Brad Williams bowls

Brad Williams rattled two Australian captains, but that wasn't enough for a call-up

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In pace we trust

How did Australia come to be seemingly besotted with out-and-out fast bowlers?

Jarrod Kimber |

Years ago I was at the suburban home of Lawrie Sawle in Perth. Sawle was a legend of Australian cricket in the '80s and 90s; there are few cricket selectors in the history of the game with a better reputation than him. They call him the Colonel, but they might as well have called him the Architect, as that was the job he had in what became cricket's best winning machine.

I was there to interview him, and he was predictably excellent, and when we were packing up, he came over.

"What do you think of Nathan Coulter-Nile?" he asked. "I like him, he's quick and he swings it," I answered.

Then Sawle went into a long description of how good he thought Coulter-Nile was - very good - before finishing with, "I think he could make an incredible swing bowler, but I think they will get him to concentrate on pace."

There was, for the longest time, a complete and utter fascination with the outswinger in Australian cricket. During Sawle's selection era, it seemed to reach this peak frenzy of, "Sure he's quick, but does he swing it?" The thought that you didn't have an outswinger was enough to make it nearly impossible for you to play a Test for your country.

When Glenn McGrath started his career he was repeatedly questioned about his lack of the outswinger. Today McGrath would be defending himself against accusations about lack of pace.

Ian Healy kept for Australia in 287 matches. He played more than 150 other matches at the first-class and List A level. His career spanned 14 years. When he started Jeff Thomson was still with Queensland; Healy finished the year before Shane Watson started. When asked, Healy always says the quickest spell of bowling he kept to was Jason Gillespie at Old Trafford in 1997.

Gillespie was a quick bowler, a very quick bowler at that point, but the fact that he was the quickest that Healy ever kept to does suggest that through that period of Australian cricket history, there weren't many tearaways.

From the time Craig McDermott disappeared in 1989, until Gillespie made his debut at the end of 1996, Australia had no regular quick bowlers. They barely had any quick bowlers at all. McDermott would return after a few years away to take a lot of wickets, but not at pace. In that almost eight-year period Australia had some quality bowlers.

For quite some time Australia went looking for their new McGrath. If you were tall, thin, bowled slower than express pace and had the same haircut you had at eight, you could be the new McGrath

Merv Hughes is now remembered as a bloated buffoon - actually he was known as a bloated buffoon at the time - but he also took 212 wickets at 28. He was one of many skilful bowlers from Victoria. When Paul Reiffel made his debut in ODIs, he smashed a stump, briefly giving the pace-obsessed some hope, but he was clearly a line-and-length bowler. Damien Fleming had a pornographic outswinger that committed obscene acts, but he was not a quick. Tony Dodemaide was another line-and-length Victorian who dot-balled his way to some Tests.

But it wasn't just the Victorians; Terry Alderman, Geoff Lawson, Mike Whitney and Bruce Reid all took wickets in this period, and almost all of them were bowlers of skill, but even Whitney, who had pace, was by this point in his career not proper fast. By the time McGrath was a regular in the team, the Australian seam bowling line-up was more like a New Zealand or English attack than Australian.

There were no dead-set tearways. There was Jo Angel, who was quick when he was first picked, but he didn't play much. And Carl Rackemann, who had progressed from a quick to a canny older bowler. And it wasn't as if there was a whole host of quality pace bowling in the Sheffield Shield being ignored. There was much talk about the pace of Denis Hickey, who played for Victoria and South Australia, but his bowling average was 40. There have probably been more lovingly crafted articles about Duncan Spencer's bowling pace than there have been first-class victims of his bowling; his average was 39. Mark Harrity was the prototype for the two Mitches, Johnson and Starc: left-arm and very quick, but again, a bowling average of 39. Then there was Wayne Holdsworth, who made some tours, and took his wickets at 32.

The closest of this period was probably Brad Williams, who was probably one of the quickest bowlers in the world for a few years. Williams was big and wide, his action looked quite compact, like he was about to bowl medium-paced ousting, but in the mid-'90s, he bowled what seemed like mid-'90s mph. He was the first player to make Allan Border retire hurt. And he also busted up Mark Taylor once, and the rumour was that Taylor hated facing him. But even with all that pace, and the ability to smash the ball into the body of Australian captains, Williams was never truly close to playing for Australia back then.

At the press conference after being hit by Williams, when Taylor was asked about whether Williams should be playing for Australia, he talked up his pace, but down his chances.

