Brett Lee’s retirement deals another cruel blow to the already diminishing treasury of fast bowlers. While casting an uneasy eye at the future, Arunabha Sengupta discusses the many fast men who have retired in the past decade and a bit, while evaluating where Lee stood amidst the great names.
Fast bowling is surely an art with many facets and intricacies, but few can deny the appeal of tearaway pace that hurries the batsman and plants fear into his very soul. With the exit of Brett Lee from international cricket, one more exponent of extreme pace fades into the past.
When Lee entered the scene, the earth was turning one last time in the 1900s and the calendar was welcoming the new century. At that point in time, the combined wealth across countries in the reserves of quality pace was perhaps as rich as it has ever been – even if not all the able men reached frightening rates across the twenty-two yards.
The West Indians were spearheaded by an ageing but supreme duo. The South Africans and Australians had in their ranks at least four potent pacemen, with one of each lot being frighteningly quick. The Pakistanis had a long established pair of lethal hunters, recently joined by a mercurial third bowling at a pace seldom seen in the subcontinent. England boasted a formidable enough group who on their day could do the star turn against any team.
Even countries not generally celebrated for express pace were fairly well endowed in this dimension. Indians for years relying on their long serving speedster were to be boosted by the arrival of a promising left hander. Sri Lankans had in their ranks a remarkably steady opening bowler. An injury prone all rounder of New Zealand could bowl surprisingly fast on certain days, and was about to be joined by a young man of uncanny pace and similar injury issues. Even Zimbabwe had a streak of life in their attack.
The early 2000s made for excellent battles between the bat and the ball, with the Brian Laras, Rahul Dravids, Ricky Pontings and Sachin Tendulkars squaring up against the best and the fastest.
The fast men leave fast – one by one
And then they started leaving the scene as quick as they delivered.
Curtly Ambrose left in 2000. Having started his career in the heydays of West Indian glory, he had the misfortune of watching them slide into ignominy in spite of his sustained brilliance.
Courtney Walsh, Ambrose’s comrade-in-arms, played through 2000 and 2001, took 93 wickets at 19.73 in the two final seasons and looked back in dismay to find no strapping young lad dogging his heels to step into his giant shoes. He may have gone on, bowling as tirelessly as ever, but at 38 a fast bowler is already years into borrowed time.
In another continent, the “White Lightning” dazzled across the cricketing sky the final time in 2002, having spent ten years busy making up for the apartheid-linked loss of his early 20s. With 330 wickets from 72 Tests, Allan Donald called it a day.
The World Cup in South Africa signalled the swansong of the two Ws of Pakistan. Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, who had formed perhaps one of the greatest bowling partnerships, left the game under clouds too murky to do justice to their service to the game. Joining them in the farewell march was the workhorse of the Indian line up, Javagal Srinath.
Since then, every year and every country has had to deal with retirements of superb fast men.
Darren Gough and Andy Caddick played their last Tests in 2003. Chris Cairns finally gave in to his sequence of injuries in 2004. Zimbabwe’s curious policies meant that Heath Streak never played again after 2005. The year 2006 witnessed the last Test match of Jason Gillespie.
The following year rendered a painful double blow on the lovers of the art, science and sheer excitement of fast bowling. Glenn McGrath’s great career that had picked up a mindboggling tally of 563 wickets with the efficient regularity of clockwork emitted the final voluntary chime to indicate that time was up. That year was also the last to witness Shoaib Akhtar raise his arms heavenwards and arch his back, appealing for a Test match wicket.
In 2008, Shaun Pollock ended his fantastic stint, leaving the scene with 421 wickets to go with his 3781 runs. That same year, Brett Lee decided to reduce the wear and tear on his body by plying his extreme pace in only the shorter versions of the game.
A year later Makhaya Ntini, Chaminda Vaas, Andrew Flintoff and Shane Bond all bowed out one by one.
And now, the last two years have seen the exit from the remaining formats of the game of two of the fastest bowlers of the generation, Shoaib Akhtar and Brett Lee.
Emptying faster than refill
With age not an ally any more, Zaheer Khan may soon join the ranks of the names who do not hasten down to hurtle their stuff anymore. Besides, one wonders how long that most incredible of cricketers – Jacques Kallis – will continue to trot back to his bowling mark, while also roosting at the top of the batting world.
It is not that we have not had new men walk through the gate and start their long run-ups. Dale Steyn has already traced his name in indelible letters in the Who’s Who of great fast bowlers. There have also been a crop of promising pacemen, and at least some demonstrate temporary exploits which may sum up to permanent greatness.
While it may be too early to be predict the journeys of Vernon Philander, Ryan Harris or Steve Finn, men like Morne Morkel, Stuart Broad, Umar Gul and Jimmy Anderson have been around long enough to indicate steady sustained careers. Besides, Fidel Edwards and Kemar Roach sometimes do bring back momentary memories of the erstwhile Caribbean quicks, while flaunting flawed bowling figures.
However, apart from Steyn, the class of the previous decade have seldom been reflected in the current pool. Graeme Swann and Saeed Ajmal may have struggled to make up two thirds of the gaping chasm left by the departures of Anil Kumble, Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan, but the single-handed heroics of Steyn prove a poor percentage of the plethora of peerless pacemen of the recent past.
What is more alarming is the number of ephemeral careers that have changed from the auspicious to the abysmal within a few seasons. While the stars, speed and stats of Irfan Pathan and Ishant Sharma have plummeted inexplicably, those of Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif have been shoved out of public eye as veritable skeletons in uneasy cupboards. Even Mitchell Johnson has never really reached the heights his slanting left-handed deliveries had once pointed to.
Quick service with a smile
With the balance sheets showing signs of definite crisis, by how much do the hanging boots of Brett Lee set us back? Where does he rank among all the quick men who have moved away from the scene one by one?
Nishad Pai Vaidya has already demonstrated Lee's excellence as a bowler in One-Day Internationals. When we look at his nine years of Test cricket, the figures revealed are good, but not exactly comparable to the greatest.
He could bowl incredibly fast, was at times unplayable, and developed into a superb foil for McGrath and Gillespie. But, as the leader of the pack, although he started off well, his body failed to sustain the performance required to be talked of as a true great.
While always remaining a bowler of quality, Lee lacked the metronomic accuracy of McGrath or Walsh that made them wicket taking automatons. At almost a similar pace, he lacked the frequency of knocking them over as in a Steyn or an Shoaib or a Bond. His outswinger with the bright new cherry, and the reverse swing when the ball got older and roughed up will be remembered fondly, but he gave away 30.81 runs for each of his 310 wickets and took them every 53 odd balls - both numbers somewhat too high to be accepted as the feats of a great fast bowler.
However, he will be surely and sorely missed. The energetic run up and the charming theatrics on picking up a wicket will be witnessed no more. And forever in our fond memories will remain the infectious smile that never seemed to leave his face. Few fast-bowlers, especially from his land, have had such endearing personality on and off the field.
(Arunabha Sengupta is trained from Indian Statistical Institute as a Statistician. He works as a Process Consultant, but purifies the soul through writing and cricket, often mixing the two into a cleansing cocktail. The author of three novels, he currently resides in the incredibly beautiful, but sadly cricket-ignorant, country of Switzerland. You can know more about him from his author site, his cricket blogs and by following him on Twitter)