ATUL KUMAR MAURYA | 13th January 2021

For someone whose love for cricket started with going gaga over the leg-breaks of Anil Kumble and copying his action while playing as a kid to an extent where I was called ‘Junior Kumble’, it was always going to be a big switch to what I am going to write about here. Over the years that I have watched and loved the gentleman’s game, my adoration for the leggie and the art never dialed down, but my affection and respect for allure for the craft of bowling at speeds supercars would be proud of continues to be on the rise. And the incident that gave birth to this love was indeed a special one in the history of Indian cricket.

Love at first sight

India were up against England in the 2003 edition of the ICC Cricket World Cup. After posting a decent total of 250 runs on the board, it was now time for India’s bowling line to be at their very best. And they didn’t disappoint. Zaheer Khan rattled the Englishmen at the start but it was the magnificent spell of fast bowling from Ashish Nehra that stole the show for me and completely changed my perception about the craft.

This is undoubtedly my earliest cricketing memory after the heroics of Yuvraj Singh and Mohammad Kaif in the NatWest series final ODI in 2002. And when Ashish Nehra brought out the airplane for the signature celebration, the fact that I’m still bringing this up show you how certain images go from moments to memories.

The way in which the left-armer angled the seaming ball away from the right-handers, getting them caught behind the stumps throughout his spell was a treat to watch, especially considering how this was back when life was just collecting cricket stickers and being glued to the TV to worship the game back then. And that is when I realized that pace bowling was going to be a love of mine for a lifetime.

Ashes 2005, where fast bowling reached new levels

I have to say that I’ve been lucky enough to watch some of the standout pacers to ever grace the game and due to my devotion to the sport, I could recognize greatness when I saw it. And one series that affirmed my love for the craft was the Ashes series in 2005.

After Steve Harmison took a fifer in the first innings of the first Test at Lord’s, all eyes turned to the Aussie quick Glenn McGrath to return the favor. And he did not disappoint. After making light work of the openers, McGrath ran through the English top order as if it was men against boys.

That bowling performance made me realize a certain something- Pace bowling was not just about brutal bowling where you had one eye on making sure the batsman fought for his life. Far from it actually.

It is all about consistently bowling beautiful lengths and keeping the balls in the right channels for the batsmen to be deceived and almost gifting their wickets to you. On the tin, fast bowling may look like it’s made for the brutes. But it’s the artists that are blessed with the cricketing nous to see two steps ahead, pitch the ball in the areas and send the batsmen packing that make history.

Sticking with the iconic series, another talisman who was unstoppable was Simon Jones, whose career was unfortunately cut short due to plethora of injuries. The way in which the Englishman used the old ball to reverse swing with such ease made me fall in love with the art of reverse swing, something I can talk about for hours. Try me.

The one moment that stood out for me was the wicket of Michael Clarke. As the Aussie batsman shouldered his arms, the ball moved back in sharply and viciously, cartwheeling the off-stump as it went for a toss. Magic. Andrew Flintoff’s spell to both Justin Langer and Ricky Ponting was once again brilliant in the same series but there was another moment of fast bowling history that was created in the same series and Clarke was, unfortunately for him in the thick of things once again.

The test at Edgbaston was beautifully poised when Harmison brought out an absolute gem from his arsenal. Changing his grip at the very last second to a one like a leg-cutter, the lanky Englishman bowled a slower one which Clarke couldn’t deal and with that, Australia’s hopes to bring things back were also demolished in the closely fought test. The loopy slower one around the yorker region took Clarke by surprise and still remains one of the most beautiful balls ever bowled. With Brett Lee, Jason Gillespie and Matthew Hoggard also in their pomp, this series became one of the greatest feasts of fast bowling ever seen.

Honestly, how do they do it?

One of the things that always fascinates me is the fitness levels required to be a fast bowler. No disrespect to the batsmen, spinners as well as the wicketkeepers but on any day, the amount of fitness required to be a pace bowler is way above and beyond any other cricketer on the pitch. Fast bowlers shrug off the most extreme injury issues and still keep at it like workhorses. Case in point, Shoaib Akhtar.

And things don’t just stop at fitness and pace. If your level of control is off the radar, you’re an instant laughing stock. To run in with that amount of momentum consistently, the amount of control even the average fast bowler needs to be on the money is a ridiculous task. And for me, this makes pace bowling the hardest skill to conquer in the entirety of the sport. Bringing in all the variations while moving with that much momentum and controlling the ball to near perfection takes me aback to this day, each time I see a spell of quality fast bowling.

To add to all these factors, with the newer, harsher regulations for pacer, cricket has inarguably become a batsman’s game. And rightly so. The bowlers being punished for the minutest of errors is what gets on my nerves and them finding a way around the seemingly endless barriers to produce moments of pure class is what makes it worth it.

Let’s look at bowlers with unorthodox bowling actions that inevitably take a toll on their bodies. Makhaya Ntini, Lasith Malinga, Shane Bond, Lockie Ferguson, Jasprit Bumrah to name a few.

