Anatomy of a bowling disaster

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The Independent Online
Quite apart from the fact that they are rather boring, rather bitter ageing men, Bob Willis and Fred Trueman share another - increasingly rare - quality. They were once both English fast bowlers.

And now Devon Malcolm is showing every sign that he is about to join them among the ranks of former international players.

That is for the future. What is for the present is that England are about to embark on yet another Test match with what is almost certainly the most pedestrian attack they have ever had - only the bristling presence of Dominic Cork rescues it from total mediocrity. No pace, not much swing, not much spin, in fact not much of anything to quicken the pulse of the crowd or tighten the stomach muscles of the opposition batsmen.

Nothing, but nothing, in cricket is so upsetting as an Australian being right. Doubly so if he rejoiced in English humiliation on a regular basis, but - through gritted teeth - you have to admit that Rodney "pie-thrower" Marsh was right.

As this has been going on for rather a long time, none of the above is especially new. But be like Boycott and have patience - the half-volleys are just around the corner.

The traditional response to this endless diet of monotony - England's bowling rather than this column, of course - is to blame the first-class counties. For everything. Too much cricket, too little meaningful cricket, too many bland pitches, too many bland sides, too little competition etc etc etc.

I rather think that the time has come for the traditional response to be blown out of the water. Like George Davis, the counties are innocent - at least of some of the charges.

And the real guilty parties? Most of those clubs and captains who think they are nurturing the future of a great game. In nearly every case they are nurturing exactly that type of game which has brought England their truly remarkable record of ineptitude over the last few years.

Think not? Let us look at what might happen to an aspiring 14-year-old pace bowler. He is quick for his age and takes stacks of wickets in his midweek colts games (largely played on artificial pitches) - by pace alone. His club notice this, and, keen to hang on to their emerging talent, they start to play him in men's teams at the weekend. They mean well, and the boy himself just wants to play whenever he can, but this is the first step towards churning out yet another medium-paced trundler.

Our young tyro suddenly finds life is rather different as he hurtles in on the cabbage patch the second team call a pitch against people twice his age in a league game where runs per over are almost as important as wickets. Not to put too fine a point on it, he is smashed around, and the skipper can see loads of precious league points disappearing at a huge rate of knots over the sightscreen. The rest of the side, who have worked hard for their fifth place in the table, are not too pleased - especially as the man the upstart has replaced was a long-standing member of the team who might have been going through a bad patch but never got thumped like this and always brought a jug afterwards.

Being a kindly man who wants the best for his side and his young player (this is the second team, remember), the skipper wanders over with a gentle word of advice. Which is absolutely fatal. "Line and length," he says. "Slow it down a touch, and just try to bowl it straight."

Bang. The boy listens, the batsmen start playing him a bit differently and Dennis Lillee has just turned into Peter Martin.

The same mantra comes out for the young spinner, and in no time at all that attacking young thing who could turn the ball a foot, but couldn't quite land it in the right place every time (he would be a real freak if he could at 14, for goodness sake) has been turned into a leg-stump dart-thrower.

There were thousands of club games played over the last two days, and all of the above will have been played out somewhere. Certainly very few of those games will have done much for the young players who are involved in them.

The club system in this country gives a tremendous amount of people a great deal of fun, which is its own justification of course, but as a vehicle for producing truly outstanding cricketers it is just about as hopeless as it is possible to imagine. Limited-overs matches (and whatever the various league rules may say that is effectively what clubs play every weekend) on limited-standard pitches can - and do - develop only limited cricketers.