England's pace tiros fight it out in land of the giants
A modern fast bowler is usually tall - in order to generate bounce. Liam Plunkett and Sajid Mahmood tell Angus Fraser how they fit in
Wednesday 24 May 2006
The late, great Malcolm Marshall was an anomaly. Standing at 5ft 11in he had no right to be a fast bowler. But Marshall made amends for his lack of height by possessing incredible skill, courage, intelligence and pace, and became possibly the finest fast bowler the game has seen.
Modern fast bowlers, especially those produced in the Western world, are in danger of becoming clonelike. The majority are tall and athletic and they hurl the ball down at anything between 80 and 95mph. The occasional small fast bowler does come along. Fidel Edwards and Tino Best slog away for the West Indies, and Lasith Malinga, who may well play in tomorrow's second Test at Edgbaston, gets the odd game for Sri Lanka, but they struggle to compete in a landscape that is dominated by giants.
Sajid Mahmood and Liam Plunkett, who made home debuts in the drawn first Test at Lord's, are typical examples of the modern fast bowler. Both are well over 6ft tall, both are fast, and both are expected to play this week.
But why is fast bowling, like swimming, rowing and tennis, becoming the exclusive domain of tall people? It is simply a matter of dynamics. Tall people possess long levers and more power can be generated, and a greater reach achieved from a long pull or swing of the arm than a short one.
In cricket the advantages go deeper that just the speed at which the individual can bowl. Bounce is the commodity that batsmen dislike most. They hate bowlers who get the ball to bounce steeply because it makes it very hard for them to prevent the ball going in the air.
A tall man, releasing the ball from a height of almost nine feet, is bound to get more bounce than someone delivering it from a height of seven and half feet. Shorter bowlers can get the ball to travel past the batsmen at an uncomfortable height - thigh to shoulder - but to do so they have to pitch the ball on a shorter length. If a bowler has the pace of a Marshall then it is a problem, but more often than not they have enough time to react to how the ball has behaved.
Taller bowlers, however, can get the ball to travel past a batsman's rib cage from a fuller length, thus giving them less time to react to how the ball behaves after it has made contact with the pitch. And this is why Andrew Flintoff, Stephen Harmison, Glenn McGrath, Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose have been the most feared and successful fast bowlers of the last 15 years.
Mahmood and Plunkett have a lot of hard work ahead of them if they are to reach the levels achieved by those named above, but each has the potential to go on and have lengthy international career. Both players accepted - a bit too easily for my liking - that they would make way for Harmison and Simon Jones when they regain their fitness, but the encouraging thing for England is that they view themselves as different bowlers.
"I see myself as a bowler more in the Simon Jones mould," Mahmood said. "I don't get quite as much bounce as Harmison does, and my action allows me to get the ball to reverse swing early on. I need to become more consistent with my action and the areas I bowl in. I also realised in the first Test that I need to get fitter and stronger. After my first bowl [Mahmood took three wickets in nine balls in the first Test against Sri Lanka] I thought it was easy, but by the end of the fifth day I had changed my opinions on that. It is tough."
If Mahmood sees himself as a potential replacement for Jones, and he may get an extended run sooner than he thinks, to judge by the fast bowler's injury record, Plunkett is being viewed as a long-term alternative to Harmison and Flintoff.
"I am not as quick as Harmison or Jones but a bit quicker than Hoggard," admitted Plunkett. "My game plan is simple, in that I try and get the ball in the right area and get a bit of swing. Hopefully, I will put a bit of pace on as I get a bit stronger and older. With the other bowlers out it is important to make an impression, and hopefully I can take a few wickets whilst they are out, and then, if the spot opens up again, I will be straight back in the team."
If the 5ft 7in Malinga is selected to play for Sri Lanka in the second Test, he has the chance to prove that a short fast bowler can survive in the modern game. Malinga has a unique, low, skiddy action that once resulted in the New Zealand batsmen asking if an umpire could change the colour of his trousers because they were losing sight of the ball in them. The official refused, preferring instead to hold the bowlers' sweaters in front of his legs, but the fast bowler's presence at Edgbaston would bring some much-needed variety.
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