Why not a world championship for pace bowlers?

TED CORBETT

JEFF THOMSON once told me that during one spell of a Test he had "bowled as quick as you would want." Not surprisingly, it sent a shiver of fear down my spine because in my adult, cricket reporting life, Thommo was just about as quick as you could imagine.

He may be the fastest of all time since he was clocked at nearly 100 miles an hour by a crude piece of equipment. Too late now to measure him all over again because Thommo is edging into his fifties but the various speed guns will leave no-one without an accurately measured fastest time to his name in the next few years.

I've read that Charles Kortright was the quickest of the really old guys and, judging from glimpses of Harold Larwood on film, he must have been what the cricketers call sharp.

As a schoolboy - with my cricket-mad grandmother at my first big match - I watched Frank Tyson, although he was at the end of a long summer, playing in a charity match and only once slipped himself and scattering the stumps all around the crease.

I saw a little remembered West Indian Lance Pierre send a Minor Counties batsman's bail 60 yards too. To my marvelling eye Tyson was the personification of greased lightning; but what did I know then?

Ten years on there was Wes Hall, who never looked as quick as his reputation, and Fred Trueman, who was never an express for all his own estimates, and a series of bowlers who were clever but could not reach the pace that takes your breath away. Until the West Indies masters rolled along in the middle 1970s.

Michael Holding was the quickest of those bowlers but Sylvester Clarke, whose action was usually called into question whenever pace was discussed, and Wayne Daniel, were not far behind.

Five years on we had Waqar Younis letting fly and now Brett Lee, who took few wickets for 50 runs each in the Ashes series last year, and the New Zealand flier Shane Bond are near the top of the pile.

But, whether Shoaib Aktar throws or bowls legitimately, and whether he was accurately judged to have bowled a ball at more than 100 miles an hour, there is no question that he is the fastest at this time.

Or is he? Surely it is time we found out.

In the mid-1970s I helped set up a penalty shoot-out among the most powerful kickers in the old First Division of the Football League and saw it won by Peter Lorimer, a Leeds United winger, at around 100 miles an hour. Now it is time for cricket to settle the arguments for ever by having a world championship judged by all the modern speed guns and run by ICC during the World Cup next spring.

In the balmy March weather on the Veld, conditions would be ideal for Shoaib, Lee, Bond, Darren Gough and anyone else who fancies his chance of breaking the 100 miles an hour barrier. Perhaps such a competition - no trouble in finding a sponsor, I suspect - might also attract bowlers who were not in the World Cup squads and, run at half a dozen venues, it could build up to a climax at the World Cup final.

ICC sounded receptive to the suggestion when I phoned their headquarters and their spokesman Mark Harrison suggested that the mini World Cup in Sri Lanka in September might be an equally good venue since the island is more central and more compact. "Nice idea," he gave it, as he admitted that ICC had discussed the implications of Shoaib's pace and its impact on the public recently.

It is the hot talking point of the moment and, as cricket needs all the publicity it can find, ICC should take advantage.

The old game has had a few bad blows in recent times. Not the sort of crippling punch that came from the corruption charges, but a series of light taps on the nose that ought to act as a reminder of the huge forces around seeking a share of the global audience.

I went to Northampton to meet old friends, exchange a glass of wine, chatter about the tours I missed this winter and take a look at Sri Lanka playing against the young hopefuls of British Universities.

Once it was a shabby ground, half filled by the local football club, the Press housed in a scorers' box hardly big enough for their pencils, no room to park and filled to capacity by not very many.

Now the footballers have gone to a new venue, the County Ground has spread itself, all gleaming new stonework, with huge entrance gates, a new administrative office block and entertainment suite, with parking spaces for all. Every lick of paint contains an application for a one-day international.

It really is a very pleasant place to spend a day at the cricket although it was cold enough to force the Sri Lankans to wear all their sweaters, grasp hand warmers fiercely and stick cotton wool in their ears. They were certainly not kept warm by the crowd. A few dozen souls had room in the terraces for their knapsack, their flask of tea, their blankets and their broadsheet newspaper - it seems to be compulsory for English spectators to complete a crossword by tea time - while the Sri Lankan fans huddled under thick jackets that they will certainly never need in their own country.

Of course, you will tell me, it was hardly an attractive fixture. Even the most dedicated enthusiast could hardly recognise the men of Oxford, Cambridge and Durham who made up the university side and yet this was part of the essential build-up to the Test series.

I don't have a solution to the problems created by the need for tour sides to acclimatise, or the lack of public interest in their early matches, or new ways of keeping the game afloat. But it is time someone found an answer.

Hard on the heels of this match came the announcement by the BBC that they will not be showing either the Ashes tour of Australia nor the World Cup this winter.

Now you can argue that the avid cricket follower will be able to follow the matches in the newspapers or on the radio or by satellite television or the internet but the BBC decision means that - since they have lost the home series to Channel Four - they will not bid for television rights from overseas games either. Perhaps they are playing a long game with the next round of negotiations in mind; their mandarins can be as cunning as any Foreign Office wallah.

Or, and this is the worst news for cricket, they may have decided that the game is now so poorly attended that it has lost its attention and that there is no player likely to recapture the limelight.

Lastly, and perhaps crucially, cricket did not need the bomb explosion in Karachi which caused the cancellation of the New Zealand series.

In those days 15 years ago when apartheid brought several England tours into question it seemed that politicians and cricket folk alike wanted the tours to go ahead whatever moral or ethical problems they raised. Now it seems that the first instinct in the face of violence is to quit and no-one will blame the various players like Andrew Caddick and Robert Croft or their boards for that.

The Kiwis have now pulled out of three tours in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, all for security reasons; Australia declined to play in Sri Lanka in the World Cup and recently in Zimbabwe. West Indies have dropped out of a trip to Pakistan and that will not be the last withdrawal.

Each decision to quit has two consequences. Firstly, there is the loss of revenue from gates, sponsors and television; secondly there is the purely aesthetic damage caused to the World championship, a concept that the game managed without for a century but which is now taken very seriously indeed by some.

Test cricket has always seemed to me too clumsy to be confined within a league system but that may be my old-fashioned view of a game that has lived quietly without a structure. The dominance of the Australians is also a barrier to a competitive championship; we all know they are going to win three years before the first sequence is completed.

Unless, of course, a strong young man with natural pace and attitude bursts on to the scene and once again bowls as fast as you would want to. May that day be soon but I have to tell you that there was no sign of greased lightning on that cold day at Northampton.