They are fed with plenty of information, say Michael Holding and Wasim Akram, but very few understand their own bowling
It was during the lunch break at Old Trafford last summer. "That guy, what a bowler he was," Wasim Akram said. I looked to where he was pointing, and saw Michael Holding talking on TV. Akram spoke in awe of Holding's run-up - "as if starting from the sightscreen" - his fitness, and the sheer aesthetics. "How his shoulders swayed as he ran in. There is no way coaches would have let him run in like this in today's cricket."
That conversation at the lunch table stayed with me long enough to make me ask them both for an interview.
There couldn't be two more different fast bowlers. Holding with his rhythmic run-up that umpires couldn't hear. Akram with his short run, whipping his arms and bursting through the crease. Holding nicking batsmen off with pace, bounce, seam and conventional swing. Akram relying on bowleds and lbws, and reverse swing.
When brought together, each was thrilled to discover aspects of the other's craft, and offered insights into the changing nature of fast bowling.
Sidharth Monga: Wasim, the other day, you were talking very highly of Mikey…
Wasim Akram: When I started playing cricket, Michael Holding was one of the greats of the game. I used to save money and buy this magazine called Akhbar-e-Watan. It was in Urdu. It used to have all the cricket posters. Mikey, Viv Richards, Clive Lloyd. Imran Khan. Javed Miandad. I grew up on these.
The first time I saw Mikey was in 1985, in the World Championship of Cricket. Imran used to praise him a lot. That he was a genuine fast bowler. Every youngster from my era has seen him and admired him. His bowling action, Dickie Bird once said, was like a Rolls Royce. His run-up was so smooth the umpires couldn't hear him. And he used to run from miles away. I saw videos of the 14 wickets he got at The Oval [in 1976]. It was a dead wicket. It looked like it was in Pakistan.
Michael Holding: It was one of the hottest summers ever in England. The outfield was dry, the pitch was brown.
Akram: Most of the victims were bowled. He beat everyone with sheer pace. You see this guy and you see fast bowlers now, you can only think of two fast bowlers, Mitchell Johnson and Dale Steyn. There is [James] Anderson, but he is not express pace.
Akram: "I used to give 100% when I bowled the yorker. It is much more than just a full delivery"
© PA Photos
Akram: "I used to give 100% when I bowled the yorker. It is much more than just a full delivery" © PA Photos
Monga: Mikey, what did you think of Wasim's bowling?
Holding: The most important thing was his control. Yes, people swing the ball around, they reverse the ball, but control is so important. Wasim could control that swing. There is no point bowling these big booming outswingers if they are not going in the right direction or not starting in the right place. That was the most important thing. He had pace as well. If you are swinging the ball and the batsman can come forward all the time, it can negate some of that swing, but when you have the pace to make sure the batsmen can't just push down the wicket, that helps. He had them both.
Monga: What made you become a fast bowler?
Holding: When I was a kid, we used to play this informal game in Jamaica called Catchy Shubby. You turned up in a park, all kids, you had no umpires, you had no gloves, no pads. Just a matter of who was batting. The only chance you had to bat was by getting that person out. And not by getting him caught, because the person who took the catch would get to bat. You had to hit the stumps. Because there were no umpires they could place their legs in front of the stumps. So we decided if we could hit them on their legs - and that hurts - they wouldn't put their legs in front. That's how I began to bowl fast. I was an offspinner initially.
Akram: Wow, you were an offspinner?
Holding: Yeah, I started as an offbreak bowler as a kid. Before I got into double figures.
Akram: I tried left-arm spin when I was young. Then I realised it was very boring. (Both laugh) I saw myself getting smacked and said, no, this is not for me.
"How come I never got Stuart Binny bowling when I was batting?"
Monga: Was that the only reason you moved to fast bowling?
Akram: My heroes were Michael Holding, Imran Khan, Malcolm Marshall. Those big four allrounders - Botham, Hadlee, Imran and Kapil. Those were the big names for me. I remember when I played against these guys [West Indies] in 1985, I used to pray on the night before the game that, forget winning, let us just come close to them. They were unreal. Unbeatable. People who haven't seen that era of West Indian cricket have missed out on something.
Monga: So batsmen around the world would have been afraid of them?
Akram: Oh, yes.
Holding: Well, people will always be afraid of fast bowling, but it was just that in that era we had four of them. Now you don't find that on a regular basis. When you have that many, it is difficult to deal with them. We have had teams that have had two great fast bowlers and they have been very successful. Can you imagine having four all at once?
Akram: The other day I was watching this Test [at The Oval], and I remember thinking, I have played against West Indies, and their back-up bowler was Winston Benjamin, who bowled at 145kph. India had Stuart Binny. How come I never got Stuart Binny when I was batting?
Fab 14: Holding takes his last wicket of the match, Alan Knott, against England at The Oval in 1976
© Getty Images
Fab 14: Holding takes his last wicket of the match, Alan Knott, against England at The Oval in 1976 © Getty Images
Monga: As fast bowlers, did you like the idea that batsmen might be afraid?
Holding: Of course.
Akram: That was the best part of being a fast bowler.
Holding: Exactly. They say intimidation is not a part of the game. It is. But what people don't understand is, you don't have to bowl bouncers to intimidate. Having the potential is intimidation already. People are aware of it. They are intimidated without you even bowling the bouncer. Obviously you are going to bowl the odd bouncer, but even before you bowl the bouncer the intimidation is there because the potential is there.
