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Lawrence Booth: A tale of modern bowling decline

March 4th, 2009 by Lawrence Booth in Miscellaneous, Test cricket and tagged , ,

Quiz question: what happened in both the Karachi and Barbados Tests recently that had – so I’m told – never happened before? Answer: the team batting first made over 600 but still trailed on first innings. Yep, it’s one for the stattos all right, but there is something else going on here. Just where have all the bowlers gone?

I’m indebted here to a colleague from the Guardian, who wandered over from the news desk during the Bridgetown bore-a-thon to point out that Sky had just flashed up the latest ICC Test bowling rankings. “Compare that list to the one 10 years ago,” he suggested. So I did. The comparison proved melodious, but only to those who regard evidence of civilisation’s decline as music to the ears.

Here’s today’s top 10: 1 Muralitharan 2 Steyn 3 Johnson 4 Clark 5 Ntini 6 Harbhajan Singh 7 Taylor 8 Vaas 9 Lee 10 Sidebottom.

And here’s the top 10 in March 1999: 1 Donald 2 Ambrose 3 Pollock 4 McGrath 5 Muralitharan 6 Kumble 7 Doull 8 Wasim Akram 9 Walsh 10 Streak.

What strikes is you not just the fact that Muttiah Muralitharan had five bowlers ahead of him back then and none now, but the calibre of the names. The 2009 list includes three crocks (Stuart Clark, Brett Lee and – yes – Ryan Sidebottom), a once-great left-armer who has taken one Test five-for in four years (Chaminda Vaas), and Jerome Taylor, who is getting better all the time but whose Test average is still 34. These are not names to conjure with.

By contrast, the 1999 list reads like a who’s who of modern bowling giants, with the possible exception of New Zealand’s steadfast Simon Doull and the under-rated Heath Streak, who would be higher than 10th today. The other eight took an average Test haul of 505 wickets (and Murali is still going). Shane Warne doesn’t even make the list; nor does Waqar Younis.

In that sense, the juxtaposition is unfair: most eras would pale in comparison next to the late 1990s. But the strength in depth of today’s bowling would be considered weak in any age. Who, after all, is missing from that list? Ishant Sharma should qualify at some point and Zaheer Khan is close. Shoaib Akhtar is past it. Shane Bond is a victim of politics. Andrew Flintoff doesn’t take enough wickets. Ajantha Mendis is an exciting work in progress. And that’s about it.

Flat pitches are bad enough at the best of times. These are not the best of times. And since Pakistani bowlers are not going to get the chance to hone their reverse-swing skills in home Tests for a while to come, they are not likely to get much better any time soon.

Lawrence Booth writes on cricket for the Guardian. His third book, Cricket, Lovely Cricket? An Addict’s Guide to the World’s Most Exasperating Game is out now published by Yellow Jersey

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