Being fast has its advantages

K. SRIKKANTH

AN attacking fast bowler always has a chance of making a difference. We saw a good example of this in the Lord's Test where Makhaya Ntini turned in an outstanding display of aggressive pace bowling.

A 10-wicket match haul is a splendid achievement in any form of cricket, more so in a Test at Lord's. And this was a Lord's pitch with plenty of runs in it.

Rightly, Ntini went for wickets, unmindful of the runs being conceded. In the end, it was the last column in his analysis that was going to be conclusive.

While a quality spinner like Shane Warne can always change the course of a game, it is generally the pace bowlers who win Test matches. As we have seen over the last few years, countries with better pace attacks have won more Tests, home or away.

One of the reasons why South Africa performed so well after its return to international cricket in 1991-92 was because it had so many fine pacemen, including the fearsome Allan Donald.

Along with Donald were men such as Craig Matthews, Craig McMillan and later on Fanie de Villiers. Then Shaun Pollock came along. With the emergence of two more pace bowling all-rounders in Jacques Kallis and Lance Klusener, the Proteas were blessed in this department. But that was some time ago.

Now, the South African cricket is passing through a period of transition and one of the toughest jobs is to fill the breach caused by the departure of Donald, one of the all-time greats in the game.

When Donald appeared a pale shadow of his former self during the World Cup, it was clear that Ntini would have to take over the mantle of being South Africa's strike bowler considering Shaun Pollock's pace has dropped sharply; to make matters worse for South Africa, Kallis was not available for the first two Tests against England due to family reasons.

Ntini has risen to the occasion and I must say captain Graeme Smith has handled him well, displaying the required faith in him, having enough men in catching positions and urging him to go for wickets.

As it is, Ntini is the kind of customer, who puts everything into his bowling, and with Smith encouraging him so much, he was striving even harder. Ntini used the short ball to good effect, and though this tactic proved expensive on occasions, it also fetched him wickets. In any case, the Proteas had enough runs to play with in the England second innings.

I like Ntini's attitude to bowling. He is so intense and focussed, hardly wasting time between deliveries. He has a great passion for his craft, is extremely sharp and does hit the bat hard. A batsman can seldom relax against him, considering he is so nippy off the pitch.

Makhaya Ntini (facing page) and Brett Lee are exciting, penetrative pacemen. __ Pic. STU FORSTER & HAMISH BLAIR/GETTY IMAGES-

His celebrations have a touch of drama too, and it was such a spontaneous manner of expressing his joy when he kissed the Lord's pitch after nailing his 10th victim.

His brisk run-up is very similar to that of the late Malcolm Marshall and that is why he first caught my attention. There is so much energy, so much athleticism on view as he runs in. Later on, I came to know that the great Marshall had passed on quite a bit of his immense knowledge to Ntini.

He has been around for a while now, and has improved on the other aspects of his bowling. Ntini used to fire them in from wide of the crease earlier, now he gets closer to the stumps, and that has given him the chance to straighten the delivery at the right-handed batsman.

The man has come through a very difficult phase in life as well, being charged with rape, before being cleared by a court. The incident must have made Ntini realise the value of freedom.

Being a black, his performances assume even more significance. For cricket to endure in South Africa, it is important for the blacks to take to the game in a big way. They have a role model now in Ntini.

Like Ntini, Brett Lee has been in international cricket for a while now, and he is another relatively young paceman with a lot of good years in him.

Glenn McGrath is in the latter stages of his career, the often brilliant Jason Gillespie is injury prone and this suggests Lee, like Ntini, may find himself pushed into the role of spearhead sooner than later.

While his lightning quick bowling will always make him a threat, what I liked most about him was his attitude towards his team. During the World Cup, it was not uncommon to see him racing in from third man or fine-leg to celebrate with his mates. Lee does have this reputation of being a wonderful team-man.

Then, in the West Indies, we see the emergence of a raw talent like Fidel Edwards, who was picked to play in the decisive Test against Sri Lanka after figuring in just one first class game.

He has a sling action and, there were moments during the second Test, where he appeared genuinely quick. He was among the wickets too on his debut, playing a part in the Caribbeans' series clinching win.

The West Indies is desperately seeking young quick bowlers to recapture old glory and I am sure the emergence of Edwards would have delighted many in the Caribbean.

Mohammed Sami of Pakistan — the team-management erred by not playing him in the World Cup — is a committed young bowler of much pace and fire, while the big-built Prabhath Nissanka of Sri Lanka has shown traces of promise. And I hope the pacy Dilhara Fernando is back on track following his back injury.

New Zealand's Shane Bond, again relatively young in international cricket, is fast and straight and dangerous and the sooner he recovers from his injury, the better it is for the Kiwis. England's James Anderson and Steve Harmison have a fair bit of pace, however, their bowling lacks consistency.

India's own Zaheer Khan and Ashish Nehra will have their job cut out once Javagal Srinath departs from the scene. Happily, the signs from these two young bowlers have been encouraging so far.