital. A wicket goes down and out comes this little prick Fletcher ('prick', it quickly became apparent, was a term of some endearment to Thommo, and he used it gently, almost with fondness). 'Now the Pavilion at Sydney is at square leg and Dennis is fielding at third man. I'm at the end of my run and I'm ready to kill the prick you know. But Dennis comes running over from third man all the way to square leg and starts abusing Fletcher. I'm getting mad with Dennis because I'm ready you know. I'm warm and it's coming out well....'

'Then Dennis comes running over to me. 'I'm like, yeah Dennis, I know the plan. Kill him...'

'Yeah,' says Dennis. 'But I really want you to kill this little prick...' Then he ran back down to third man. Anyway, first ball, too high. Next ball, adjust the radar... bang... hits him right in the middle of the forehead. Absolutely smack in the middle. I go down to have a look at him and he's got the most perfect six stitch-marks...'

Thommo pointed to the spot on his own forehead, and paused for a second, a faraway look in his eyes. He was transporting himself. 'The physio comes on, Bernie Thomas he was called. Fletcher's staggering all over the place, he can't see straight. Someone says, 'He'll have to go off...' and Bernie says, 'he can't we've already got two in the hospital...' So Bernie pushes him back to the crease...'

He mimed Bernie Thomas positioning Fletcher into his stance. By now, Thommo was wiping tears of mirth from his eyes. Everyone in the tent was enjoying the story, and more than that, they were enjoying Thommo's enjoyment of it. He paused.

'So I go back...' He wiped his eyes again. 'I go back and you know next ball, BLAM, stumps all over the place. 'Off you go you little prick...' I'm saying, and then, here comes Dennis, all the way back up from third man, just to abuse him again as he goes off...'

By now, Thommo was rocking back on his heels and dabbing at his eyes. 'Ah bloody hell...' he said. 'That's what happened, straight up. I haven't told that one for a while, I really haven't.'

He and Steele were applauded warmly as they returned to their seats, and Thommo was an equitable presence for the rest of the afternoon. Once the rain had blown through, he stood on the boundary holding a bottle of beer, talking to his mates and having his picture taken. During the talk, David Steele had said: 'I liked facing fast bowling, I liked the challenge of it. Let me tell you, I faced them all, and this man Jeff Thomson was the quickest.'

I thought about that as I watched Thommo. He represented something: a game and a country now gone but sweet in the memory. Had the incident with Fletcher happened that day on the ground right in front of us, it would have been impossible to describe it as he had done. It was only funny now, all of this time later, when the blood and the battle had receded. By coincidence, while I was driving home, Andrew Flintoff was interviewing Geoffrey Boycott on the radio about his Ashes memories. Flintoff asked him about the fastest bowlers he'd faced and Boycott said immediately, 'Thomson and Holding. For pure pace, they were the quickest.'

I wanted to find out how true Thommo's story was, so I looked up the game on cricinfo. There it was, Test match number 751, Australia versus England at the SCG, fourth Test, 4-9 January 1975. Australia won by 175 runs, JR Thomson 4-74 and then, coincidentally, 2-74 in the second innings.

The Almanack reported: 'On the last day the demoralising effect of Thomson and Lillee was never more apparent. From 68 for no wicket in the 16th over, the score became 74 for three in the 22nd with Edrich on his way to hospital after being hit below the rib-cage first ball by a Lillee skidder...'

Yet the pitch was slow, and batting easy enough for Bob Willis to survive for 88 minutes, and Geoff Arnold 35; the Almanack left its readers in no doubt that more application was required from England's batsmen. 

Then there was this: 'Only Amiss, caught off his gloves off a bouncer that cut back, and Fletcher, shaken by a deflection on to his forehead two balls before his dismissal by Thomson, were exempt from blame.'

Fletcher had made 11, and rather than being bowled, he'd been caught be Ian Redpath. Maybe Thommo had forgotten that detail, and maybe he hadn't. He remembered the story, though, and he knew how he should tell it: as it was in his head rather than in the record books.

Thommo exists in both places, as cricketer and as myth. His era has settled in the collective mind as a raw and unforgiving time when the game was wild, on and off the field. David Warner's half-hearted swing at Joe Root and the endless round of media statements and public apologies later, confirmed the distance between here and there. Maybe one day Warner will be telling the story and everyone will be laughing and living and thinking of the years that have passed.