Chadd Sayers has taken buckets of wickets on the flat Adelaide track, but no, he's not been fast enough for Australia yet

Chadd Sayers has taken buckets of wickets on the flat Adelaide track, but no, he's not been fast enough for Australia yet © Getty Images

Imagine a young hyped state quick now hitting Michael Clarke, then a short while later doing the same to Steven Smith. He'd be fast-tracked into development squads, limited-overs teams, and would be playing for Austalia by the end of the summer. For Williams it would take another six years after striking and scaring Taylor before he played for Australia. By the time he was picked, he was no longer one of the fastest bowlers in the world; he wasn't even the fastest bowler for Australia.

When you think of an Australian cricketer, the chances are you think of someone with facial hair, bowling very fast. Frederick Spofforth, Dennis Lillee, Johnson, big moustaches, mega pain.

But overarm bowling wasn't invented in Australia, and it was far more advanced in England than Australia, so the pace boom was delayed. Even the "Demon", Fred Spofforth, started as an underarm bowler before being inspired by the travelling overarm bowlers of England.

Australian cricket might have always been interested in pace, but they didn't always have it.

Spofforth probably wasn't the quickest of his time; he was probably cricket's first skilful swing bowler, or at least the first who knew what he was doing. A collection of his writing released a few years ago shows that he was more of a scientist than a pure speed merchant. But he was still quick enough to be considered fast, and a demon, at the time.

There was also Jack Marsh, who, according to Pelham Warner, was the best bowler in the world in the early 1900s. Marsh wasn't just good, he was fast. Marsh never played a Test, because he was indigenous and was accused of chucking - or being a "shier", as they called it then. Marsh bowled in a medical splint to prove he wasn't, taking 6 for 125 in a club game doing so, but they still chucked him out of the sport with only a few first-class games to his name, well before he ever got near the Test team. A similar fate would befall the next quick first-class indigenous bowler, Eddie Gilbert, who once knocked Don Bradman's bat out of his hand.

The first hint of the great fast attacks to come was when Warwick Armstrong brought over two quicks, Ted McDonald and Jack Gregory, who combined for 46 wickets in the 1921 Ashes. In that period it was still fairly common for spinners and cutter bowlers to take the new ball, so McDonald and Gregory, who never were that good again together, were the prototype for what opening bowlers would become.

Gillespie was a very quick bowler, but the fact that he was the quickest that Healy ever kept to does suggest that through that period of Australian cricket history, there weren't many tearaways

Australia wouldn't have another attack that was that feared, or that fast, again until after World War II when Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller were together. They took 398 wickets between them at 23, which is scary enough, before you had to face them.

Australia's big bang of pace really came when Lillee and Thomson got together, and they were so quick that they didn't just make Australians lust after pace, they changed the way the West Indies team played. They were also backed up by Len Pascoe and Rodney Hogg. It was around that time that Kerry Packer's chequebook came calling, and he certainly knew the value of pace when it came to ratings.

The history of Australian quick bowlers shows some incredible moments of quickness, but also long periods where there was little pace at all. Or the pace wasn't that successful. But the stereotype is well used for a reason; among Australia's top ten wicket-takers of all time, five would have been considered proper quick at one time while playing Tests. Although not all of them had moustaches.

In December 2007, Shaun Tait played his first T20I at the WACA. His first ball was a wicket. Adam Gilchrist said on mic: "The wild thing has been unleashed." A few balls later Ross Taylor missed a ball by a considerable margin that just looked too quick for a regular human to face. Tait looked several yards quicker than anyone else in that match, and in his bowling attack were Brett Lee and Johnson.

Just over a month later, after the Monkeygate Test in Sydney, the touring caravan of hate known as Australia v India rolled into Perth for the third Test. All Australia could talk about was pace. They were going to unleash actual hell in the form of cricket balls on the poor, unsuspecting Indians. Johnson, Lee and Tait, would bounce India out on the quickest pitch in the world.

There was, of course, one problem. There were two WACA squares. The one that Tait had bowled on was the WACA pitch that had been newly relaid, and the reason for that was that the old square was seen as somewhat slow by this point. The Test was played on the slower square. So for all the hype and pace, it was the medium- fast and fast-medium swing bowling of Irfan Pathan and RP Singh that combined for 11 wickets. Tait never took a wicket.

For a little while, Australia could have put out the fasting bowling attack in history. They could have used Lee, Tait, Dirk Nannes and Johnson all in one match, which would probably have been the only four-man 390mph attack in history.

