Bowlers: then and now

Thirty years ago those who turned up to watch a one-off Test match in Bombay, witnessed one of the greatest performances by a non-Asian on the sub-continent. As England’s bowlers rested their weary bones in the Pan Pacific hotel in Dhaka yesterday, they could have done worse than take a peek at Ian Botham’s staggering all-round feats in that game.

Botham was in his cricketing and physical prime then, as he was to be for the next few years until injury and lifestyle took their toll. He beat India virtually single-handedly in that Jubilee Test, taking 6/58, then scoring 114 in England’s first innings, before bowling 26 consecutive overs in India’s second innings, taking 7/48. Afterwards, England’s captain, Mike Brearley, not a man moved often to hyperbole, said: ‘I have only seen one cricketer to compare with Ian Botham, and that is Garry Sobers.’

Brearley never forgot how fortunate he was having an all-rounder of Botham’s calibre not only able to balance his team, but strong enough and fit enough to bowl the overs of two men. As England contemplate their team for the second Test, there is no point yearning for an all-rounder they do not have (Luke Wright is here, but only, it would seem, in a kind of jollying along role) but it is worth questioning whether they are strong enough and fit enough to go into a Test match on the sub-continent against a decent team with just four bowlers.

It is a kind of heresy to question the fitness of the current players. Andy Flower described them as the fittest ever to leave English shores and there is no doubt that they work harder than any other England team I have seen. They spend more time in the gym; more time doing weights; more time doing shuttles and sprints before, during and after matches and more time doing exhausting fielding drills. They are proper, honed athletes- able to wear sleeveless training tops without embarrassment- in the way that cricketers of the past were not.

They have an army of helpers on hand to re-hydrate and massage- egos and bodies- and one of those fierce looking animals from rugby, Huw Bevan, a former conditioning coach with the Ospreys rugby team, who prowls around, muscles bulging, urging his acolytes to ‘use their core’ and other phrases that have older players scratching their heads in puzzlement. Pit any of them against any England cricketer from the past in an episode of Superstars and they would win comfortably, no contest.

But it is easy to get blinded by the gizmos, the effort and the profuse sweating and to forget that the only reason for all that is to make them fitter and stronger than bowlers were before. On the evidence so far, it doesn’t. When Flower and Alastair Cook contemplated the follow-on in Chittagong, they came to the same conclusion and gave them fifty overs to rest up.

Yesterday, Stuart Broad shed some light on the process saying that whilst it was always the captain’s decision it would be pointless not taking the bowlers’ tiredness into account. So far, so fair. But then he got a little disingenuous: ‘we’d all bowled twenty-odd overs,’ he said, ‘and so we thought we’d benefit from a rest.’ On the third day, Steven Finn had bowled nine, Broad eleven and Tim Bresnan, who looked the strongest, fifteen. Later Bresnan was moved to say that fifteen felt like thirty, in which case Botham’s 26 probably felt like 52.

There were thirty-six overs remaining on the third day when Cook made his decision to bat again, of which Swann would have bowled roughly half had the follow-on been enforced. Broad, Bresnan and Finn, then, had to bowl about six overs each on top of a workload that no-one could say was extreme. There were mitigating circumstances, for sure: Finn is young and had only recently arrived and Broad was coming back from injury. But if the bowlers were too tired to enforce the follow-on, then they are not as fit as they think they are or as bowlers used to be.

Traditionally, bowlers got fit by bowling and running, two activities that helped build the kind of stamina needed to bowl for long periods. Since the advent of academic studies that linked high workload with injuries, training methods have changed. Bowlers bowl less than before and long distance running is not encouraged. Yet, current training methods do not seem to prevent injury, nor do they enable bowlers to bowl the kind of spells taken for granted in the past.

The physical demands on bowlers are also much easier now than before. One break for drinks a session, possibly two in extreme conditions, was strictly upheld in Botham’s day and outside of that, no fluids were allowed. Last week, Broad was able to cover himself with a damp towel at fine-leg in between overs and take a drinks on the boundary. Twelfth men ran on and off to help re-hydrate at will.

There is a tendency amongst older players to look back, rheumy-eyed, and imagine a golden age, just as there is a tendency amongst current players to think that change in methods equates to inevitable progress. Me, I lean more to the latter than the former: today’s batsmen are stronger and more versatile than ever and the standards of fielding are stratospherically better than before.

But, despite the presence of specialist fitness trainers throughout the last two decades- none of whom, by the way, have had any relevant experience in fast bowling- there are fewer fast bowlers now, and none, probably, who could match the stamina of bowlers of yesteryear.

Famously, Botham hardly slept during the Jubilee Test either, as his bender on the fourth evening, according to those present, was staggering even by his own standards. Sometimes the myth, though, obscures the truth: wine-swilling, night-owling, gym-hater he might have been, but given a choice between making Bangladesh follow-on, and consigning himself to a certain fifth day, there is only one choice he would have made. He would have had the stamina to do it, too.