Return of blood sport

Return of blood sport

Johnson, whose thunderbolts have shaken the batsmen, has revived the intimidating bowling of yore .

English author RC Robertson-Glasgow once wrote of Don Bradman as “poetry and murder lived in him together.” It could also be an ideal description of the West Indian fast bowlers of the late 70s and 80s, who turned inflicting pain on batsmen into a doctrine. The new generation cricket fans may feel it as a bit of exaggeration, but watching a few Youtube footages can quickly dispel those doubts. There they could find gory images of the broken noses of Mike Gatting and Peter Toohey, shattered jaws of David Hookes and Sadiq Mohammad and the rearranged cheekbone of Majid Khan. It was pure menace as batsmen were more eager to save their life as scoring runs became a distant secondary option.

It was the Golden Age of fast bowling as many teams around the world had at least two genuine pacers in their ranks who could intimidate the opposition with the sheer pace, with the thoughts of those ‘blood-on-pitch’ spells. But the 90s saw the emergence of a new crop fast bowlers who pitched the ball up to the batsmen rather than pitching it short. This is not to say that bowlers such as Waqar Younis, Wasim Akram, Allan Donald or Glenn McGrath were less effective than their predecessors, but they aimed more at wickets than batsmen’s rib-cage or head. In those years, fast bowling became less intimidating, veering towards more scientific ways.

But the recently concluded Ashes series offered a rather unexpected change in tactics. Mitchell Johnson’s left-armed thunderbolts often touching the 150 kmph mark threatened the upper body of English batsmen, or to say more directly they scared them. Johnson was the single biggest force behind Australia regaining the Ashes with a 5-0 rout. Johnson’s spells not only helped Michael Clarke’s men to hold the little urn aloft, but they also ended many English careers. Andy Flower, Kevin Pietersen, and Graeme Swann moved away when they deserved a better send-off and the international returns of Jonathan Trott and Matt Prior is shrouded in uncertainty.

Various reasons can be attributed to their inglorious exits but it all began with
Johnson’s turning-the-clock-back spells in five Tests. It is still early days to conclusively say that fast bowlers are going to re-employ intimidation as an effective weapon because for that a number of factors should align in favour -- from the nature of pitches to managing the workload of pace bowlers.

Ray of hope

However, there is a ray of hope that fast bowling will return to its most primitive, basic form and it has only gladdened some. Curtly Ambrose kept the tradition of West Indian fast bowling afloat after the retirement of giants like Malcolm Marshall, Michael Holding and Andy Roberts -- both with his ability to take wickets and intimidate the opposition, and the Antiguan described the significance for fast bowler to remain aggressive.

“When I started, Malcolm Marshall was our best bowler, best in the world at that time. He has a very very good cricket brain. We used to talk about cricket, and you could pick up things from him. He told me about being aggressive. Marshall told me: “You know you have some batsman who you can look at the eyes and know that they are not comfortable. It’s only a matter of time before you get him out.” 

“Yes, I think every fast bowler should be aggressive and try to intimidate the batsman. Not verbally, but at least by staring at him. I used to stare a lot. It was part of my weapon. So, you should intimidate them, soften them up to get them out. I will stare at you and look at you very mean because it was one of my weapons. Because when competing, I wanted to win. And when you are competing like that, you have to do everything under the laws of the game to win. I have done that. I will stare at you and look at you cruel. Like I am gonna kill you. Sometimes I don’t mean a thing in my mind, but those stares worked for me because the batsmen feared for the worst. Hope the new guys pick it up. It’s an art,” said Ambrose.

Colin Croft was quite merciless when it came to bowling bouncers, and one of Croft’s team-mates once said half-jokingly: “Colin would bounce even his grandmother if he thinks there’s a wicket in it.” Croft too hoped intimidation and bouncers would return to the game, making it spicier. “If a bowler can’t or don’t bowl bouncer then you can’t call him fast bowler. Bouncer is an integral part of fast bowling. In my times, I gave the same treatment to opener to No. 11 batsman. That’s how fast bowling should be, and let’s not bother too much about coaching manuals. If a guy can bowl fast let him bowl fast, and in these times of dull pitches and strong bats, it’s necessary because it evens out the competition to a large extent,” said Croft.

“There are some good pacers around in Australia and South Africa, and hopefully, they will get the fast bowling going. I haven’t watched much of Ashes, but if Johnson was aiming at the body of batsmen then that’s real fast bowling. Hopefully, more pacers will go down that route because fast bowling is all about attitude, and just that he should have control on what he is doing. There’s no point bowling fast without having a clear aim. A batsman should be worried about facing a fast bowler, and the only way he can do that is to hit them hard, instill fear in their minds,” said Croft.
Johnson has showed that it can be done even in these days when the game is shaped overwhelmingly in favour of batsmen. Bowlers giving cold stare, batsmen flinching after taking a blow on the rib or wiping blood away from face...will that era be back?

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