Cricket: Slow torture for the fast men: Fraser is fit again to shoot from the hip but England must guard against being bowled out before their time

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The Independent Online
WHEN Graham Gooch was asked the other day how many world-class bowlers England had produced in the past five years, his answer was unequivocal: 'Only one,' he said. 'Angus Fraser'.

Fraser is indeed a very fine performer, a classically English bowler who hits the seam and, by making it hard for batsmen to score, takes many of his wickets through attrition. But the fact that he has no equals is a damning indictment of the present state of English cricket. After missing two years through injury, his return for the final Test last summer was likened to that of a prodigal son.

As England prepare to fly out to the West Indies, much again rests on Fraser's shoulders - not to mention his hip. Yet how sanguine can we be about his continuing health? With Martin Bicknell breaking down during England A's game against Natal, and Alan Igglesden struggling with his fitness, it is clear that pace bowlers are becoming increasingly vulnerable to the pressures of Test cricket.

Under Gooch, Fraser was expected to carry the attack and, yeoman that he is, he was overbowled. For someone of his size and awkward gait, this was disastrous. A damaged hip meant that he spent most of 1991 and 1992 wondering if he would ever bowl again. Sadly, this is a depressingly familiar experience for many fast bowlers.

We have heard much about the difficulties the batsmen will face in the Caribbean. True, it is a notoriously tough tour, and they will be get more than their fair share of knocks and bruises, but pace bowlers will find conditions - the heat, hard grounds and volatile crowds - equally testing and have a slimmer chance of staying the course. After all, they have to bat as well.

Despite the expert 'prevention is better than cure' ministrations of physiotherapists and trainers, bowling injuries cannot, it seems, be specifically catered for. There seems to be an inevitability to this blight, as one specialist eloquently expressed it to me: 'Of course you're going to get back pain. What do you expect? You do a stupid thing for a living. You bowl.' He was right, but the act of bowling, however unnatural, isn't the only villain.

Heavy workloads are also to blame. Because there are so few classy pace bowlers about in England, the ones that are special - particularly in winning sides - are pressured into bowling a lot more than they should. It is only recently that resting strike bowlers from one- day matches has been seen as a means to their preservation.

If more captains - though these are usually batsmen - would realise just what a precious commodity good fast bowlers are, then the temptation to overbowl them might be partly removed. Forget the Goliaths of yesteryear telling us how they used to bowl more than a thousand overs a season in pit boots without so much as a blister.

The game was played at a gentler pace then, when fielding was considered a tiresome but necessary static art. Similarly, most bowlers bowled within themselves and uncovered pitches meant that medium- pace guile, with its twin tools of cut and swing, held sway over naked pace.

Conditions and fashions have changed. The dominance of the West Indies' fast bowlers in world cricket since 1976 has had far-reaching effects and suddenly every team wanted their own quickie. However, most West Indians seem to generate pace and still manage to keep their bowling action together, never seeming to strain. This is due to their supreme co- ordination and athleticism and a global monopoly in fast-twitch muscle fibre.

The rest of us, bar the odd bowler with freakish joints such as Wasim Akram, have to try and achieve pace through extra physical effort. My attempt to blast out all and sundry came in 1983, following a chastening experience during England's tour of Australia the previous winter.

Asked if I could try and find another two yards in pace, I just charged in as fast as I could and gave my all, straining and grunting with every delivery. In fact the season was a minor triumph in a way, though I don't recall too many batsmen quaking in their boots. I took 41 wickets and was fourth in the national strike rates (balls bowled per wicket taken) behind Malcolm Marshall, Wayne Daniel and Norman Cowans, all genuine fast bowlers at the time.

The downside was that I bowled an embarrassing number of no-balls and needed manipulation - under anaesthetic - of my sacro-iliac. At the end of the season, I concluded that longevity and pace bowling were not compatible.

My experience is typical of many English bowlers. Confronted with lifeless, covered pitches and balls virtually shorn of their seam - a decent seam is crucial to swing as well as movement off the pitch - their response has been to try and bowl quick in a bid to extract what little blood there might be in some very large, impassive stones.

Every joint used - the key ones being weaker joints like the shoulder, knee and lumbar - and all the muscles and connective tissue that control these moving parts can become damaged through fatigue, poor technique or plain bad luck, such as landing badly in worn footholes.

But the pernicious aspect of a bowler's lot is when he begins to suffer the odd niggle. Though not debilitating enough to sideline him for intensive treatment and rest, niggles are never allowed to heal properly as painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs are brought on to do a holding job. In the two seasons before he retired from Essex, you could almost hear the pills rattling as Neil Foster ran into bowl, so dependent were we on him and he on them.

It is a problem not unique to cricket, yet other sports offer a far larger time for players to get over minor aches and pains. Often left unheeded until it is too late, is it really such a surprise that so many bowlers end up under the surgeon's knife or with cortisone in their joints?

At present, remodelled actions are the vogue. Both Mark Ilott and Martin McCague, two of England A's bowlers in South Africa, have new bowling actions, the result of recent stress fractures to the lower spine. There is no doubt that improved technique can often prevent injury, but in the heat of things, even the best technicians forget themselves and fall foul of bad habits.

The advent of four-day cricket will, according to the TCCB, improve English cricket by preparing county players for the demands of Test matches. Batsmen will have to learn to concentrate and bat for longer, while bowlers will learn to take wickets on unhelpful pitches.

If bowlers are to achieve this without falling into the trap of trying to bowl too fast, a return to the traditional English skills of accurate swing and seam are required. Which means a decent ball to bowl with and pitches with bounce. The sooner an emphasis is placed on skill, so fewer young men feel the surgeon's knife, the sooner England's bowling vacuum will be filled.

(Photograph omitted)