Not many moons ago, the Ravis were dominating the ICC Test bowling charts – Ashwin and Jadeja. In fact, Ashwin had the honour of holding the top spot for two consecutive years, 2015 and 2016. Add Sri Lanka’s Rangana Herath to the mix, and four seasons ago three spinners featured in the top-four of the ICC Test bowling rankings.
The trend has been completely reversed now. The latest ICC Test bowling rankings have only Ashwin as a spinner in the top 10. In the top 20, the number of spinners is three, with the inclusion of Nathan Lyon and Jadeja. World cricket is witnessing a ‘pace age’ redux.
Cricket had its ‘Pace Age 1’ in the 1970s till the mid-1980. The West Indies were so strong that Sylvester Clarke, one of the most hostile fast bowlers in the history of the game, could get into the team only after Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Joel Garner and Colin Croft had left for the Packer series. Australia had Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson. England boasted of Bob Willis and Ian Botham, Pakistan thrived on Imran Khan and Sarfraz Nawaz’s presence. New Zealand had Richard Hadlee. In India, Kapil Dev had arrived to end the spin hegemony.
The latest ICC rankings also confirm an overwhelming dominance of fast bowlers. Every major Test nation – except Sri Lanka and Bangladesh – has become pace-reliant.
On Tuesday, during the India versus Sri Lanka T20I in Indore, Navdeep Saini breached the 150kph mark. He had been intimidating batsmen with his pace, wowing the fans in the process. With Bhuvneshwar Kumar fit and Mohammed Shami not rested for the Sri Lanka T20Is, Saini would have plied his trade in the Ranji Trophy. A fringe player coming in and making the batsmen hurry spoke volumes for India’s fast-bowling depth.
India no longer play their home Tests on dust bowls. Just three months ago, after being ‘outpaced’ by India, South Africa captain Faf du Plessis spoke about how the home team’s relentless pace attack, even without Jasprit Bumrah, weighed heavily on the mind of his team mates.
Bumrah is the jewel in the crown. At 19.24, he has the lowest average for any bowler over the past 60 years. He is aided by Shami and Ishant Sharma. Both are in the top 20 in the latest ICC rankings – Shami at No. 10 and Ishant at No. 19. Umesh Yadav, not an automatic pick in the playing XI, is at No. 21.
Even some Ranji sides these days boast of 140kph bowlers. A few years ago, when Varun Aaron had clocked 150kph in a domestic game, he was straightway drafted into international cricket. Saini breaking the 150kph barrier on Tuesday didn’t trigger a social media hyperbole. In the ‘Pace Age 2’, India’s pace bowling has come of age.
At Newlands on Tuesday, Ben Stokes’s three wickets at the death triggered South Africa’s lower-order collapse. The England all-rounder was bowling at 146kph in the final session on the fifth day. But such is the competition these days that Stokes is still not among the top 20 fast bowlers in the world. The Cape Town heroics saw his upward climb to No. 27. England’s fastest, Jofra Archer, is not in the top bracket either. The golden oldies, Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad, continue to rule the Poms’ pace attack. Anderson, at 37 years of age, is still among the top 10 bowlers in Test cricket, at No. 7. Broad’s ranking is No. 14.
Pat Cummins didn’t have a very good home series against Pakistan. A tally of eight wickets at 32.12 from two Tests was below par by his standards. But he more than made up by taking five wickets for 28 runs against New Zealand at the MCG. Over the past 12-odd months, the Aussie has had 63 wickets in 13 Tests at an average of 20. He is the most sought-after fast bowler across formats, along with Bumrah, at the moment. A Rs 15.5 crore IPL price tag attested that.
Spare a thought for Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood, ranked fifth and 11th respectively. Several injuries notwithstanding, Starc hasn’t lost his pace. He was Australia’s highest wicket-taker against Pakistan – 14 scalps in two Tests. Then, against New Zealand, he started off with a nine-wicket match haul in Perth. Unlike Starc, Hazlewood is not express but is arguably the most effective in swinging conditions.
They are a team in turmoil. At Centurion last month, they had won their first Test in six matches. And yet, the Saffers can unleash the excellent Kagiso Rabada who, at 40 balls per wicket, has the fourth best strike rate in Test history. Rabada is at No. 4 in the ICC rankings. Vernon Philander is at No. 8. After Dale Steyn’s departure, South Africa are grooming Anrich Nortje.
Neil Wagner’s rise to the second spot threw up a surprise. But the 33-year-old left-arm seamer had an excellent series against Australia – 17 wickets in three Tests. Veteran Tim Southee too was pretty good – 12 scalps from two Tests. It helped him stay at No. 13 in the ICC rankings. New Zealand also have Trent Boult’s left-arm swing and the serious pace of Lockie Ferguson and Matt Henry.
Old-timers, who revelled on the fearsome pace quartet, would probably dismiss Jason Holder as a fast bowler. But the West Indies Test captain has been a consistent performer and more importantly, his numbers can’t be argued with. Holder is third in the ICC list with 830 rating points. The Caribbeans also have Kemar Roach and Shannon Gabriel at No. 12 and 20 respectively.
Their factory – read, street cricket and natural talent – keeps rolling out exciting fast bowlers. Mohammad Abbas has slid to No. 16. But Shaheen Afridi looks to be a man for the future. And forget the debate over Naseem Shah’s age, the youngster is a mighty fine talent.
‘Pace Age 1’ produced all-time greats. The majority of the performers in ‘Pace Age 2’ still have some way to go before their career assessments are done. In the 1970s, batsmen didn’t wear helmets. Bats hardly had a sweet spot, the pitches used to be uncovered and neutral umpires didn’t exist. At the same time, batsmen were technically superior.
Now, batsmen are protected from head to toe. Bouncers are restricted to only two per over. Beamers aren’t allowed. Pitches are covered and mostly benign. Bats have an extended sweet spot. But the bowlers these days can analyse the rival batsmen inside-out through video technology. They have a battery of support staff to assist them. And the overall quality of batsmanship probably has gone down, as so many head injuries would suggest.
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