The skill of fear versus the fear of skill
Nothing shouts “Test cricket!” like when a ferocious fast bowler, seemingly born in the lap of violence, with an unmatched penchant for chaos, wreaks havoc from 22 yards on blokes so heavily laden with protective gear from head to toe that it is an outright injustice for them to be fearing for their lives. Which they have been doing so, off late -- in an occurrence so unusual and a thrill so rare, you simply cannot afford to miss it.
Aussie speedster Mitchell Johnson and Proteas paceman Dale Steyn have lately been serving up some of the sport’s finest ever moments but they have, in a fundamental sense, differed in their method of attack.
While Johnson’s near-decapitation of batsmen has instilled a fear of injuries which has augmented his bread and butter skill, Steyn’s crafty talents with the ball have amplified a batsman’s fear of losing his stumps. A has led to B for one, B has led to A for the other, but both eventually resulted in C – the obliteration of opponents.
In Saturday’s third and final Test in Newlands, Cape Town, the series between Australia and South Africa stands at one-all but another trip down memory lane is in the offing because throughout cricket history, those who’ve been revered as among the greatest pacemen of all time have showcased such contrasts.
Australian duo Jeff Thomson, who generated unearthly pace with his slinging action, and Dennis Lillee, the most cunning of bowlers at relatively lesser speeds, formed one of the greatest all-time bowling partnerships. Thomson, in fact, played his first Test with a broken foot -- an injury he chose to hide from selectors at the time, which later served to enhance his perceived devilish nature.
The way those two conducted their trade in the 1970s triggered Clive Lloyd to form a West Indian pace attack with the primary aim of beheading batsmen; wickets were simply collateral damage.
Andy Roberts, with not a flicker of emotion in him other than unflinching aggression; Colin Croft, who “would bounce his grandmother if he thought there was a wicket in it” according to his teammate; Michael Holding, aka ‘Whispering Death’, whose long run-up would make batsmen anxiously twitch around in their crease; and ‘Big Bird’ Joel Garner, who was the most gentle of the quartet except for his 6’8” enormous frame and toe-crushing yorkers which were enough to frighten batsmen out -- these four formed the most fearsome bowling unit to ever grace the game.
West Indies continued (until recent years) to throw up bowlers who would either have the skills to outdo batsmen with ease, such as Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh, or paceman who would set the fear of god in batsmen to further enhance their talents, like the remarkable Malcolm Marshall.
Pakistan greats Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram (‘Sultans of Swing’) exploited the art of reverse swing with devastating effect, before fellow countryman Shoaib Akhtar – if only for a brief period – overwhelmed batsmen with sheer speed. All three, though, aimed primarily for the stumps (or well, toes) rather than run in to do serious bodily harm.
So too was the case with New Zealand great Richard Hadlee, whose side-on action was cumbersome for men with willows; and with Australian pair Glenn McGrath, a metronome who simply outwaited batsmen, and Brett Lee, whose ability to swing the ball at fast speeds made him an unwanted entity to face.
Rewind yourselves eight decades to 1932-33, when England skipper Douglas Jardine deployed fast bowler Harold Larwood in the infamous “Bodyline” Test series. Larwood, a bowler with the distinction of having injured the most number of batsmen, knocked batsmen unconscious with bouncers and left psychological scars to last a lifetime.
Jardine was fortunate enough to have Larwood in his ranks, the same way captain Michael Clarke is blessed with the reborn Johnson in his armory. It’s remarkable, though, that Johnson has been able to instill lasting fear in batsmen even in this day and age -- when batsmen are not only better protected but video analyses and precise planning have ruled out the fear of the unknown.
Proteas skipper Graeme Smith too is privileged to have not only Steyn to fall back upon, but also Allan Donald – South Africa’s greatest fast bowler, who married aggression with accuracy – as his bowling coach.
What makes watching Steyn and Johnson go head-to-head so unique is the way they both individually evoke memories of two different classes of pacemen from yesteryears.
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