Chris Rattue: Cricket is the poorer for lack of speedsters

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There is no more glorious sight in sport than that of a cricket paceman steaming in to bowl, with his slips at the ready, and the batsman at their mercy.

On their finest days, Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson, Waqar Younis, Michael Holding, Andy Roberts, Malcolm Marshall, Shoaib Akhtar, Wes Hall, et al could be so fast and furious that the game of cricket seemed grossly unfair.

Then, it was hard to imagine a day when batsmen had a hope of coming out on top at all. Before helmets and space-age padding, you quite seriously feared for batters' health.

The ultimate fast bowlers could be impossible to handle, and had wonderful handles. The beautifully fluid Michael Holding was "Whispering Death", then there was "Fiery" Fred Trueman, Frank "Typhoon" Tyson, "White Lightning" Allan Donald, Dennis "The Menace" Lillee and Shoaib Akhtar, the swaggering "Rawalpindi Express".

There is another side to the story though. Long hot days of toil, lifeless pitches, tantalising edges that just won't produce close enough shaves, injuries, more injuries, and inevitably rapidly advancing age.

In short, the feared hunter can suddenly become easy prey. It's happening to Brett Lee right now. The golden boy of Australian fast bowling is struggling to find his rockets and send them to the right places.

There's a boyishness to Lee that makes it hard to believe he is 32, and perhaps in the twilight of his career.

Lee has always given his all. But in a profession that relies heavily on rhythm and timing, the harder he tries the worse it might get. And current form is imperative because there is always another fine cricketer ready to take your place.

Cricket needs the speed kings though, and as Twenty20 and its vast incomes circle, you might wonder and worry that the Lees of this world are an endangered species.

The great fast bowlers are in short supply and cricket is poorer for it.

During the famous West Indian era, fast bowling almost became a dirty word because it was implied that the Windies had a production line of quicks who would forever terrorise the game.

So abundant were the West Indian fast bowling supplies that it was almost forgotten how difficult it is to consistently operate at test level while generating extreme pace.

The decline in West Indian fast bowling has emphasised that there is a mystery to this dark art, and one that hopefully will not be lost.

You only have to look at New Zealand's fast bowling history for a lesson, because we have barely produced one. Of the contenders, Shane Bond and Brendon Bracewell succumbed to injuries, and Murray Webb's test career hardly got started. Even the peerless Richard Hadlee veered away from a reliance on the express pace of his younger days.

Many of us think on the courage required by batters to face a Typhoon in full flight, but there is also a bravery required to base your career on the search of extreme speed. It might say something about the risks that the bludgeoning Aussie batsman Matthew Hayden is facing the realities of father time at the age of 37, while Lee is struggling when five years younger.

So where are the charismatic express fast bowlers of today? Maybe I am misreading the situation, or maybe cricket is in a temporary fast bowling trough, but the trend doesn't look good.

Young South African Dale Steyn is one hope but he's not of Akhtar's velocity, and the wild-armed Sri Lankan Lasith Malinga can bowl very quickly. Aussie Peter Siddle, whose bowling shoulder has already undergone reconstructive surgery, has sidled in from almost nowhere.

None of these players comes with the style of Lillee, Thomson, Younis and co, though. And is this new breed of bowler willing to keep pushing themselves past the pain barrier into high-speed wicket hauling zones, especially if it cuts short their ability to earn riches in the game's short forms?

As Lee and Akhtar head towards decline, it feels appropriate to salute the charismatic and fearsomely quick bowlers of cricket. From the safety of the stands, it would be fantastic to see a renaissance of personalities who can sustain pace in the game.

- NZ Herald

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