After the retirement of Bob Willis, English cricket was criticised for not producing enough genuinely quick bowlers. The standard criticism was that the heavy county workload meant that potential fast bowlers had to cut down on their pace and develop into fast-medium seamers to prolong their career. As England fans, we spent too long watching our seamers struggling in the Ashes while the Australians compiled vast totals. The standard complaint was that we lacked any genuine pace. And the same has been true in plenty of other overseas Test series as well.
I first began to watch cricket in the mid to late 80s, and didn’t really appreciate the nuances of fast bowling until a bit later. Our fastest bowler at the time was probably Graham Dilley. Although this was well before the speed gun era, watching somewhat limited clips of him on YouTube, he definitely appears “sharp.” I would guess he was capable of bowling in the late 80s or so at his peak – not express but probably quick enough.
However, Devon Malcolm, who debuted in 1989, was probably the first ‘genuine quick’ I saw play for England – although he was frequently overlooked by the selectors due to his periodic inaccuracy. My first Test match, in 1992, featured both Malcolm and the quickish Chris Lewis. My memories of the game really focus upon David Gower hitting a fine 73, his last fifty in England colours, and rather bizarrely Ian Salisbury also scoring a 50. I did get Dev’s autograph though.
Malcolm was a brutal bowler, none more so than in 1994 against South Africa, and it seems bizarre that he did not play more often. “Syd” Lawrence was another bowler of genuine pace whose career was sadly curtailed due to a horrendous knee injury suffered in New Zealand. England did have a couple of pace options available, therefore, in the late 80s through to the mid 90s, even if the selectors at the time seemed reluctant to pick them.
Darren Gough’s selection in 1994 was exciting for a number of reasons, not least his pace, aggression, and ability to make opposing batters jump around. Were England finally selecting some pace bowlers able to threaten the opposition on benign surfaces? Gough’s partnership with Andrew Caddick – who could also bowl in the high 80s earlier in his career – contributed a great deal to England’s improvement as a Test side under Nasser Hussain.
Gough’s career coincided with the introduction of speed guns, when it became possible to compare out and out fast bowlers with their slightly slower colleagues. Goughie was also the first English bowler to master reverse swing with his fairly low and skiddy action. Reverse swing was supposedly invented on the dry pitches in Pakistan, and Gough developed the skill after watching Waqar and Wasim move the old ball to devastating effect.
Having Gough in the side brought a new dimension to the England Test XI, and his success seemed to inspire more English bowlers to bowl flat out: the 2005 Ashes saw an England attack including Messrs Harmison, Flintoff and Simon Jones, who were all capable of devastating pace. Harmison and Flintoff both took over 200 test wickets, and Jones, another formidable exponent of reverse swing, was sadly prevented from playing after that year’s Ashes series due to persistent injuries.
The 2005 attack was the most consistently fast of any England line-up that I have seen, and it is a shame that inconsistency and injury meant that they only played together on a few occasions. We shouldn’t forget, by the way, Matthew Hoggard’s crafty outswing which provided contrast to a superb all-round seam attack.
The last 10 years or so have been dominated by Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad – technically two of the finest bowlers to play for England. However, they have lined up alongside some genuinely rapid bowlers, Mark Wood probably being the out and out quickest. This, again, has provided much-needed balance to England’s team.
With Jofra Archer and Olly Stone also bowling in excess of 90mph (and Broad and Anderson bound to retire at some point), there is the intriguing prossibility of England picking three out-and-out fast bowlers in the same team for the first time. In fact, England do seem well served with pace at the moment, with Brydon Carse, Saqib Mahmood and Jamie Overton all being at the sharper end. One hopes they can avoid the chronic injury problems that seem to plague a lot of quicker bowlers.
Pace isn’t everything, of course. It needs to be allied with movement and accuracy. However, it is interesting to speculate whether the onset of the speed gun and the increase in T20 may encourage more bowlers to strain for extra mph. As Mark Wood and Jofra Archer have proven, pace can be as devastating a weapon in the shortest form as it can in Test matches. What’s more, they only have to bowl a maximum of four overs rather than come back for second and third spells, so they can really bend their back.
Let’s hope that England’s best quicks stay loyal to the red ball game and only specialise in the shortest forms when, like Tymal Mills, injuries force their hand. After all, nothing makes cricket aficionados smile like watching Test batsmen hop around. Chin music, anyone?