Quality pace attacks on the wane

WHERE are the great fast bowlers? Men who could send a shiver down the spine of the batsmen, bowlers who could run through line-ups on good pitches, pace predators who could evoke a sense of awe and admiration.

Take a quick look around the contemporary pace scene and just one bowler — Glenn McGrath — would rank among the all-time greats.

A Shaun Pollock might come close to finding a place in the pantheon of the greats, a Mkhaya Ntini might impress from time to time, and a Brett Lee or a Shoaib Akhtar might produce explosive bursts of speed on occasions, however, the present day pace attacks simply do not present the same kind of threat as the speed merchants of the late 70s, the 80s, or much of the 90s did.

Let us travel back to the West Indian pace combination from the second half of the 70s. It was an astonishing line-up of match-winning bowlers — Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Joel Garner and Colin Croft.

Then Malcolm Marshall found his feet in international cricket, stepping in for Croft, and,

in terms of persistent hostility, class, and contrast in styles, that four-pronged West Indian pace attack was hard to match.

They scalped with their speed and movement, in the air and off the seam, and could intimidate the batsmen with vicious short-pitched deliveries.

As the mid-80s arrived, two more extraordinary Caribbean quicks would surface — Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose.

Australia had the legendary Dennis Lillee of that lethal leg-cutter and a wide range of skills, and the quick and dangerous Jeff Thomson. In the 80s, Terry Alderman, an outstanding swing bowler, would make an impression.

Almost every country of that era had a quality paceman. In England, Bob Willis, an awkward customer to handle, came steaming in while the influential and bustling Ian Botham could turn matches around.

Pakistan had the great Imran Khan cutting a swathe through the opposition ranks, with Sarfraz Nawaz providing him telling support with his prodigious swing.

In the mid-80, Pakistan would discover the hugely talented Wasim Akram. And in the 90s, the versatile Akram and Waqar Younis, of that wicked reverse swing and scorching pace, would form a deadly pace pair.

New Zealand boasted of the Sultan of seam and swing Richard Hadlee, someone with absolute mastery over his craft. And India had the dashing Kapil Dev, who was among the finest out-swing bowlers.

When South Africa returned to international cricket in the early 90s, the pace and fire of Allan Donald haunted the batsmen. The admirable Fanie de Villiers was around too.

In the 90s, the cricketing world still had magnificent pacemen like Wasim and Waqar, Walsh and Ambrose, Donald and a much quicker Pollock, India's Javagal Srinath, a fit Darren Gough, apart from McGrath and Jason Gillespie.

McGrath, Gillespie and Lee still form an awesome line-up, but all the three have had major fitness worries. Among the other major bowlers Shoaib Akhtar can go off the boil rather easily, and the fiery Shane Bond has run into injury problems. Pollock and Sri Lanka's Chaminda Vaas are clever bowlers, but both have dropped in pace.

Things are looking up for English cricket with Steve Harmison and Simon Jones showing signs of developing into a fiery pace pair, while India has discovered Irfan Pathan and Lakshmipathy Balaji. Zaheer Khan too, if fully fit, can put to test the best in the business. These are early days yet, though, and these bowlers still have a long way to travel before they can be batched with the greats.

One of the principal reasons for the decline in the overall standards of fast bowling has to be the hectic international schedule these days, with short gaps between tours. The pacemen just do not have enough time to regroup.

There have been numerous breakdowns, and though most teams have a pool of pacemen, a sense of monotony and predictability has crept into the attacks. And due to the fear of injury, some of the genuine fast bowlers are often not bowling at full clip.

A welter of ODIs, some of them meaningless, on placid tracks have led to a lot of the promising pacemen developing a defensive mind-set, which can be harmful in the long run.

In the high-scoring one-dayers, they are reduced to being cannon fodders, and along the way, lose the aggression that is such a key element of fast bowling.

It is time the International Cricket Council took stock of the situation.