Bone crushers: Australia were lucky to have Shaun Tait and Brett Lee play in the same period, although they only featured in 19 internationals together - three Tests, 13 ODIs, and three T20Is

Bone crushers: Australia were lucky to have Shaun Tait and Brett Lee play in the same period, although they only featured in 19 internationals together - three Tests, 13 ODIs, and three T20Is © Getty Images

In 2009, Stuart Clark was said to have lost his nip - the kind of statement that cricket people make that is barely tested and just quickly becomes fact. It didn't matter that outside of Mohammad Asif there has probably not been a more skilful bowler in world cricket over the last ten years. In 24 Tests he averaged 23.86.

Clark's lost nip happened to coincide with three faster bowlers coming through and winning a series in South Africa. Australia had apparently decided that they had a new breed they could rely on, and Clark wasn't needed. Ben Hilfenhaus, who at that stage in his career could bowl the dream 90mph outswinger. Peter Siddle, a bowler who could bowl at a decent enough pace all day on flat pitches. And finally Johnson, who was their once-in-a-generation find, the man who was supposed to become the next Lillee. Clark had two more Tests, in one of which he helped set up a victory with a brilliant new-ball spell, and then he was gone.

Australia has seen a few bowlers like him since he retired, among them Trent Copeland, whose career first-class wickets tally is close to 300. He was allowed three Tests, in Sri Lanka, where he took six wickets at 37.83. He still occasionally gets a game for NSW. Then there is Jackson Bird, who has taken over 250 wickets in first-class cricket, and those have got him eight Tests over five years. He had 13 wickets after three Tests, and still had to wait two and half years for a recall; in Tests his bowling average is 27.47. Then there are the two Victorians, John Hastings and Clint McKay, both with over 200 first-class wickets each, who have played one Test apiece. Among them these four players have 1000 first-class wickets at an average of about 26, and 13 Tests.

There is another player with numbers as good, and better, than anyone else on this list. In 2012-13, Chadd Sayers took 48 wickets at 18.52, in time for the 2013 Ashes squad, which he missed. He continued to take wickets, when not injured, in time for the 2015 Ashes, but was not picked for that either. And last season in Shield Cricket he took 62 wickets at 19. All the while, his home pitch has been Adelaide Oval - a pitch so easy to bat on, it was there that people started believing the flat-earth theory again.

When Terry Alderman was picked as an England specialist in 1981, he had never had a year of more than 48 wickets in Shield cricket, but he was seen as an ideal bowler for English conditions. Sayers is an accurate swing bowler, much like Alderman; who is not the fastest, much like Alderman; and who, unlike Alderman and others, hasn't even been given a chance to bowl in a Test match yet. There is no mystery to it: no one thinks he's no good, no one thinks he's had a bunch of good decks to bowl on, no one thinks he's lucky. He's just thought of as too slow.

Australia's big bang of pace really came when Lillee and Thomson got together, and they were so quick that they didn't just make Australians lust after pace, they changed the way the West Indies team played

Alderman played 41 Tests.

There is a pretty good reason why the Australian fast-bowling quartet at the moment has people so excited. Fast-bowling quartets don't come around much anymore. Since the West Indies' decline, there haven't been many attacks that are out-and-out pace. There are more quick bowlers right now than there have ever been in world cricket. Thanks to professionalism, the natural evolution of the sport, and strength and conditioning, bowling is getting quicker, but we don't see many out-and-out fast-bowling attacks.

The closest we have come is South Africa, who had an overlap of Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Makhaya Ntini, and now have an overlap of Steyn, Morkel and Kagiso Rabada. But both of those attacks were three-man, and both had one bowler who had slowed down or was about to be leaving soon.

The Australian attack is all young - James Pattinson and Starc are both still only 27 - and they are all coming up together. But they aren't just young and fast; they are young, fast and good. Not one of them has a Test bowling average over 28, and Pattinson, the most forgotten of the group, strikes every 48 balls, that's scary. The least fast of them, Josh Hazlewood, can bowl faster; he has slowed down on purpose to become a line-and-length bowler. When he ramps it up, he can hurt people. And in this line-up, he's the medium-pacer.

So the hype is well earned, but the truth is, they have never combined to win Australia a big series. And that is because they have never combined.

Starc has played the most Tests of any of the four, 36. In those, he has played 22 with Hazlewood, never played with Pat Cummins, and only four with Pattinson, the last being over four years ago. Hazlewood has played 31 Tests, three with Cummins, four with Pattinson. Cummins and Pattinson have never played together.

Stuart Clark v Andrew Strauss, Brisbane, 2006: does a bowling average of 23 worry you as a batsman? Nah

Stuart Clark v Andrew Strauss, Brisbane, 2006: does a bowling average of 23 worry you as a batsman? Nah © Getty Images

So for all the talk of the big-four bowling attack, in the six years since the first one of them, Cummins, played, we have never seen more than two of them in the same Test bowling attack. It's like turning up to a stage show and knowing that four stars are involved in the production but that only two will show, and you are not sure which two. Plus, you know one is technically an understudy, because there are only three roles, and it has been so long since one played you can't remember if he was supposed to be the main star or an understudy.

