x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Really slow going in the bowlers' fast lane

The bans on Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Aamer — while deserved — came at a time when cricket could have done with a few quality pacemen.

Mohammad Asif, left, and Mohammad Aamer, centre, had formed the fulcrum of Pakistan's bowling attack.
Mohammad Asif, left, and Mohammad Aamer, centre, had formed the fulcrum of Pakistan's bowling attack.

Watching the high-scoring second Test at Lord's between England and Sri Lanka, some commentators noted that one could not help feel that the contest between bat and ball was somewhat one-sided.

Quality bowlers seem to be in short supply in world cricket.

Around the same time as that Test, a news story broke that Mohammad Aamer had breached International Cricket Council (ICC) sanctions by playing for Addington, a village side in the Surrey Cricket League in England.

It is saddening that at a time when world cricket suffers from a dearth of top-class fast bowlers, two of its finest exponents, Aamer and Mohammad Asif, are serving bans, with Aamer lurching into another crisis.

During the 1980s and 1990s, there were so many great fast bowlers. Just take a look at the 1990s.

There was Courtney Walsh and Curtley Ambrose from the West Indies, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis from Pakistan, Glenn McGrath from Australia and Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock from South Africa.

Compare the situation to what we have now. Dale Steyn seems well on his way to becoming a great fast bowler and, alongside the South African, we have a handful of good seam/swing bowlers, but no one that could match the very best of the 1990s.

Statistics only give a partial picture, but it is interesting that of the greats of the 1990s all had bowling averages below 25.

Of the bowlers in the current ICC Test bowling rankings only Steyn in the top 20 has an average below 25 among the non-spin bowlers.

It is true that, in historical perspective, the 1980s and 1990s were a bit of an exception when it came to the number of quality bowlers. No other decade ever witnessed as many superb bowlers. So a drop off in quality was perhaps to be expected.

However, the decline in pace bowling standards has been compounded by shorter boundaries, flatter pitches and better bats, all of which encourage runs to the detriment of bowlers.

More matches being crammed into the congested cricket calendar also harms pace bowlers disproportionately in comparison to the batsman as it provides more opportunities for bowlers to pick up injuries but delivers more chances for the batsmen to hone their skills.

Andy Roberts, the former West Indies bowler who was the first in a long line of top notch pace bowlers produced by the West Indies during the 1970s and 1980s - bemoaned standards in fast bowling in a recent interview.

In his blunt words, he used the example of India's Munaf Patel: "When he came to the West Indies in 2006, he was quick. But now, he is spinning the ball."

Roberts feels that "coaches turn you into a line-and-length bowler. Not what you naturally are. These boys then lose their ability".

Indeed it does appear that conservatism has replaced ambition when it comes to pace bowling.

The language commentators and coaches employ is instructive. "Line and length", "corridor", "bowling in the right areas", these are the phrases frequently trotted out. The subtext is that pace bowling is about restriction, repetition and about denying batsmen runs.

In this context, it was hoped last year that Aamer and Asif would be part of a revival in pace bowling. In an era where two-top class pace bowlers, bowling in tandem, is a rarity, here was the arrival of a pace resurgence.

It is worth underlining how well they bowled last year, a point understandably obscured by the spot-fixing scandal. In the English summer consisting of six Tests for Pakistan, Asif had taken 24 wickets and Aamer 30. To put that in perspective, in the golden summer of 1992 during Pakistan's tour of England, Wasim took 21 wickets in four Tests and Waqar 22 in five.

The pitches in 1992 were much drier and there was less conventional swing, but they were conducive for reverse swing bowling and Pakistan in 1992 also had a better batting line-up and fielded better.

This is not to suggest Asif and Aamer were as good as Wasim and Waqar, but only to put their performances into context. Like the two Ws, Asif and Aamer also complemented each other well and represented fascinating contrasts. Both were immensely skilful bowlers.

Asif loped into the crease with an easy fluid action, which concealed the tremendous flick of the wrist at the very last moment. He was persistent in his bowling, precise but also subtle and mature. For a tall bowler he bowled quite a full length. He may not have displayed much thought off the field, but on it, he always bowled with a plan. What he lacked in pace, he made up in guile.

Aamer's bowling was more about energy uncoiled. He attacked the crease with purpose and enthusiasm. He let loose with fire and fury, hustling and harrying the batsmen. He also moved the ball wickedly late. His bowling was also not devoid of intelligence, although he has shown much less brain power away from the field.

Asif seemed to be an heir to the crown of Fazal Mahmood, Pakistan's first champion bowler. Aamer, on the other hand was the nearest thing to Wasim, the most celebrated of left arm fast bowlers to play the game.

Both seemed on the road to greatness, a destination reserved for the elite few. Cricket needed their abilities as well, for the game is at its best when the contest between bat and ball is intense and evenly matched.

Indeed it is not an over statement to say that the battle between the bat and ball is pivotal for Test cricket. Over the past decade, the balance has become too skewed in favour of batsman.

Aamer and Asif have seemingly squandered the opportunity to arrest the imbalance and cricket may be poorer for it. But how much sympathy can we have for the players as they serve their bans for spot fixing? No one is perfect; many make bad errors of judgement. But what is sad is the utter lack of remorse and honesty shown by either of them.

The players have apparently spurned the path to redemption.

As the runs flowed during the Lord's Test, and news of the latest controversy involving Aamer hit the news, we were left wondering what could have been.