For all the presumed inherence of machismo in fast bowling, it is a delicate and fragile pursuit. Looking after genuine fast bowlers and putting together pace attacks requires sensitivity, patience and a nimbleness of orchestration, of personalities, physiques, nurture and even nature.
Genuine pace quartets are rare, and longer-lasting ones even more so. Some countries will never possess the resources to even imagine putting one together; others will never be able to manage the right balance in a side to fit in four.
Now, with schedules as they are, we may never see one again, at least not after South Africa find a spinner or Jacques Kallis retires.
The retirements last week of Matthew Hoggard and Simon Jones – the latter from first-class and one-day cricket – felt like the right moment to mark another end (the actual and spiritual end came long ago) of perhaps the last great pace quartet.
South Africa’s current pace attack is, personally, too hard-edged and awe-inspiring to love and they are still around, so judgements should be held. But that England pace attack, partly because of the inherent fragility of each member, physical or mental, was too easy to love.
Michael Vaughan, the captain who somehow kept them together for 16 Tests through 2004 till the middle of 2005, says repeatedly in his autobiography that he did not want clones in his side. He mostly meant that in terms of the mix of different personalities he wanted in his XI, but from the outside, there were beautiful contrasts of playing styles as well. There was Vaughan’s batting itself, with a 1950s-tinged classicism and elegance; Marcus Trescothick was as modern an opening partner he could have, all hands, little feet, a gentle bludgeoner, and Andrew Strauss would later provide a stout counterpoint to Trescothick.
At one time there was Mark Butcher’s fluidity in the middle, nestled alongside the stuttering of Nasser Hussain. Eventually the magnificence of Kevin Pietersen’s idiosyncrasies would fit Ian Bell’s schooled orthodoxy like the snuggest sweater.
They were a genuinely good side to tune into, capable of creating moments and sessions of astounding and attractive cricket. That alone, if you think that England were once so detestable and unwatchable that it prompted Mike Marqusee’s brilliant book Anyone but England, is a singular achievement.
But the cream of that side was found in the pace attack. Nowhere were the contrasts greater than here. Hoggard was a throwback to the old English fast bowlers who used to emerge from coal mines: sturdy, durable, homespun intelligence, classical swing.
Steve Harmison, still playing, was a modern beast; tall, ungainly, extreme pace and awkward bounce. Andrew Flintoff, the heart of those sides, was a chameleon of a pacer, able to adapt to any situation and format. The youngest and most frail was Jones, slithery quick and with a run-up so sheepish it hinted at none of the explosion it could produce.
On any given day, you could expect a different kind of treat. Harmison’s seven for 12 at Jamaica is well-preserved, of course, but the 11 he took against Pakistan at Old Trafford in 2006 (the attack had disintegrated by then) was equally fearsome.
On many days, Hoggard’s outswing was the one to pull you in, somehow such a fine complement to that mop of shaggy hair; the 12 wickets in Johannesburg, the Caribbean hat-trick and the belated first burst of traditional new-ball swing at Trent Bridge in 2005, where he bowled 11 overs on the trot.
With Flintoff there will always be the Edgbaston over and the owning of Adam Gilchrist, but despite his headline personality and highlight-reel bowling, Flintoff’s most telling moments as a bowler often came when he was cast in a supporting role; drying up runs, roughing up batsmen, providing the breakthroughs for the rest to tear through.
Jones remains, in many ways, the most intriguing, not just because his career ended so abruptly, but also because the kind of reverse swing he mastered was so different to what had been seen until then. It was not as full and did not swing or dip so dramatically and he made it go earlier than most bowlers before him.
But in how it appeared to the naked eye, his reverse had some characteristics of conventional swing: it swung to the shiny side as reverse should, but cut the parabolas of new-ball swing. It was a precursor to modern reverse as we see it now, and arguably, in its subtlety as deceptive and destructive.
It was on Jones that the completeness of the attack hinged. He was the last piece of the puzzle when he became a regular in March 2004, when England’s true rise began. But he was also the first to fall away in August 2005, with England at a peak, just 17 months and 16 Tests later.
That Trent Bridge Test was the last for the quartet and Jones, his five-for in the first innings part of 17 the four took in a win that gave them the Ashes.