Fast bowling on a good wicket

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Statistics show that there is currently a resurgence of the menacing pace bowler, who, after decades of being carted around by big-willow-weilding batsmen on small grounds with onerous field restrictions, is finally coming back into his own.

The irrepressible Jofra Archer, who returned a maiden five-for in Tests at Headingley, is part of a fearsome strain of modern-day fast-bowlers. | Reuters

August 22 was a festive day for cricket fans from the purists’ bracket. India were taking on West Indies in Antigua, a Steven Smith–less Australia were looking to steer clear of Jofra Archer’s bumpers at Headingley, and New Zealand were fighting to save the series against Sri Lanka in Colombo. Turning exciting days into a damp squib, rain played a part in each of the three Test matches but surprisingly all three produced results in the end.

The days of drawn Test matches seem well behind us. Of the 67 Test matches played since 2018, 40 have ended within four days, suggesting that the last day is often rendered meaningless these days. In 2019 alone, 13 of the 19 Test matches have ended by the fourth day. While this reveals that host teams are looking to produce result-oriented pitches to attract viewers back to Test cricket once again, a rather understated factor is that there is an ongoing renaissance in fast bowling.

The days of bodyline Test series and fast bowlers bundling teams out within the first session might be long gone but the last two years are proof that T20 cricket hasn’t completely taken over as the purest form of cricket just yet. That tag still belongs to Test cricket, and rightly so. Pioneering this resurgence of Test cricket is a rather marginalised category of players — the fast bowlers.

The eras of the fearsome West Indian fast bowlers of the 1970s and the Australian, Pakistani and South African pacemen of the late ’90s and early 2000s gave way to a period in which batsmen would dominate limited-overs cricket.

Run-rates got healthier and batsmen like Virender Sehwag and David Warner led the swashbuckler’s transition to the longer format. Batting in Test cricket, unlike before, suddenly seemed a lot easier. Test matches began to follow a familiar, predictable script. Double and triple tons became commonplace and flat tracks seemed to produce an increasing number of drawn matches.

The metamorphosis of pitches into flat belters coincided with the waning of spectator interest in Test cricket. Now, at the advent of the World Test Championship, the Test batsman no longer remains the dominator. The global batting average in 2018 was a poor 27.6, and in 2019 it is only marginally less mediocre at 29.00. A stunning 242 ducks were registered in the 48 Tests played in 2018, the most since 2002 in the history of Test cricket. In 2019, it is already 90 in 20 Test matches.

Some outstanding pace bowlers have made batting much tougher these days. If our fathers and forefathers spoke proudly of the terrorising fast bowlers of their day, the last two years may well be the period that you will be recounting to your grandkids. In Sri Lanka, a country known for spinners taking the new ball on Day 1, New Zealand’s pacers accounted for eight of the 10 wickets that fell. As Jofra Archer ripped through Australia’s batting line-up with impeccable precision on Day 1 of the third Ashes Test, Kemar Roach and Shannon Gabriel had India on their toes on an Antigua wicket that seemed to have gained new life. Jasprit Bumrah and Ishant Sharma would then go on to put up a compelling performance to reduce West Indies to 37/7 in the final innings. In England, Josh Hazlewood, who was warming the bench during the first Test, bowled England out along with James Pattinson for a mere 67.

England’s 67 is not even a one-off. Since 2018, they have been bowled out for under 100 four times — twice at home and once each in West Indies and New Zealand. Since 2018, sub-100 scores have been registered in UAE, West Indies, New Zealand, England, India, Sri Lanka, South Africa and Australia. That’s eight of the nine regular countries where cricket is hosted.

If you are a fan of fast bowling with the red ball, there is no better time to watch Test cricket. The fast bowling strike rates in 2019 have been the best since 1896 at 47.1. In fact, 2019 is the only year since 1922 where fast bowling strike rates have been lower than 50.

 

 

The renaissance began, however, perhaps in 2018 when the bowling strike rates dropped to 51.8 from 2015’s 60.1, 61.7 (2016) and 59.7 (2017). As many as 39 five-wicket hauls were registered in 2018, the joint second-best in the history of Tests. In 2019, that number is already 18 and we have had just 20 Test matches so far with the World Cup and IPL eating into most of the schedule.

A mere glance at the last month alone and even an average cricket fan would remember Chris Woakes’ 6 for 17 at Lord’s to bowl out Ireland for 38, Tim Murtagh’s five-for in the same game to scuttle England for under 100, Archer’s searing spell to Steven Smith, Hazlewood’s memorable five-wicket haul at Leeds and Bumrah’s 5 for 7 in Antigua. Such has been the impact of fast bowling that batsmen, caught in limited-overs their technique suited for quick, impactful knocks, have struggled to play the red ball.

There is also evidence to suggest that aside from pitches and the skills of the quicker bowlers, batsmen too have played a minor role in the fast-bowling renaissance. The strike rate of batsmen in 2019 (52.87) is the best since 1910. The quality of data collection in those early days may be suspect — especially with regard to parameters, like strike rate, that weren’t deemed important at the time, but we could well be witnessing the year of the highest batting strike rate, with batsmen religiously focussing on quicker scoring rates if perishing early in the process. But if this tendency is paving the way for spells as historic as Jofra Archer and Jasprit Bumrah have been treating us to, should anybody be complaining?

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