Fatal attraction of pace and bounce

The Asian Age.  | R Mohan

Sports, Cricket

Not since Michael Holding terrorised the Englishmen in 1976 could a bowler have instilled such an atmosphere of primal fear in his opponents.

Jofra Archer

There is no deadlier sight in the game than when a fast bowler is about to deliver, pivotal tension at its highest, batsman nervy in anticipation, and a tingling aura of anticipation all around. The old red brick pavilion Lord’s would normally have added its historic dignity to the contest. But Lord’s resembled a bull ring more as a Bajan, looking like a sprinter more than a fast bowler, scared the bejesus out of the Australian batsmen.

Not since Michael Holding terrorised the Englishmen in 1976 could a bowler have instilled such an atmosphere of primal fear in his opponents. And he was more of a ‘lone wolf’ while Holding operated as if in a pack of hounds. Built with suppleness and a natural athleticism that would rival Holding’s, Archer made his Test debut look like the kind of success story that rock stars make of concerts, his Rasta-like locks , perhaps, adding to the imagery.

Facing him as if he were practising a dancing routine was Steve Smith, he of the laterally moving right foot and his twirling of the bat even in leaving the ball well alone. This was Test match cricket at its gladiatorial best and then it changed in that instant when Smith was felled and all the horrors of the game’s most dreadful moments seemed to rush at us in one terrible replay like that of Justin Langer taking a fearful hit on the helmet on the first day of a Wanderers Test and the sound seemed to reverberate through the cricket world.

The ball was clocked at 91.3 mph by the speed radar. The pace was to be expected from a bowler who never allowed the speed meter to log less than 83 mph. The steepling bounce was the killer and it was around whenever the adopted English fast bowler let the ball go from a smoothest imaginable and yet virtual jog to the crease. To ask where the pace comes from is the same as guessing how a Ferrari generates speed. Smooth, purring, pace machine is what Archer is all about.

In what was only half a Test match, the bowler had infused so much life that the draw of stumps seemed an eternity to come for Australia, the new record holder of a concussion substitute coming out to bat and, ironically, being felled by the same Archer, before getting up to play like a true replacement for Steve Smith, injured badly in the neck and out of the Leeds Test. The debate will rage on whether Smith should have come out to bat again after being hit.

Call it foolhardiness or courage – there is only a thin red line between them – the gladiators do just that, they come back regardless of the punishment meted out. And there hasn’t been a more courageous batsman than the cricketer who made his debut as a leg spinner and then discovered a talent that has kept the flag of Australian batting flying, however awkward his technique makes it all seem, with that exaggerated back and across right leg.

Smith’s century in each innings at Edgbaston was phenomenal as it set up a Test win in the opener. In his third effort he may have failed to get to the landmark by eight runs, but the 92 raised his profile in courage several times more. There was no Archer in the first Test even though all of England would have been raving about him after the Super Over in the World Cup final.  Such is selection wisdom.

Smith may not have put his name on the board at Lord’s but he has gone up several notches in everyone’s estimation. He may even have matched Dean Jones for sheer bloody-mindedness as the Victorian proved to be in Chennai’s muggy September days  when he batted on and nearly died of dehydration was revived in a bath tub filled with ice into which he was thrown during Tied Test II of 1986 in the Taj Coromandel hotel.

Smith’s name would be up in the brightest lights if not for the silly episode of ball tampering in which he did not, of course, show the desired leadership in ethics and copped a year’s ban and. On return, he had to endure all the abuses thrown at him in English grounds during the World Cup and in the Test series, including at Lord’s where they threw out at least one member for booing the brave Australian batsman.

Archer’s name will ring on, even ring in batsmen’s ears as he is said to have hit 19 batsmen thus far in the World Cup and in his first Ashes Test. The power of pace and bounce is all the more lethal as it comes from a deceptively easy runup, much like Holding was known as Whispering Death, purring in like a Rolls-Royce and banging the ball in and making it rise like the devil on steroids.

It’s a frightening prospect to even think what Archer will do when he bowls on hard pitches down under or in South Africa. It’s, however, amazing how much one fast bowler has changed the face of a more sympathetic game of cricket that has rules governing concussions now, thanks to the sacrifice of Philiip Hughes whose death was a big blow against the image of a once genteel game.