There has been more talk of pace than actual pace.

There is a nature, nurture, strength and conditioning, and just good luck arguments to be made about why Australia has so many quick bowlers all of a sudden. There is no doubt over the last two decades there has been a definite move towards quick bowlers in Australian cricket. You don't have to be Clark or Sayers to notice that.

Is it a climate and conditions thing? Are fast bowlers just more prevalent in Australia and South Africa (and previously in the West Indies) as they are countries that have traditionally provided the best surfaces for really quick bowling? That doesn't really explain Pakistan, the fourth of the fast-bowling nations, although Pakistan is almost always an outlier in everything cricket-related.

Is it something about Australian culture, the outdoor nature of it, the manly bravado, the stick-it-right-up-it-ness of Australiana? But if that is the case, surely Australia was a more outdoorsy culture in the '80s and '90s, when there were also far more manual-labour jobs, the kinds that build up young bowlers. And it was a more aggressive country back then; the MCG no longer throws golf balls at visiting players, nor cups of urine into the air. Australia is a middle-class country with a much better standard of living now. And millennials are supposedly lazy and soft, so why on earth are so many of them so bowling so damn quick?

Is it something about Australia's attack-at-all-times way of cricket: a line-and-length bowler probing around off stump isn't as Australian as a fast bowler trying to knock your teeth out and your bails off. Don't think, just whang it, as many young Aussies are told. But Australia played pretty attacking cricket when McGrath and Warne played.

There will be some very intelligent and well-meaning people who will suggest that the Cricket Australia machine has been involved in this. But even if you believe that it is playing a role, if you look at the Lee-Johnson-Nannes-Tait era, you had two guys from within the Cricket Australia age-group system (although Johnson was a late find) and two guys who just sort of strolled in from nowhere, bowling really fast. CA can probably claim its newer breed more, but it is barely ever all fit, and so if CA gets credit for creating them, does it also have to take some of the blame for their horrendous injury record?

Thanks to professionalism, the natural evolution of the sport, and strength and conditioning, bowling is getting quicker, but we don't see many out-and-out fast-bowling attacks

As impressive as CA has been in renting a sci-fi gravity-defying treadmill for Cummins to run on in the hope he might play more Tests, the fact is, he, and most of these guys were born fast.

And there are more of them. Billy Stanlake seems to have walked straight from his role as an extra in Ed Wood films, but he's far scarier with the ball in his hand. Last summer Henry Thornton seemed to get lost on the way to the beach and end up bowling very quick for Sydney Sixers.

These guys turn up quicker than they bowl.

In the late '90s, there was a thought that the Victorian attack, which had been so successful at producing international bowlers during the previous ten years, needed some more pace. In district cricket, the form of the game that Shield players are picked from, and the academies, there were lots of talented bowlers, but none of them were that quick.

There was skill everywhere - Reiffel and Fleming, David Saker before he left for Tasmania, Colin Miller after he came back from Tasmania. By this point Williams was in career-best form, and they wanted more of that. So the call went out to find the best quick bowlers in Victoria. It didn't matter what level they were playing; if they bowled fast, someone would take a look at them.

That is how Mick Lewis went from a twentysomething club cricketer in the northern suburbs to being Victoria's opening bowler at 26. Two years later Shane Harwood made his List A debut for Victoria at 28, after being found in Ballarat, a couple of hours north of Melbourne.

For Victoria fans at the time it felt like rare religious treasures had been found that could unlock the mysteries of life. Pace, finally, some pace. We can bounce the Queenslanders. All was right again with the world.

These days, Harwood and Lewis wouldn't be saviours, they'd just be more of the same.

For quite some time Australia went looking for their new McGrath. If you were tall, thin, bowled slower than express pace and had the same haircut you had at eight, you could be the new McGrath. Steve Magoffin, he was one. Ashley Noffke did it for a while. Clark was the main one. Peter George had a brief go. Bird was another, and there were a whole bunch of others. But by best guess, Hazlewood is new McGrath Mk 9.

Sayers isn't just lacking pace, he's lacking height and a bowl cut. The rumours say that Sayers will play the second Ashes Test, in Adelaide. If he does get picked, he will need to take a lot of wickets, fast.

