Remember Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis bowling steamy spells one after the other and leaving audience dumbstruck and enthralled. Remember Shoaib Akhtar steaming in from almost the boundary line and bowling over 95 miles per hour. Remember Shaun Tait bowling at 160 km per hour and leaving Kamran Akmal flabbergasted.
Since the advent of Cricket, fast bowling has been an important aspect of the game. After all, fast bowlers are the players who provide a good start fielding teams look for. Watching bowlers running in from 30 yards and bowling at mind boggling speeds have always been an enthralling sight.
Over 10 lakh individuals play cricket at the club or professional level in India, and more than 30 percent of players are fast bowlers. But how many of them actually make the cut?
Hmm..Something to wonder about. Not even 50. This has been the condition of fast bowling, not only in India but all over the world. As they say, good fast bowlers are difficult to come by. One aspect of the game young budding crickets tend to overlook is fitness, both physical and mental.
"If someone aspires to be a fast bowler, he should bear the heat and the scorching sun and most importantly must be strong physically and mentally, especially in modern day cricket". This is what one of the legends of the game, Wasim Akram had to say when questioned about physicality in modern day cricket. With the work load present day fast bowlers handle, fitness levels must be sky high to be able to play day in, day out. How many times have we seen injuries taking a toll on the careers of fast bowlers. Thigh and hamstring strains have become clearly the most common injury in the past two years, perhaps because of the increased amount of Twenty20 cricket. Annual injury prevalence rates have exceeded 10% in the last three years, with the injury prevalence rates for fast bowlers exceeding 18%. One needs to be mentally and physically strong to cope up with the demanding nature of work.
Physical and mental strength are the things that coaches and team managers have started to consider with more seriousness in the past decade or so. International cricket boards have started investing huge amounts in recruiting the best physiotherapists. This is to ensure that the players do not have to compromise on the fitness front. After all that is what will help a fast bowler retain his form over the course of time.
Importance of fitness and exercise has to be inculcated into the minds of cricketers at an early age. One should eat healthy and and give adequate rest to his body. Just working out in gym is not enough. Playing at the highest level requires one's cent percent effort and one needs to be strong for surviving the rigors of international Cricket.
How often have we heard commentators say "If the bowlers bend their backs and hit the deck hard, they will surely get something out of the wicket”? A fast bowler must have a strong back as it forms the structural framework around which the rest of the body parts are built upon. It forms the base and the main source of strength for the shoulders. Fast bowlers have such dynamic actions that one can easily fall prey to sore backs. Even the best of bowlers like Glenn McGrath and Andrew Flintoff have faced back injuries during the span of their careers. The shoulders and the hips must be in line as one lands after the jump to avoid sprains in the back and abdomen; although important, this is just one of the many aspects that need to be taken care of. A fast bowler has to pay attention to all parts of the body, from ankle to hips and from shoulders to abdomen. All bowlers look towards improving their technique. High arm, quick arm action, and high virtual jump are what the basics deal with. Strong thighs, calf muscles, strong shoulders and muscular strength are a must to implement the basics. Pace is generated from the shoulder and wrist. Movement skills are very important. The optimum run up required, the virtual jump, and every other movement have to be perfected with regular practice. Importance should also be paid to a relaxed action, which doesn't put too much pressure on the body. Shoulder rotation is directly related to speed. If the shoulders are not strong, then the entire pressure of bowling fast falls on the muscles and the bowler may get tired quickly. Moreover, the lack of strength in shoulders and excessive strain on muscles may lead to injuries. Each and every part of the lever must be used to increase speed. We have muscles comprising slow and fast fibers. Individuals have these in a definite proportion. But on regular practice, the amount of fast fibers can be increased. High proportion of fast fibers helps a bowler to increase arm action and shoulder rotation. It also adds to the individual's agility.
Whenever we come across a good fast bowler, one thing is certain - that is, he has a great chest drive. Exercises concentrating on the core and chest are essential for all fast bowlers. It is the chest drive that gives the body best possible position. Further, the hip position is equally important. Hips should be facing towards the batsman and must be very strong so that the pelvic region can withstand the force when the player lands after the jump. The chest line should always be in front of the hips.
One has to be smart enough to know his own limits and has to play within them with an effort to improve gradually. Even Brett Lee, one of the best bowler of all time, has had a series of injuries. He suffered a lower back fracture, an elbow injury, and an aggravated ankle injury which finally required a surgery during the course of his career. When he retired from test cricket in 2010 he said "Bowling at 150 km per hour for five days in a row takes a toll on body." Another injury prone player from the world of fast bowling was Shane Bond. Arguably the best ever New Zealand bowler, as described by the legend Sir Viv Richards, Bond had the capability to tear apart strong batting line ups. But alas, his body let him down. Bond's career was plagued with numerous injuries, namely stress fractures in the back and knee injuries. In 2004, he had to undergo surgery to prevent further back injuries, but it was partially successful. A few years later, he suffered from more back injuries and an abdominal tear. All these injuries limited his appearance on the international stage. Having made his debut in the 2001/02 season, he only managed to appear in 18 Test matches for New Zealand before retiring in December 2009 at the age of 34.
Not just physically, bowlers should also be mentally fit and relaxed. A relaxed mind is what ultimately reaches the pole position. Moreover, stress is something the present day cricketers have to bear with, especially because of the media attention. This is where the mental consultants come into play. Mental fitness is as essential as physical fitness - As Shane Warne had once said "Half the match is played in the mind". This underlines the importance of one's mental strength. Fast bowlers often take a hitting and could go for twenty odd runs in an over, but how he handles the situation and reacts in the next over is what matters. Everyone has a bad day at the office, but it takes guts and unremitting concentration to come back with flying colors in the next outing. Great bowlers have always said that the decision about how to bowl the next delivery should be made at the last point, just before releasing the ball. Deciphering what kind of delivery the batsman is expecting is what great fast bowlers master. In order to do so, bowlers have to constantly assess a batsman’s approach, body language, and areas of strength and weakness.
One really wonders why India has not been able to produce genuine fast bowlers capable of bowling at around 150 clicks. Some may argue along the lines of reasons such as the conditions of the pitches and weather in the country. But, our neighbour country Pakistan, which has similar conditions, has been producing fast bowlers at will. The real problem lies at the grass root level. Fitness issues still remain the most common reasons; how many times have we seen Zaheer Khan cramping up in the middle of his spell! The problem also lies with the mind-set of the budding cricketers. They do not have as many fast bowling legends to look up to as those in countries like Pakistan, South Africa, and Australia have. In India, every young cricketer wants to become a Sachin or a Dhoni. Batting has always had the upper hand in our country. The problem also lies within the management. Coaches often focus on line and length rather than on pace. For a young fast bowler in his teens, speed and pace of the ball is what should be focused upon. Any off stumpish line will do. But priority should be given to pace, because that is what can catch the batsman off guard and for that, a fast bowler needs strength and must be extremely fit. Physical fitness departments dedicated to plyometrics, injury-avoidance, upper body building, emphasizing appropriate nutrition, weight training, etc, should be set up! The importance of fitness for a fast bowler has been reiterated time and time again. Its high time young cricketers start giving more importance to mental and physical fitness in order to achieve their goal!