Cricket's long search for a rich seam

Can England pull a fast one over the Aussies? Stephen Brenkley studies a new scheme to find men of pace

Stephen Brenkley
Saturday 03 May 1997 23:02

In the 23 months and 22 Test matches since Devon Malcolm led the attack at Headingley 15 seam bowlers have played for England. Two or three more are already forming a queue, which will probably be just short of a good length if it is not all over the place, for this summer.

Such numbers speak either of abundant riches or of a desperate search by the selectors to find somebody - anybody - capable of going more than two overs without spraying a half-volley down the leg side. All those who have seen England at home or abroad, or have listened to the exasperated groans of expert witnesses in the commentary box, realise which is nearer the truth.

It may be a gross generalisation, but everybody seems to agree that nobody can bowl any more. Blame is apportioned on all manner of evils, most often uncovered pitches and too much stock bowling. There is to be yet another competition to find a fast bowler. Dennis Lillee will be the judge and the mentor to the winner but few at the England and Wales Cricket Board, who have given their blessing, will be holding their breath.

"There are some quality bowlers out there, but certainly not as many as there used to be," said Geoff Arnold who has spent most of the past 20 years trying to get that bit extra from those that exist. "It comes down to the usual things, the many other activities there are these days apart from cricket, the fact that they can play too much too soon but sometimes the unwillingness to work hard enough."

Fast bowlers of sustained pace and hostility, always a rarity in Britain, have been virtually unseen since Bob Willis last listened to a hypnotherapy tape and locked the enemy into his sights 13 years ago. They may be extinct. But it is the shortage of the other type which seems so shameful, the quality seamer, fast but not lightning, perpetually accurate, pitching the ball up, swinging it when conditions help, making the batsman graft for his runs. Geoff Arnold in fact.

"Through history a seam bowler can expect to take a wicket about every 10 overs, so the way to get batsmen out is to lure him into mistakes, to wear him down with consistency and accuracy," he said. "The only way to achieve that is by practice - practice putting the ball into the same space. Maybe too many of them are trying to take wickets with every ball. It's not good bowling."

Arnold, who would probably stroll a vote to be the bowler's bowling coach, did not sound optimistic but nor is he forlorn. In his capacity as adviser to both Essex (successful so far) and Durham (not so successful) he has found reason to think that England can do what we, perhaps wrongly, perceive the rest of the world to be doing, producing seam bowlers from an assembly line.

Ashley Cowan has emerged as one of those for whom Arnold guardedly predicts a future in which wickets may come regularly, even a tad more frequently than every 10 overs. Listening to Cowan talk enthusiastically about his trade at Chelmsford last week it was easy to share the coach's judgement.

Cowan joined Essex at 18, having been noticed playing for Cambridgeshire. He almost immediately sustained two stress fractures in his back. Surgery was followed by the need to re-model his action, hence the chest-on action now to be seen. "It felt reasonably comfortable straightaway though it took a while to get right from a full run," said Cowan. "I know I've advanced a lot already from last season."

Cowan, who took nine wickets in the opening Championship match and has been rigorously on line in his one-day cricket so far, is aware of the criticism his kind have been forced to take. He has had it in the neck for bowling too short (the familiar lament) but has fallen into a match- day routine of spending 25 minutes bowling into a baseball glove held by his county coach, Keith Fletcher, to discover the appropriate length for that day's proceedings, the one that will give him swing.

"It's not so much pace that counts these days, though obviously it helps. But it's movement that I'm working on and getting into that groove as if you're delivering from a bowling machine. I've just got to get on with bowling on the pitches I'm given."

Cowan, 22 this week, is 6ft 5in tall and has the height and reach to be a fast, though not, it should be stressed, rapid bowler. Old judges might say he could do with filling out a bit and with being little meaner but both of those may come.

If Cowan is heartening evidence that the seam well is not entirely dry in this country, it would be misguided to think it is over-stocked elsewhere. The West Indies' regular harvest is not quite as fruitful as it was and while the Australians are bringing over Glenn McGrath and the suddenly emergent Jason Gillespie this summer, they have not drawn from a deep source.