If this isn’t a list of top tier bowlers, there’s even the jumpers (bowlers who jump right before bowling their deliveries) who we can discuss. The likes of Brett Lee, Jason Gillespie, Zaheer Khan and the aforementioned Steve Harmison as well. The amount of control required was mammoth and the ease with which they achieved these this was incredible. The long striders are also a thing of beauty.

Also, it was just sensational to witness bowlers such as Shaun Tait, Fidel Edwards and Malinga have a different kind of long bowling stride with shoulder movements that were unseen before and yet bowling peaches day in, day out.

Appreciating the basics of the craft

And despite the constant innovations in terms of variations, some things never go out of style. For starters, yorkers. Malinga is undoubtedly the greatest yorker specialist, period. Again, a skill that requires immense precision, whether it be the fast in-swinging ones or the slower loopy ones, yorkers are one of the greatest weapons in any fast bowler’s artillery. What Mitchell Starc did to Ben Stokes in the 2019 World Cup shouldn’t be allowed. If you need your memory to be refreshed, roll the clip. Now.

You can say the same for bouncers, another staple of the craft that will never die out. I’ve always loved the fiery spells where the bowlers torment the opposition with bouncers, especially in Test matches. And for me, Neil Wagner is one bowler in the recent years who has taken this skill to a whole new level. Wagner has the ability to hit the same short length for 6 balls in the over like it’s a piece of cake. How naturally the skill comes to the Kiwi bowler is sublime.

Special mentions

I can’t kick this section off by not mentioning the immaculate Shaun Pollock. A true exponent of the craft and quite similar to what Glenn McGrath, Pollock made the most difficult of things look like they’re nothing. Bowling at regular pace around the 4th stump channel, the Proteas legend was always deadly and to no one’s surprise, spearheaded the South African pace attack for years.

I am and will always be on the fence about which is the aesthetically pleasing way of getting a batsman out by a fast bowler; bowling the batsman out with a ripper or by getting them caught by bowling peaches in the channel. And I always wonder how it is always the first session of the 1st day’s play in Test matches which is the most talked about. The one where the bowlers get a bite of the red or the pink cherry, nowadays. Yes, I’m thinking out loud. That is the beauty of pace bowling. And Shaun Pollock was a master of it.

I will always have a special place in my heart for the likes of Shoaib Akhtar, Chaminda Vaas and Ishant Sharma. Brilliant bowlers who achieved a unique breed of excellence on spin-friendly pitches of the sub-continent, which makes it even more commendable to see. And achieving the amount of swing the likes Praveen Kumar and Bhuvneshwar Kumar have in these conditions is also a feat that needs to be spoken about more when mentioning two of India’s most gifted swing bowlers in recent memory.

A final special mention here goes to Mohammad Asif, for what he could have been if it was not for what transpired. I found the Pakistani pacer, one of the best when he was in his prime, if not the best when he used to bowl. The amount of control that he possessed while swinging the ball to perfection was something to always look out for.

Spells of fast bowling I want to take to my grave

I have been lucky enough to have seen some sumptuous spells of fast bowling, and I just need an opportunity to rave about them if I’m honest. Like anyone that lives and breathes the game.

Vernon Philander wreaked havoc against Australia at the Wanderers in 2018, taking 6 wickets for fun in the process. Tim Southee’s 7-wicket haul against England at the 2015 World Cup is another one that sticks in my mind. Mitchell Johnson literally owned the whole 2013-14 Ashes, that’s how devastating he was throughout the series. And as the Ashes has been mentioned, who can forget Stuart Broad’s 8 for 15 at Trent Bridge! Majestic swing bowling on show.

Speaking of a swing bowling masterclass, Dale Steyn’s 7-wicket haul at Nagpur springs straight to mind.

India’s drubbing at the hands of both Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood at Adelaide, registering their lowest total in the process speaks volumes about how brilliant they were in tandem. Last but not least comes in Ishant Sharma, with his match winning 7-wicket spell at Lord’s and the brilliant spell he bowled against Ricky Ponting at the WACA is bound to be etched in every cricket fan’s memories.

I might have missed numerous fast bowling onslaughts here but these are some of the top ones that always make it to my conversations.

And for all the beautiful spells I have mentioned, there needs to be a favorite ball too.

My favorite ever ball

As hard it is to actually choose from all my years of watching cricket, there definitely is one. For me, this ball is easily the best I have ever seen with my own two eyes. And what makes it even more special is that it was the very first ball of the 4th innings of a Test, a period where people don’t expect fast bowlers to be at their lethal best.

Alastair Cook was at the wicket at the WACA and what happened next brings me sheer joy every single time I even hear about it. Ryan Harris steamed in and went through Cook’s back foot defense with an absolute ripper. The ball shaped back and flipped the off-bail while Cook was playing a little inside the line, hoping that the bounce would save him. But it was a terrific ball which swung in and then nibbled a fraction to ping the bails off. Incredible scenes.

If you’re reading this, I guess you realize why fast bowling is everything to me. I’m headed to watch some clips now, catch you later.