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.