Watching England pile up 500-plus runs for the loss of a single wicket against Australia, it was difficult not to recall the days of Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath.
By Suresh Menon
Who is the best bowler in the world today? The more relevant question probably is: Are there any great bowlers in the game today? Watching England pile up 500-plus runs for the loss of a single wicket against Australia, it was difficult not to recall the days of Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath. It was only the other day that these two were bowling, but already it feels like decades have passed since they quit.
Australia have no great bowlers, nor do the West Indies, both of whom became world beaters on the power of their bowling attack. At one time, the West Indies produced fast bowlers by the bushels. One lot came and went, then another, then another till fast bowling itself was seen as a West Indies speciality. But the conveyor belt has come to a standstill. There are no Courtney Walshes and Courtly Ambroses in the team, and no whiff of the fearsome foursome of Andy Roberts-Michael Holding-Malcolm Marshall-Joel Garner.
Good batting tracks, quality bats, shorter boundaries and perhaps the needs of television (which needs matches to last full five days) have made the job of the bowler more difficult than it already is.
Where are the bowlers? India struggled to beat at home the second team from the bottom in the ICC rankings because they just lacked the bowling. Zaheer Khan apart, no one looked the part consistently as New Zealand held on for two draws before losing the decider.
England’s Graeme Swann, the most successful bowler this year with 53 wickets from 11 matches, has already invited comparison with Jim Laker, with the cricket historian David Frith willing to stick his neck out and declare that Swann is already as good as Laker. Will he make the difference in the Ashes series? Traditionally the Aussies have been more uncomfortable against off spin than any other kind (as Erapally Prasanna and Lance Gibbs will tell you even if you ignore Laker’s 19 in a match).
The other important contemporary off spinner is enjoying an Indian summer as batsman. Harbhajan Singh’s back-to-back Test centuries against New Zealand might be some compensation for his largely forgettable year as bowler His 35 wickets have come in 10 matches but at an average of 43 and a strike rate of 93. Perhaps he was taking his frustration out on the hapless New Zealand bowlers.
Swann apart, the bowler of the year, the one who has risen above the problems afflicting his tribe has been the fast man Dale Steyn. He has 45 wickets in nine Tests at an average of 23, and awaits the arrival of the Indian batsmen in his country.
Should something be done to make the bowler’s life easier? The former India cricketer, the late Kripal Singh suggested years ago (during another phase of unproductive Test days for bowlers) that in a close call, like the leg before, for instance, the benefit of the doubt should go to the bowler. It sounded radical then, and it sounds radical now.
But it illustrates just how much some bowlers – Kripal was an off spinner – think the game has tilted in favour of batsmen.
There is much skill in contemporary bowling, considering how such innovations as the doosra and the reverse swing were unheard of a generation or so ago. So why do bowlers struggle so much?
The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Bowlers, had one existed, might have had something to say about the Gabba wicket which saw two partnerships of over 300 in the match (the ground record stood for just two days!). There is no joy in watching a batsman, unchallenged, go from milestone to milestone while bowlers merely go through the motions after a while. The essence of sport is contest, and when that is sucked out of a game, there is nothing to keep interest alive.