Cow Corner

The rebirth of fast bowling in Tests?

Cow Corner

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For the last decade and more the cricket community has been discussing the slow death of genuinely fast bowling in the Test arena.

Gone are the days of the West Indian quicks uprooting stumps as if at will, of new ball pairings with the hostility of Lillee and Thomson, or of the pace and guile of Wasim and Waqar.

And for a long time precious few bowlers have been able to step forward and fill their spikes. Dale Steyn as a fast bowler of the highest calibre is a welcome exception, while the sight of Andrew Flintoff, Shoaib Akhtar or Brett Lee in the spells they were at their vicious best was something rare — something to treasure.

90mph merchants have been few and far between, either delivering only fitful brilliance, as was the case with Steve Harmison, or finding, as Shane Bond and Shaun Tait did, that their bodies were unable to cope with the demands of the modern game.

And that, in short, has become the accepted wisdom. Players in this more 'professional' era are simply not capable of spending a career bowling long days at pace, and with the bounteous rewards of going 'freelance' and playing Twenty20 cricket around the world, there was little incentive to do so.

But perhaps something else is brewing in the Tests after all.

At the sprightly age of 134 years old, Test cricket has a reputation for being stoic and consistent, but it's prone to trends and cycles as well. As the era of top-quality wrist spin draws to a close (another blog for another day), the gap for a wicket-taking weapon has opened up wide.

Having spent the best part of two decades largely untested by quality pace bowling, international batsmen are now finding themselves poorly equipped to cope with it.

That's enabled debuts of the astounding calibre of 18-year-old Australian Pat Cummins, who took 6/79 in bowling Australia to an unlikely and famous series-levelling win against South Africa at the Wanderers.

Cummins is not alone: South Africa unearthed a gem of their own just this week in the form of Marchant de Lange, who bounced and harried Sri Lanka's batsmen to pick up figures of 7/81 in his very first Test innings. His short run-up and muscular delivery looks unlikely to lead to too many injuries.

Add them to the likes of the new, improved and now even quicker Steve Finn, and you have three speedsters who could lead the renaissance in pace bowling in 2012 and beyond.

They are at the very beginning of their careers, and Cowers is not aiming to burden these three with any more pressure than a young cricketer making their way in the international game already carries on their shoulders. But they (and happily, they are not alone) embody a shift that just began to reveal itself in 2011, and may point to the future.

And what an exciting extra nuance the return of pace bowling would add to Test cricket, which despite the doom-mongering saw some more thrilling action this year. Wickets falling are the lifeblood of Tests — and if the battle between bat and ball is levelled a touch by chin music, Cowers will be delighted.

Perhaps injuries are still the one thing that could still scupper this pace rebirth — Cummins has not played since that magical November debut and that in itself serves as a stark reminder of the rigours of the art.

But here too there is reason to be positive, as attitudes begin to shift.

Ex-India batsman turned columnist Sanjay Manjrekar made some interesting suggestions on the philosophy of coaching which are particularly applicable to pacemen.

"A natural bowling action or a natural batting style is a motion that has the blessing of the individual's body," Manjrekar wrote in his Cricinfo column. "Over the years the individual develops a certain style because it is what the body's frame is most comfortable with. If an unnatural movement is introduced, the body will eventually get somewhat used to it, but reluctantly, so it should come as no surprise when one day it starts to protest."

Another little sign, perhaps, that the wheel is beginning to come full circle. The value of good quicks in the Test arena may force that reappraisal of coaching methods, because it's too potent a weapon to forego.

The new speed merchants

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Steven Finn

Steven Finn, England

Perhaps it sounds fanciful to call Finn 'new', but the pace bowler is still some way short of his 23rd birthday. Few bowlers will learn their trade by picking up 50 Test wickets, but Finn has done precisely that. After six months in which he did some strengthening work, performed with credit in a hopeless England ODI side in India, and gone to New Zealand in search of more first-class cricket, Finn has put on a yard of pace and could make himself a key component of England's line-up in 2012.

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Pat Cummins

Pat Cummins, Australia

It sounds like the stuff of legend already. After just three first-class games, 18-year-old Cummins was drafted into the Australia team, and was named man of the match after a debut in which he grabbed seven wickets (one of which came by giving Jacques Kallis a fierce working over), and hitting the winning runs in a thrilling fourth-innings chase.

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Marchant de Lange (R) with Dale Steyn

Marchant de Lange, South Africa

The 21-year-old de Lange, a promising javelin thrower as a schoolboy, has developed rare pace and power, and shown character in recovering from a stress fracture to his ankle in his teens. He roughed up the Australians for South Africa A, taking 5/56 against them in November, before going one better with 7/81 against Sri Lanka on Test debut this week. Perhaps the biggest reflection of his impact is that South Africa now have a genuine selection dilemma when Vernon Philander, who has a mere 24 wickets at 12.37 from his first three Tests, recovers from injury.

Other quicks to look out for: Stuart Meaker (England), James Pattinson (Australia), Umesh Yadav (India), Varun Aaron (India)

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