Speed kills: countdown to the first Test

The South Africans have arrived here with the fastest bowling attack in a generation. As the England team prepares to face them next week, Angus Fraser explains why pace offers cricket's most daunting challenge – and a unique sporting spectacle

Spectators love watching it, as does a fielding side when it has a couple in its team, but nobody, absolutely nobody can honestly say that they enjoy facing fast bowling. Standing at the crease, alone, on a fast bouncy pitch wearing simple and not hugely effective protective gear as a big, strong angry-looking young man sprints towards you with the sole aim of hurling hard, red bone-breaking ball at your head at 90mph plus is a terrifying experience.

On a couple of occasions it was all too much for Philip Tufnell, the former Middlesex and England spinner. Once in Barbados, after watching yours truly take several painful blows to the body from the West Indies' Courtney Walsh and Curtley Ambrose, Tufnell, padded up to the hilt and bearing a very close resemblance to the Michelin man, squeezed out of his seat on the players balcony following my dismissal, looked to his left and said, "Tell Jane I love her" before walking out to bat. Tufnell survived but Jane left him at the end of the tour.

The other occasion was at Edgbaston when Allan Donald was in his pomp on a dicey pitch. Middlesex lost their ninth wicket on the stroke of lunch, forcing a terrified Tufnell to wait 40 minutes before meeting his tormentor. In his corner of the dressing room he must have smoked 20 cigarettes in the interval, all through the grill of his helmet, during which time he had convincing himself that Donald was going to kill him. A ringing bell signified play was to resume and as Tufnell reluctantly left the dressing room he grabbed Simon Shepperd, the Middlesex physiotherapist, by the scruff of the neck and dragged him to the players gate next to the side of the pitch. He sat Shepperd down in the nearest seat to the gate and told him, pointing to the middle of the ground, "when that big twat hits me you get out there fucking quick". Again he survived.

Over the years you begin to realise that your life is not in peril every time you walk out to bat against the likes of Donald, Walsh, Ambrose or Malcolm Marshall. A blow to the ribs, knuckle, shoulder or elbow can be mighty painful but fast bowlers don't kill you, they just chip bits off you.

England's batsmen will gain little solace from these words or Tufnell's tribulations as they prepare to face South Africa's battery of fast bowlers in Thursday's first Test at Lord's. Deep down a couple of them would hold the same reservations, but at least they have the ability to cope. Tufnell, like many of us, did not. What other sport encourages such mismatches? On occasions it makes the Colosseum seem like a tea party.

During the next five weeks it will be just such contests that dominate the sporting landscape here and it will be the ability of Alastair Cook, Andrew Strauss, Michael Vaughan, Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell and Paul Collingwood to handle South Africa's hostile and much vaunted pace attack that will ultimately decide the result of the four-Test series. If England defeat the Proteas they can look forward to next summer's Ashes with confidence. Lose, and the international future of a couple of players in Michael Vaughan's side must be in doubt.

It is the fact that so much seems at stake, that it is a physical and mental as well as technical battle, which make the altercations between a fast bowler and a batsman such a draw. I once asked Desmond Haynes whether he was nervous about the prospect of facing Abdul Qadir, the great Pakistani leg-spinner. He just said: "No, he ain't going to hurt me." It sounds brutal but that is the attraction for many spectators – the potential for someone getting hurt. It is the same in Formula One, where we enjoy crashes more than skilful overtaking movements.

England have produced few better players of fast bowling than Graham Gooch, the former Essex and England opening batsman. Gooch's hangdog expression implied that he did not really enjoy batting, let alone look forward to the prospect of facing the quick men. It was a popular misconception because Gooch enjoyed nothing more than batting for hour after hour after hour, and nothing gave him greater satisfaction than succeeding against the best fast bowlers in the world. Indeed, his 154 on a dodgy pitch at Headingley in 1991 against a West Indies attack containing Marshall, Ambrose, Walsh and Patrick Patterson is considered to be one of the finest innings in the history of Test cricket.

"The old saying that nobody enjoys facing fast bowling but some play it better than others rings true," admitted Gooch, when I caught up with him at Chelmsford. "But I did enjoy the challenge of pitting myself against a good fast bowler. I played in an era of county cricket where teams would be delighted if the opposition's crackerjack fast bowler was injured or absent. I wasn't like that. I wanted to play against the best players because I wanted to challenge myself, my technique, my skill, my mental capacity against the best.

"Facing high quality spin like Shane Warne was a technical test: fast bowling was not only technical, it was physical courage too. I never really felt in physical danger apart from on one occasion when I thought the bowler could hit me and I could not protect myself. It was in Jamaica facing Patrick Patterson, the West Indies fast bowler, in 1986 in his first Test. The pitch was dicey and if anyone has ever bowled quicker than that, well ... he was rapid, and I mean really rapid.

"I played fast bowling well, it seemed to bring out the best in me. There is an extra dimension to it, the physical dimension. It is why Test cricket is such a great game because you get those confrontations. You get them occasionally in 50-over cricket too, but you will struggle to get them in Twenty20. I looked forward to the challenge and England's batsmen should. When you score runs against that type of bowling you get huge satisfaction from it. You've met the challenge, you are equal to the challenge and you have won the battle that day."