Jarrod Kimber is a writer for ESPNcricinfo. @ajarrodkimber

 

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  • POSTED BY Simon on | December 10, 2017, 1:51 GMT

    The Aussie obsession with pace in the last 20 years has a lot to do with the continual media nostalgia for LillianThomson and any Windies 4. Of course kids growing up want to be them and a coupe of handfuls will have the attributes. The problems came with preventative coaching and suits espousing litigation mitigation. One of those tearaway handfuls was coached out of bowling fast by changing natural actions of kids who overcoachers were trying save from injuries that enough medical experts say not all of them would get. Combine that with every 4 years in Eng and CA knee-jerk to media 'concern' of a lack of swingers and young bowlers with training restrictions to prevent injury amounts to natural talent being stifled to the team detriment. Injury in sport is unavoidable. Team medicos have been given too big a say, they'll always err for caution. Fast bowling however would never exist in a completely cautious world.

  • POSTED BY mervhy0668013 on | November 25, 2017, 10:24 GMT

    Like the West Indies, Australia has strong young men who can bowl fast. Fast bowling was always a major part of Test cricket but became one of the most exciting aspects of the game with pace bowlers in Pakistan, Australia, WI, NZ and South Africa. All of these nations till love genuine pace bowers today, not just Australia. A false assumption embedded in this story. In the past England did as well, but they seem to have softer, seaming pitches nowadays. To watch spinners whirr away over after over becomes boring for many of us and the raw pace and physical menace of attacking, athletic pace bowlers makes the game exciting. In the subcontinent nations of BD India and SL, spin seems preferred on the pitches they now make and genuine pace bowling is less commonly a force.

  • POSTED BY Krish on | November 23, 2017, 22:42 GMT

    Cricinfouser above is right. It certainly is the Kookaburra ball which is responsible for the disappearance of swing as much as the obsession of the selectors with sheer pace. Also the bowlers coming through the ranks nowadays do not play in the English League anymore so they do not learn about swing or using the Dukes or SG ball. India uses SG, England and the West Indies use Dukes. There is also not much room for a quick to experiment in T20s which is increasingly the dominant form of the game now. Aussie attacks will find themselves struggling soon as spin has also faded away after Warnie, McGill and Hogg.

  • POSTED BY Shehryar on | November 23, 2017, 11:02 GMT

    @LEON ON did you account for the fact that there wee no helmets in the era of lilee ,thomo tyson etcetera? take away helmets, and the current crop of quicks would probably be as scary as their famed predeccessors.

  • POSTED BY Leon on | November 23, 2017, 6:51 GMT

    I am watching the first day - these guys are good bowlers! But fast? Geez. i remember at the 'G' sitting watching Lille and Thomson. They were FAST! Really fast. Tait was fast. Lee was fast. Shoaib was fast. But they did not scare batsmen like Thomo did, or like Holding did. Donald was fast, Steyn was fast - but Thomo, Tyson, Lillee (pre back) - they terrified people watching, let alone the batsmen! There have not been that many truly FAST bowlers for a long time. The Australian obsession with anyone who can beat 140 is nuts. It is only part of it. Lee - lovely guy, great bowler but so far behind Lillee, Thomson, Gregory, Lindwall..... Fast is good - but being able to use it effectively - that is why Mich Johnson sought out Lillee - 'help me harness this and use it properly' - the result is in the record books!

  • POSTED BY Cricinfouser on | November 23, 2017, 5:50 GMT

    Great article. My personal view is that the Kookaburra ball is very hard to get to swing (or stops swinging early in the innings), so the art of making it swing is not worth pursuing for young quicks. Speed, and the diminished reaction time for batsmen, is the best weapon with the Kookaburra ball against quality batsmen on hard pitches. Of course, swing plus pace is deadly (Waqar Younis, just to name one). Some Australian bowlers have mastered the cutter, a fast ball bowled with a spinners action, which done well can be more effective on hard dry surfaces. Gillespie and Lillee being two of the better exponents.

    Also, just one very minor nitpick. Border retired hurt early in his Test career. 79/80 v England at Perth. RH at 113 of an eventual 115. The match best known for the appearance of an aluminium bat...

  • POSTED BY Greg on | November 23, 2017, 3:33 GMT

    Why the fad towards pace at the moment? That's easy - it's objective. You can put a speed gun on someone and then there's no argument. In this risk averse society we now live in, it's simply too difficult to pick someone on skill, because if something goes wrong then you can be made to look incompetent. Better to be incompetent and bluff your way through with facts and figures. A McGrath would never get a look-in these days. People simply do not understand that bowling, at a high level, is like a magic trick, it's about fooling the batsman into playing the ball the wrong way or being in momentary doubt. Pace can help, but it's only one factor.