Where has the pace gone?

There is a common Urdu saying in cricket, ‘pace IS pace, yaar.’ Which roughly translates to ‘pace is pace, buddy.’

But what has happened to this pace? Fast bowling is probably the most exciting aspect of the game, it glues viewers to the TV screens, it brings fans to the stadiums, it instils fear into the eyes of the batsman, it makes the hair on your arms rise.

Even with the biomechanics, anatomy and physiology involved, it is more of an art than science. Simply put, pace is sexy.

From the feared West Indian quartet, the Australian golden duo of Lillee and Thomson, the W assassins Wasim and Waqar to the crescendo of the Bond, Lee and Akhtar era. But that’s where the lineage ends, the stocks have emptied. In this article, I put the science of fast bowling aside and concentrate on the art of pace. What has happened to this dying art?

Mohammad Amir pace bowler, Pakistan

CC by Dave Morton (Contact)

You may argue that there are still fast bowlers around, which is true. But the problem lies in the numbers.

20 years ago, bowling at 140-145km/h was never considered ‘quick’, it was mostly average pace. Even Glenn McGrath could bowl 140kph+ back in the day. Many bowlers including Brett Lee, Shane Bond, Shoaib Akhtar, Andrew Flintoff, Mohammad Sami and Shaun Tait were consistently bowling above 150kph. Then came the age of Mitchell Johnson, Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Mohammad Amir, Fidel Edwards and Lasith Malinga who consistently bowled between 145 and 150.

Now, the fastest bowlers include Kagiso Rabada, Mitchell Starc, Jofra Archer and Jasprit Bumrah but they lack the consistency of their predecessors of pulling such high numbers on a regular basis.

Currently, a youngster bowling at 90mph or 145kph is an ‘unearthed gem’ or a ‘rising star’ and takes the cricketing world by storm, while being given such high importance and value due to the scarcity and drought of extreme pace. Let’s take a closer look at why speeds have decreased over time.

First and foremost, I believe it’s the amount of cricket being played today that plays the biggest factor. The advent of T20 cricket and its emergence as a major format of the game is the main reason behind this.

Cricket cannot survive without fast bowling and fast bowling cannot survive without proper cricket. The sooner we realise that the better.

In addition to the international calendar accommodating T20 matches, every cricket nation has its own T20 league as well. T20 franchises also provide much more financial security than international cricket does for cricketers, drawing athletes to this new form. Furthermore, the prospect of bowling 4 overs per match, as compared to days in Test cricket requires less fitness and preparation, which must also be appealing to fast bowlers.

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Due to these reasons, fast bowlers are playing much more than they were 20 years ago, resulting in much more fitness and injury issues. After injury and vigorous rehabilitation, the body is never the same and thus the pace declines. This was the fate of many current era pacers such as Junaid Khan, Umar Gul and Irfan Pathan.

As bowling pace takes a huge toll on the body, some pacers in order to avoid these problems, deliberately reduce their pace and choose to focus more on other skills such as swing, cutters, slower balls and other varieties to outfox the batsman and prolong their careers. Bowlers like James Anderson, Glenn McGrath and Nathan Bracken are prime examples of this.

Secondly, the dearth of fast bowling problems can also come back to a lack of inspiration. As time went on, young cricketers have had fewer role models to look up to. In the 70s-90s, most teams had at least 1 extreme pace bowler. Kids growing up during this time could look up to many players and aspire to emulate them.

This can be exemplified by Brett Lee, who dreamed of bowling 160kph after watching Jeff Thomson. Over time and especially since the 90s, the amount of extreme and intense pacers has decreased, encouraging fewer kids to take up the mantle. Thus, the vicious cycle has continued.

Brett lee bowls on the pitch with pace cricket

CC by Rikx (Contact)

Thirdly, a country’s playing conditions can play a huge part in the formation of their bowling squad. Due to the overcast conditions and greener pitches, England and New Zealand prefer fast-medium pace bowlers who rely more on swing rather than pace. Sri Lankan and Indian pitches and conditions, favour spin and therefore they too focus on spin bowling.

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The West Indies, South Africa, Pakistan and Australia often have flat and bouncy tracks and in addition to their rich tradition in pace and fast bowling pedigree, emphasise more on pace than other aspects of bowling.

But even so, over the years, even the conditions and pitches have started to favour batsmen and impacting how fast bowlers go about their business. For example, the thicker bats today cause the slightest edge from a good place to reach the boundary. This also results in fast bowlers reducing their pace and relying more on slower deliveries especially at the end of the innings where there are no-slip fielders in place.

Due to all these factors, extreme pace has become a dying art. Action needs to be taken to keep this glorious art form alive. Why not have format-specific bowlers that only concentrate on their specialised format? Also, why not bring back 2 balls in the ODI game to encourage more orthodox swing and bounce in the first powerplay? Doctoring more pitches with grass and bounce to suit fast bowling is another option. Administrators and officials of the game need to tackle this issue head-on to continue the growth, progression and development of this beautiful sport.

Cricket cannot survive without fast bowling and fast bowling cannot survive without proper cricket. The sooner we realise that the better.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the official views of Sportageous or its founders. Assumptions made within the article are not reflective of the position of Sportageous as an organisation and its founders.
Faraz Nabi, an aspiring psychiatrist and passionate sports fan who struggles to ball pace, rip forehands or score goals, but has just enough IQ to breakdown any play in most sports.
Noor Shafiq assisted in the curation of this article. You can follow him here on LinkedIn

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