Gooch believes that he became a good player of fast bowling because he had to. In the late Seventies and early Eighties county cricket contained most of the world's best fast bowlers and to survive you had to adapt quickly. It was the place where they were well paid for all their hard work.

Sylvester Clarke, the deceased Surrey and West Indies fast bowler, was widely regarded as the meanest around. On the field Clarke was a nasty so-and-so who seemed to enjoy hitting people – he caused me several sleepless nights at the start of my career. Off the field he was the first to buy you a pint of Guinness in the old Surrey Tavern after the close of play.

Marshall was the best. He had pace, skill and a magnificent work ethic. It is a tragedy that he died so young. Marshall took more wickets because he pitched the ball up more and swung it around. But when required he could dish out the chin music as well as anyone: just ask Andy Lloyd, the former Warwickshire and England opener, who was cleaned up by Marshall in 1984.

"Your footwork has to be good against them because the ball comes down quicker," said Gooch, explaining what skills a batsman needs to prosper. "But more importantly you have to display to the bowler that you can handle whatever he can throw at you.

"It sounds obvious but against high quality fast bowling it is paramount because there is a physical aspect to it. If a batsman shows a dislike for playing fast bowlers by always looking for the short ball, looking on edge, giving a vibe that he doesn't fancy it, if a batsman shows that to a bowler he is one up before you start.

"You have to be prepared to get hit, take a few blows. Marshall hit me straight on the shoulder with the second ball of a Test match once and the ball went rolling back down the pitch. It bloody hurt. But I had to show him that I wasn't affected, getting back and behind the next ball he bowled. I enjoyed the physical challenge, the challenge of taking a fast bowler on, seeing him off.

"The short ball is the most blatant form of intimidation a fast bowler has and when facing it, whether you hook, duck or whatever, you have to display that you are in control. It sends a message to him straight away. I would make my mind up whether to take the short ball on or not before the bowler has left his mark. I would asses the conditions, how the pitch was playing, how quick the bowling was, the field set and take it on if the percentages were in my favour. There would be no indecision. The hook is a good shot but not one you have to have, but you play it on your terms, not the bowler's. When a man is back on the hook it is not on your terms."

On Thursday morning all will become clear. If England find themselves batting, the initial exchanges – as they were in the 2005 Ashes when Stephen Harmison intimidated Australia's batsmen – will be vital. Should Strauss, Cook, Vaughan and Pietersen come through relatively unscathed the outlook is good. But if Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Makhaya Ntini smell blood, the ever-present reservations could come to the fore. Whatever, it will make compulsive viewing.

The Fast Show: The pace battery intent on doing England damage this summer

*Morne Morkel

Age 23.

Height 6ft 6 in.

Style Right-arm fast.

Fastest ball 96mph.

17 wickets in six Tests at an average of 32.35.

Morkel is South Africa's Stephen Harmison, only more accurate. He is tall, lanky and with a fast shoulder action. Like Harmison, he is capable of extracting steep bounce out of benign pitches, a quality that the best bowlers need and batsmen hate. Injury has restricted his appearances for South Africa but he is now fit and raring to go. Allan Donald has acted as his mentor and he made a big impression in last year's Twenty20 World Championship.

*Makhaya Ntini

Age 30.

Height 5ft 9in.

Style Right-arm fast.

Fastest ball 92.5mph.

344 wickets in 87 Tests at an average of 27.85.

Ntini remains a fast, hostile fast bowler even after ten years of international cricket. He is a remarkable athlete with a heart the size of a lion's. He just keeps running in hard. His unique bowling action, which allows him to deliver the ball from extremely wide of the crease, causes batsmen all sorts of problems. In South Africa's last Test appearance at Lord's in 2003, a comprehensive win, he deservedly won the man-of-the-match award by taking 10-220.

*Dale Steyn

Age 25.

Height 6ft.

Style Right-arm fast.

Fastest ball 97mph.

120 wickets in 23 Tests at an average of 21.6.

Steyn was a young, wiry, raw fast bowler when he made his Test debut against England in 2004/05. His potential was obvious but it took him some time to establish himself in international cricket. He is now the finished product, taking his 100th Test wicket earlier this year in quicker time than any other South African. Steyn is very aggressive and in brilliant form, bowling at pace and swinging the ball away from right-handed batsmen.

*Andre Nel

Age 30.

Height 6ft 3in.

Style Right-arm fast medium.

Fastest ball 96mph.

101 wickets in 28 Tests at an average of 31.09.

Nel is a muscular, bludgeoning fast bowler whose over the top antics have often made him look foolish. But this behaviour, primarily intended to irritate batsmen, is misleading. Behind the antics is a skilful and wholehearted bowler who should not be underestimated. Nel, like Jacques Kallis, offers support for the out-and-out quicks, keeping it tight whilst they have a rest. A potential contest with Kevin Pietersen is worth looking out for.

*Monde Zondeki

Age 25.

Height 6ft.

Style Right-arm fast.

Fastest ball 95mph.

Record 16 wickets in 5 Tests at an average of 27.38.

Zondeki's batting caught the eye on his Test debut against England at Headingley in 2003, when he scored 59 entertaining runs. As a bowler he was raw but quick and over the last five injury-interrupted years he has gained greater consistency. His growing maturity was underlined by his bowling during South Africa's 2007/08 domestic season where he took 62 wickets at 19. Such bowling encouraged Warwickshire to sign him as their overseas player.