Bob Massie, who coaches bowlers in Western Australia and will forever have a place in both the game's official records and its folklore for his phenomenal return of 16 wickets for 137 runs on his Test debut, at Lord's, precisely a quarter of a century ago, is sceptical. "There aren't that many coming through but maybe we have the system which makes sure we don't miss them," he said.

"Cricketers graduate naturally through club, grade and state cricket. What we've noticed here is that England used to produce swing bowlers regularly. Now they don't. It's too much cricket or it's the wickets or both."

John Snow, perhaps one of only five proper fast bowlers produced by England in 40 years (with Tyson, Trueman, Statham and Willis) blamed lack of initial discipline in terms of practice. "You have to get the basic action right early. Too many don't."

So empty is the well that as McGrath and Gillespie are bowling for Australia this summer their legendary forebear Lillee will be seeking a soldier for the old enemy. Those being encouraged are expected only to reply in the affirmative to the question on the posters: "Are you big and broad with raw power and brute strength?" It is hoping to venture into inner- city areas for the raw material, perhaps perversely is being backed by the Daily Telegraph and will be judged by Lillee and his old partner, Jeff Thomson. The winner will have a place at Lillee's bowling academy in India this winter.

Arnold will continue with the more conventional approach, cajoling the likes of Cowan, persuading them of the virtues of bowling to become a good bowler, hitting the same old spot. "There are no easy answers, there never have been, we've got to make the best of what we've got."

Neither the shortage nor indeed the idea of a competition to overcome it are anything new. In 1947, for instance, the old-time fast bowler Charles Kortright, then 77, gave an interview to Wisden in the belief that his views "will not only throw much light on our present problems but encourage the younger generation to take up fast bowling". Only 13 years ago Willis and Ted Dexter joined forces in a nationwide competition with similar parameters to those laid down by Lillee - no previous experience required. They found a winner, but not a fast bowler.

Five on the England fast track

Andy Harris (Derbyshire)

HE comes from a long, venerable county tradition of honest, worthy and penetrating bowlers, perhaps short of real pace but unerring in direction. Bill Copson, Cliff Gladwin, Les Jackson, Mike Hendrick, Dominic Cork - the line is a long one and with his yeoman's face and diligent attitude Harris follows the tradition perfectly. He will be 24 in June and last summer was a breakthrough one for him when his 53 first-class wickets drew admiring notices from many quality batsmen. He must be in the reckoning because he has that apparently elusive quality of being able, if necessary, to hit a handkerchief.

Alex Tudor (Surrey)

AFTER creating a wonderful impression on debut as a 17-year-old in 1995 Tudor was injured last year and eventually criticised for being too ready not to bowl. He managed to put that behind him by his unstinting work for the England Under-19s in Pakistan and he has already been in the Surrey side this summer. His promise is obvious and anything is possible. The conundrum will be how to marshal his progress. Pitch him in now or, more sensibly, nurture him in county cricket this summer, teach him how to bowl two or three fast, accurate spells on hard wickets on hot days and then give him the examination provided on a larger stage?

Dean Headley (Kent)

WHEN he left Middlesex in 1992, the county were disappointed but did not necessarily assume they were losing a potential England bowler. Headley, soon to be 27, has progressed gradually but insistently at Kent, his three hat-tricks last season confirming his accuracy. He made some unwise comments in the winter about the England captain's attitude towards him but he looks to have fully recovered from hip surgery earlier this year. He is probably at the head of the selectors' short-list.

Chris Silverwood (Yorkshire)

IF England's selectors go by their own form book Silverwood will be soon discarded to hone his craft at Yorkshire. But having taken the gamble it would be as well to keep the horse in the race. Silverwood has a positive attitude and looks like a thoroughbred. Of course, he's still learning, and he took too few wickets too expensively for an England bowler last year but he was not Young Cricketer of the Year for nothing and the potential is still vast. The away swinger is the key as always.

Melvyn Betts (Durham)

HE may seem an odd choice, but he has won the praise of his coaches at Durham for his changed attitude. He is working hard and therefore getting the ball in the proper areas - that old corridor - more often. He bowled more bad balls than almost anybody in the Championship when he first played four years ago and then suffered debilitating injuries. Deserves praise for overcoming his setbacks, keeps improving his career-best figures and with the right support could yet flourish at the Riverside.