Vic Marks: why county batsmen are no longer up to speed

Whenever some bright young thing surfaces on the county circuit to a stream of superlatives, the gnarled old pros have a tendency to sniff and ask: “But what’s he like against the short stuff?”

We have witnessed a few bright young things surfacing this season. For example, Varun Chopra at Warwickshire, Liam Dawson at Hampshire, Alex Hales at Nottinghamshire and Alexei Kervezee at Worcestershire are not yet Lions, but surely they are cubs in waiting. But what are they like against the short stuff? The short answer is that we have no idea.

I bumped into Graham Thorpe last week, who is now one of the ECB’s batting gurus. He told me how he likes to stretch his young charges – especially in the winter – by cranking up the bowling machine to around 90 mph. How will they react to that extra bit of pace? (Rodney Marsh once told me how the teenage Ricky Ponting would attract an audience at the Australian Academy at his lunchtime sessions, in which the ball was fizzed down really fast. The onlookers wanted to see how this precocious young Tasmanian could pull the ball with such innocent majesty).

Today in England when we try to assess our youngsters there is a problem: while they can be tested against pace in laboratory conditions in the nets, they are very seldom tested in match conditions against such bowling pace. It is at this point when I may start to sound like the archetypal old fart, who thinks things ain’t quite what they used to be.

You see, in my day there never seemed to be any shortage of proper fast bowlers. The arrival of the fixture list was always of immediate and urgent interest. It caused a lot of angst. When do we play Hampshire (Marshall) or Surrey (Clarke) or Gloucestershire (Walsh and Lawrence) or Lancashire (Croft), Middlesex (Daniel), Sussex (Imran and Le Roux), Warwickshire (Donald)? And, at Somerset, we used to say: ‘Thank goodness Garner is still with us!’

And – in the days when just one overseas player was allowed – there was many a county batsman who would think: ‘Please God, could you persuade Derbyshire to pick John Wright rather than Michael Holding for this game’? Wright was and is a delightful man but no cricketer on the first morning of a match has ever been greeted with such beaming smiles from opposition players as he was. My goodness, how we meant that “Good morning. How lovely to see you, John”, no matter how many runs he went on to score. His presence meant Holding’s absence.

It is odd. In just about every other sport we can demonstrate how the participants run faster or serve faster in this era than in the last. Yet somehow this does not seem to apply in cricket. I don’t believe that the current batch of fast bowlers is any quicker than Thomson or Lillee or Holding or Marshall etc. And there seemed to be so many more of them a generation ago. Or am I falling into the age-old ”in my day” trap?

In county cricket the overseas pace bowler no longer exists. He is too busy playing for his country, probably in Twenty20 cricket. So who do the young tyros have to be wary of? In county cricket there is Stuart Broad when he plays the odd game for Nottinghamshire. Another Stuart, Meaker of Surrey, is as quick through the air as anyone, but has not been consistent in fitness or form. There is still Steve Harmison, capable of roughing batsmen up perhaps, though his appearances for Durham become evermore rare. There is Saj Mahmood on a good day.

I came across one sage assessing a county batsman the other day. “He is not very brave”, he said. But does that matter anymore at county level? Indeed there are not that many express bowlers around at international level today. Bravery – and skill – against the quicks used to be absolutely essential to survive. Now it is possible to shine for a while without the first of those qualities. Which, in the opinion of most of the old-timers, is a crying shame.

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5 Responses to Vic Marks: why county batsmen are no longer up to speed

  1. Colin Stringer says:

    The other question prompted by VIc’s article is why the world in general is no longer producing genuine fast bowlers. I have just watched the Sky team discussing the new documentary on the great West Indies side of the 70s and eighties when they could choose from seven or eight 90 mph bowlers. Yes nowadays overseas bowlers are too busy playing for their country, but even if they weren’t there are probably not as many 90mph plus bowlers in the World as there were in that Windies squad. Why that shoud be, in an age of superior nutrition, sports science and fitness is the real mystery.

  2. Iain Stevinson says:

    Were there really more ‘proper fast bowlers’ around back in the 1970s and ’80s? I suspect most of those mentioned in the article were merely fast-medium bowlers with the odd quicker ball, similar to the crop of opening bowlers we see today such as Steyn, Malinga, Broad, Morkel, Gul, Roach, Siddle.

    In the last twelve years I have seen three bowlers who bowl 90mph+ nearly every ball – Shoaib Akhtar, Brett Lee and Shaun Tait. Others who are not quite in that top tier but can be very speedy over a few spells are Mitchell Johnson and Fidel Edwards.

    I doubt there was ever many more than that operating in international cricket at any one time.

    Commentators today (and in cricket they are generally former first-class cricketers) complain of there being a dearth in express pace bowling in today’s game. However, without actually facing modern quicks how can they really compare them to days of old? Batsmen in the present era didn’t face Holding or Thomson, but nor do today’s cricket commentators face Broad or Morkel who they may discover are no less tall, pacy and hostile.

  3. Leonard Smith QC says:

    The batting of Greg Chappell has received its fair share of praise and since his retirement, it was long judged that he was second only to Bradman among post war Australian batsman. However, for a while at least in the mid 2000’s, some critics began to rate Ricky Ponting as Greg’s superior, a ranking I firmly believed is entirely misplaced.

    To me, the deciding matter between the two is Greg Chappell’s performances against the great West Indian pace attack and I believe the following figures may surprise many.

    We all know that he scored 7,110 test runs at 53.86 but tetween 1975 and 1980, Greg scored the following consecutive scores against the great West Indian attack-

    123, 109no, 13, 43, 52, 182no, 6no, 4, 48, 54, 68no, 74, 124.

    Before the last two innings, he played 5 Supertests in the West Indies and scored 621 runs at 68 and in all World Series Cricket Tests, he was the leading batsman and he scored 1415 runs at 56 which is a better record than Viv and Barry Richards.

    Indeed the World Series Tests were described by all who played in them as the highest standard of cricket they experienced and the attack Chappell batted against was comprised of Roberts, Holding, Garner, Croft, Daniel, Imran, Le roux and Proctor.

    It is difficult to conceive of a greater irony in cricket that these World Series Tests are not found in the record books, yet they were of immeasurably higher quality than the vast majority of Tests played since.

    Having seen all the great batsman since 1960, you may well understand why I rate Greg Chappell as third behind Viv Richards and Gary Sobers among the batsmen I have seen. (Tendulkar and Lara are 4th and 5th).

    • Vic Marks says:

      I agree about the standard of World Series cricket; it’s odd how all the English players, who went were vilified unlike those who went to SA. The Chappell figures are compelling. Of course, Ponting in his pomp might have been good enough to prosper against that batch of pacemen as well. But we’ll never know for sure.

  4. Will says:

    As an Australian, I know a lot of people who rate Ponting suprerior to Greg Chappell as a batsmen. All of them had the pleasure of seeing each of them play, year in and year out.

    I don’t see why you should rate Chappell ahead of Ponting purely on the fact that Chappell played WSC against the Windies. It is not Ponting’s fault that he was born when he was.

    From what I have saw of Ponting, at the age of 21, against the Windies in 95/96 against the likes of Ambrose and Walsh, I have no doubt Ponting would have hammered the WSC Windies attack.

    Add to that Ponting’s form against the fastest bowlers of this era in Donald, Aktar, Waqar Younis, Andrew Flintoff you’d have to be a fool to think Ponting would not have been able to prosper.

    His mastery of the hook and pull shot would immediately put the Windies bowlers on the back foot.

    Ponting is the only batsmen I can remember seeing who faced Ambrose in a cap. The guy would have revelled back in the day.