There’s nothing quite like watching four proper fast bowlers operating in tandem, is there?
Four good bowlers working together to dismantle an opposition, whatever the combination of pacers and spinners among them, is a fine sight anyway. When the conditions are not overly batsman-friendly, and the bowlers are in the game most of the time, it is better cricket already. But, even within that, four fast bowlers sharing the overs and wickets is a sight that has enthralled cricket watchers for years – even centuries – now. Understandably.
The mind goes back to the West Indian teams of the 1970s and 1980s. I never saw Colin Croft bowling with Andy Roberts, Michael Holding and Joel Garner, but I did see the younger hero – Malcolm Marshall. That was something else all right. The relentlessness of it. The all-out aggression. The fear factor. The sense that something might break – literally too – any moment. All with the knowledge, even as a viewer, that surviving against them was not just a matter of skill and ability but, more than anything else, temperament.
The Muhammad Ali thing, if you like.
Sonny Liston, George Foreman, Earnie Shavers and Joe Frazier – these are among the top hardest punchers in heavyweight boxing history. Ali doesn’t rank anywhere close. Their reputation preceded them. With them, there was always the chance of a sudden ending, one big punch over the course of 15 rounds landing exactly as planned. The sense that something might break. For Ali to beat each and every one of them (he lost to Frazier once in three fights) was not just about skill and ability, it was about temperament, will, intelligence.
Facing up to the four (they could have fielded eight if they wanted) West Indian pacemen was a bit like that, wasn’t it? Only a handful managed it with dignity, especially in conditions suitable for the pacers. But then there was only one Muhammad Ali.
With Shane Warne and Stuart MacGill around, the Australians couldn’t really field Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie, Brett Lee and Michael Kasprowicz together, as they can’t now Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Pat Cummins and Jackson Bird because of Nathan Lyon, but the prospect is a tantalising one. The fact that they can’t, or haven’t, also has to do with how teams are put together, the set formulae. Six-one-four – and since the Australians won so often, who could argue? And, to be fair, they have always had a bit of medium pace around – Steve Waugh to Mitchell Marsh.
The South Africans – and the Indians to a lesser extent – did bite the bullet in this Newlands Test match though and that was the best part about the game for me, result be damned.
Obviously the two teams didn’t discuss their plans with each other before the game started, but they were clearly thinking along similar lines: Four pacers and a spinner as back-up. That R Ashwin could be trusted to do more than just act as back-up is a no-brainer and Keshav Maharaj has also done enough in his short career to merit a little more credit.
But the best part about it was the relentless fun of the action. And equally – something that harks back to the West Indian era – watching how each paceman is different in his plan of action, how each one of them brings something different to the table. Sheer pace, sure. But pace can only get you so far and no further. It’s the nuance that makes it all so worthwhile.
Let’s look at the Indians first. In Ishant Sharma, a tall, hit-the-deck pacer who has started to pitch the ball up more in recent times, and Umesh Yadav, good pace, swing and reverse swing, India had two good men out, and fielded Mohammed Shami, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Jasprit Bumrah and Hardik Pandya. By Indian standards, that is a pretty fast attack, with speeds typically between 135 and just under 145. Shami, perhaps the fastest of them when he gets it right, can get the ball to move in the air and off the pitch and is an excellent reverse swinger too. Bhuvneshwar, as the South Africans found out in the first innings, is a brilliant channel bowler with subtle variations that can always cause trouble. Bumrah and Pandya are perhaps a bit too raw to rate yet, but they do provide the variety a pace attack can do with.
I am not for a moment comparing this attack to any of the great Test bowling attacks but one can’t deny that it’s an exciting bunch. Indeed, it’s the South African attack that got the pulse racing a bit like the West Indians of yore did.
With the Caribbeans, it was firstly raw pace. Intimidating stuff. Perhaps best exemplified by Holding in that ‘grovel’ series. Fear. But it wasn’t only that, was it? Roberts and Marshall were among the most intelligent fast bowlers ever, and could do amazing things in the air and off the pitch. At pace. The younger man more so. And Garner always added that little extra with his immense height, sending the ball down from way up there and targeting the toes. With them, there was no pause, no breather. And remember, different laws then, not as protective of batsmen.
How does the South African foursome – only in name now, really, with Dale Steyn out of action again – compare? Well, it doesn’t, as Holding told my colleague Saurabh Somani just yesterday. He mentioned ‘pace’ as the single biggest differentiator. Who can argue, even if Steyn, Kagiso Rabada and Morne Morkel are all above 140 and often above 145? Of course, Vernon Philander wouldn’t have found a place in those West Indian sides, would he? “Someone chipping down the wicket,” Holding mentioned – no one would do that to them as they did to Philander. True. But Philander provides so much more than pace: outstanding control, movement both ways, and an ability to hit the stumps or the pads regularly. Oh, he’s not too slow, certainly not. Just slower than the rest of them. “We didn’t have someone who was so dynamic on grassy pitches,” said Holding of Philander. True that too.
Different eras, different rules, almost a different game altogether. So comparisons are pointless. But like the Caribbeans then, the South Africans now have got the adrenaline flowing something magical. The package … nothing beats it. One just hopes that the team sticks to the plan for the next Test, in Centurion. They don’t have Steyn any more, but they have Chris Morris and Andile Phehlukwayo in their ranks. They can bring in Wayne Parnell or Dane Paterson or Duanne Olivier (not a like-for-like replacement for Steyn of course, but who is?). And keep the four-paceman attack going.
Not the best recipe for the Indians, but if they can counter it – as one feels they can if they put their minds to it – they will leave the South African shores better and stronger men. That’s what dealing with good pace bowling does to batsmen.