Umar Gul was walking back to his run-up mark when it suddenly struck him that they are not playing in the subcontinent anymore. He decides to go round the wicket and
asks for a short leg. The batsman, Ross Taylor, stiffens and opens his stance a wee bit. Gul sprints in as he always does. Was it going to be a bluff delivery? Nope, no
need to bluff anyone here. He banged the ball in and the ball was aiming straight for Taylor's jaw before his gloves come in the way as he fends it off awkwardly, the ball bouncing a couple of feet from the short leg's outstretched hands. A wry smile and Gul tries it again. Taylor goes for the pull but the rising delivery takes his top edge and goes for four to the fine leg boundary.
I think I know what Taylor must be thinking after that. "What's that smell? Oh wait, I know that. That's the smell of leather. Wow, it's been a long time since that round, red thing has whizzed past my nose."
I think I know what Gul must be thinking. "What's that smell? Oh wait, I know that. That's the smell of fear. Wow, it's been a long time since I have seen the guy with the bat tapping his nose to make sure he can feel it."
So what has happened in the last few years? Why don't the Donalds go around the wicket, bang the ball in and make the Athertons jump and dance around? Since when did the Marshalls start caring less for the wickets and more for the 'spirit of cricket'? If you'd have told Boycott in 1971 that 38 years from then, batsmen will try and scoop 150 kph delieveries over their heads, you'd have heard something like "Now, now, we all have a little too much to drink sometimes, son. Now run along, there's a good lad."
If I were facing Marshall bare-headed, wearing a box that hasn't been approved by research labs around the world, with some foam classifying as glove protection, and unable to discern the pitch colour from the square adjacent to it, I'd be pretty darn scared. And I'd know that Marshall wasn't lying when he said that "he's going to pitch it short" and that "there was nothing you can do about it". Doesn't matter what happens next. When Marshall starting running in, batsmen weren't going to give themselves room, or go across, or try the suicidal - crouch down and try to scoop the ball over the keeper's head.
Some overworked grass cutters and bomb-explosion-proof helmets later, batsmen are actually going down the pitch to fast bowlers, cross-batting perfect length deliveries
over mid-wicket, glaring at the bewildered bowler and acknowledging his teammatess' applause for reaching his second triple century of the season. The captain runs to
the disconsolate bowler and puts his arms around his shoulders."Don't you want to renew your contract with Chennai Super Dimwits next year, buddy? What are you doing, staring back at the batsman and all that? Now let's stick with the change-up delivery and don't let me see you try and bowl the "quicker one" till you get my nod, ok son?"
I'm not sure Lillee or Thompson or Marshall ever sniffed the idea of "varying their pace". Nor were they ever ordered to take care of their daily calorie intake, or make sure to come back after the day's play and check out their pitch maps, or ensure they complete their monthly 56 compulsory hours of gym training. As these bowlers would tell you, all they needed was a two month break after every series to recharge their batteries, after which it was difficult for the captain to take the ball away from their hands. What made them tick was the sheer hunger and desire to play and perform every single time they walked onto the field, and they eluded injuries for the better part of their careers. Now, with the insane amount of back-to-back matches that the pacers have to deal with, they can't steam in without a care for their ankle ligaments. They have to run in, systematically, gingerly at times, hoping they could pull through to the next IPL edition. The ones who do try and push their bodies find out the hard way, that bowling short and fast isn't doing much good, what with the slow barren pitch making it easy for the well-protected batsmen to flay their super-bats around, scoring boundaries from half-timed slogs.
Nowadays, a specialist bowler is expected to master conventional swing, reverse swing and slower balls, contribute with the bat down the order, and shave regularly. What happened to the hairy, muscular, growling, moustache-sporting, curly-haired, chest-baring, loud-mouthed men who ignored the umpire mumbling something about "keeping
it easy" and bowled as fast as possible and as short as often as their bodies could allow?
The administrators around the world are flattening tracks in the hope of ensuring 5 days of run-fests in test cricket to entice crowds. Only in England and New Zealand,
where the administrators can't control the weather, the conditions still provide an even battle between the bat and the ball. Alas, fast bowling is not about bowling fast
any more. Coaching academies around the world are teaching kids how to roll their fingers over the ball and how to say 'namaste' ('hello') and 'bahut accha joke tha' ('that was a splendid joke'), which might come in useful during IPL recruitment sessions being conducted by Lalit Modi.
I am amazed that teams haven't bowled enough short deliveries to the Indian batsmen in recent times. The only time The Indian batsmen have been tested with short-pitched bowling in the recent past was against England in the T20 World Cup, where the Indians couldn't time ONE hook or pull shot in the 40 odd short deliveries that they faced. I can only assume that on the eve of the 2007-08 test series against Australia in Australia, Brett Lee got a call from the BCCI president, saying "I assume, Mr. Lee, that you are aware of the upcoming IPL tournament that we are staging. Undoubtedly you shall earn a healthy contract. Assuming, of course, that the Indian batsmen come out unhurt from the current series. I am sure an intelligent man like you would understand."
Does anyone remember the countless meaningless mammoth run-fests played in the subcontinent? Easily the most memorable tournament this decade was the Ashes 2005 series, where the fast bowlers decided the fate of the series. One man gave us indefatigable fans few of the greatest test cricket moments. Fred Flintoff has been one of the few bowlers in this era who could actually make top-order batsmen stand rooted to their guard. I can vividly remember that Edgebaston moment, when he had just taken Langer's wicket and Ponting came to the crease. Fred turned on his run-up mark, and started sprinting in. Ponting took guard and wondered for a fleeting moment whether he had filed his health insurance papers when the noise from the crowd brought him back to his surroundings. Flintoff steamed in, and the crowd went 'OOOOOOOOOOOOOHHHHHH' in a united chorus. Flintoff hit the length, the ball seamed away, taking Ponting's outside edge and landed in Jones's gloves, and the din that followed enveloped your senses. The fan in you was entranced, as if transported to Edgebaston, and transported to those times when the batsman knew what leather smelt like.
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