Thursday, June 23, 2011


Andy Roberts loves fishing. When he has the time, he likes drifting out in his small boat to catch something at the end of his fishing line. So this weekend when he spoke about the Indian fast bowlers touring the Caribbean and called Munaf Patel, who picked up 8 wickets in three ODIs, a spinner, he wheeled in a catch with more teeth than he had bargained for. The cricketing world was divided along the seam of the speed versus efficiency debate. Roberts was criticising Munaf for his lack of speed but there were those who stood up in defence of Munaf and said 'So what if the Ikhar express had now become a passenger train? It still got the job done, didn't it?'

So was Roberts just trying to get under Munaf's skin before the Tests? I would say unlikely. Give the man some credit. In the 1970s, even in the face of racial taunts by opposing captains, Andy Roberts, who then was at the height of his powers, still chose to stay silent and let the ball do all the talking.

Perhaps all the great man wanted to say was that line and length with gentle medium paced seamers, no matter how economical or efficient, can't compare with raw pace when it comes to blasting away the opposition. And he is right.... However, fast bowling isn't about matches or wickets alone and is in some ways a phenomenon greater than the game itself. More on that later but before that, here's a rerun from the archives of a crash course on fast bowling concepts which'll set the stage for the debate to come.

Dummy, in this context, would mean you, fair maiden, and you, pretty one, though you be neither fair nor a maiden, and those countless other women, and not a few happy men, whose hearts skip a few beats and then gallop away into a rising crescendo when they sit in front of the TV and see the sculpted contours of a Shane Bond or a Brett Lee tearing away like a wild Camargue stallion until it reaches the wicket. Here the stallion, in mid-stride, transforms himself into a Nureyev, balanced on one leg, the opposite arm thrown heavenwards, where for a split second he is the very picture of poise and grace…. but that moment lasts no more and the ballet dancer that was a stallion, is now transformed yet again into a thunder god who hurls the little red cherry in his hand like a bolt of lightning, powered by an explosion of muscle, sinew and passion… That red cherry, like a comet with a fiery tail torpedoes through the air and before that armored warrior wielding a club of a bat at the other end of the battle zone can move, the ball crashes into his castle, sending his stumps cartwheeling into splintered bits, like a picket fence shattered by a cannon ball.

The Indians are batting, braving the barrage. You join the family in its prayers as the Indian batters duck between drives, and yet in secret, a part of you betrays its admiration for the fast bowler – that lethal but extremely rare creature that stalks the vast oval greens of planet cricket. You find the spectacle of this tornado in cricketing tights blowing away all who stand in his way awe-inspiring, his primal force seductive. And you wonder why, oh why, does your heart beat so when these fast men, from the legendary Imran Khan (did I hear you sigh, dummy?) to the devastating Dale Steyn, charge in?

Well dummy, you are not alone. An elevated heart rate is a universal syndrome when the fast men take the stage. A fast bowler, unlike a batsman or a spinner, is not a creature of skill and toil, his craft honed to perfection over hours burnt in the sun, but a rare force of nature. The network and circuitry of tissue and tendon that he was born with is like a nest of coiled cobras waiting to strike. His muscles explode faster and with greater force than other lesser mortals and neither time on a treadmill nor beefing up with barbells will ever fill in what god left out. So a genuine fast bowler, one that can bowl at speeds that will make most stock cars illegal is a rare privilege. Since the beginning of time on a cricket field, when a burly bearded man called Alfred Shaw bowled the first ball in the history, the fast bowler has always stood apart: a giant misfit, like King Kong in New York, an awesome primordial force that inspires fear and respect that disrupts order, that almost demands to be tamed and chained, for if left to prosper, it will surely destroy all, perhaps even itself. Come to think of it, if a Shoaib Akhtar or a Jeff Thompson were to have the consistency, mental acumen, discipline and longevity of a Sachin Tendulkar or a Sunil Gavaskar, watching a day of cricket would have been about as much fun as watching Christians and lions at the Colosseum – bloody, brutal and worst of all, predictable, terribly one-sided and eventually boring affairs.

Thus, for the sake of good drama, this great force of nature, the all conquering fast bowler is always born with a tragic flaw, like the tragic heroes of yore, from Othello to Oedipus, they all have their Achilles’ heel. Some like Shoaib and Tait lose their minds, while others like Ian Bishop, Waqar Younis and Brett Lee never seemed to stay out of a hospital bed long enough to finish the job. Granted, that when fit and strong, there isn’t a finer or more fearsome sight than a fast bowler at full tilt, but like an earthquake or a tsunami, these ‘phenoms’ ebb and flow only once every few moons, thus ensuring that life for lesser mortals is merely disrupted and not destroyed.

Fast bowlers, irrespective of whether you are a cricket fan or not, will tug at those ancient chords in us that tie us to the beast within and during the Twenty-20 World Cup, if you happen to catch one of these powerful creatures exploding on a cricket field, savour the moment without guilt, for who knows when you’ll see another one at his best again.


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