Akram: I hated the short delivery that the batsmen could leave alone. Freaking hell. I am not going to do that. It has to make him uncomfortable. Let them wait. It's coming. It's coming. It's coming.
Holding: And they are wondering…
Akram: I used to watch the batsman from the time they stepped out of the dressing room. How is he walking? Is he confident? Is he not confident? You can tell from a batsman's walk to the crease.
Holding: When batsmen are confident when walking out to bat, they look as if they want to be there. There are some batsmen - you can tell that they are not looking forward to it. They realise they have to do it, but they are not looking forward to it. It is a completely different situation. Even when they take guard and when they are facing up, you can see what kind of movements they are making.
"Thommo never used to abuse batsmen. He would bowl a bad ball and he would kick the ground and call himself names"
Monga: What kind of batsmen did you prefer - the stodgy kind or the ones who took you on?
Holding: If you have batsmen who are very good at playing attacking shots, you certainly prefer the batsman who is not going to play his shots. Because you know even if he lasts a bit longer, he is not going to cause a lot of damage. But when you have an attacking batsman with a good technique, yes, you can get him out because he plays shots, but at the same time he can get the team in a strong position in no time.
Akram: One prime example was Brian Lara. Yes, he gave you a chance but on his day he could change the game.
Monga: So you would rather bowl to Steve Waugh than Lara?
Akram: I would rather bowl to Steve Waugh. Yes, he was gutsy, a good back-foot player, but when it was swinging you had a chance with him.
Monga: Who were the most intimidating fast bowlers you came across?
Holding: Jeff Thomson.
Akram: I never played with or against Thommo but everybody from his era, from Pakistan, from anywhere - Miandad, Zaheer Abbas - they all take one name.
(Both together) Jeff Thomson.
Holding: Dangerous man. He was quick, and you couldn't see the ball with his action. It was out of rhythm. That made things more difficult. Thommo never used to abuse the opposition batsmen. Thommo would bowl a bad ball and he would stand up in the middle of the pitch and kick the ground and call himself names, "Thommo, you such and such, Jeff, you so and so. Thommo, you are a… " I never saw Thommo look at a batsman and abuse the batsman.
Akram: Just himself? That's even scarier. (Both laugh)
Akram: "I would have had a lot more wickets today with the new technology and mindset of the umpires"
© Bipin Patel
Akram: "I would have had a lot more wickets today with the new technology and mindset of the umpires" © Bipin Patel
Monga: How is it bowling in partnerships? Did you ever think, "The other guy is bowling well, let me just maintain the pressure by bowling tight?"
(Raucous laughter from both)
Akram: Not the West Indies bowlers.
Holding: Everybody was trying to get people out. If I am bowling with Andy [Roberts], I am not bowling in a specific way to help Andy. He is not bowling in a specific way to help me. We are both attacking the batsmen. We are both trying to get the batsmen out.
Akram: Same with me and Waqar. I never said, "I will bowl maiden overs, and let him get three wickets." I wanted to get wickets as well.
Monga: Well, you had a mostly healthy competition with Waqar.
Akram: Healthy-ish. It helped the Pakistan team, though. But if Waqar got five wickets and I got one in the first dig, I used to get very upset. Not with Waqar but with myself. Okay, I need to get five in the second innings. I used to run in harder.
Monga: You might be the wrong people to ask this question because you hardly get angry, but does a fast bowler need to be angry? To arouse himself into that state…
Holding: You don't have to get angry.
Akram: Controlled aggression.
"People bowl one delivery at 150kph and it becomes fricking front-page news. One delivery"
Monga: But I ask because human bodies were not meant to bowl fast. Do you need to get into a state where you can get your body to do it?
Holding: Bowling is not natural. Whether you bowl fast or slow. If you give a kid a ball or anything and ask him to get it over to that building, he is not going to bowl it. He is going to throw it. To bowl is unnatural. That's why you need to train your body. That's why you need to be fit and strong. You have to train your body to do something it was not made to do. That's why you have so many bowlers with back problems.
Bowling is unnatural but you don't need to be an angry person to bowl fast. You have to have some aggression.
Akram: Some aggression. Fast bowling is a bit of play-acting too. To stare, to look angry. You don't want to be a fast bowler who has been hit for a six and applaud the batsman. You have to f****** stare at the batsman and say, "What the hell are you doing?"
Monga: What do you think of - and I am using it as an example because it is recent - Jimmy Anderson? It is said that he needs to get into that state - an angry, nasty mindset - to be at his best.
Holding: Rubbish. In the last Test match, at The Oval, he never did that.
Akram: You have to have slightly controlled aggression. A bowler like Jimmy Anderson doesn't need to be angry. He has got everything in his armoury. Pace, seam, swing, reverse swing.
The slinger from hell: Jeff Thomson was the consensus candidate for the most feared fast bowler of his era
© Getty Images
The slinger from hell: Jeff Thomson was the consensus candidate for the most feared fast bowler of his era © Getty Images
Monga: What is the ultimate joy for a fast bowler?
Holding: Hitting the stumps and watching them cartwheel.
Akram: That's what I was about to say.
Holding: These days you don't see that regularly because the stumps are heavy and they have cameras in them. So the stumps don't fly out like before.
Akram: Earlier stumps used to be loose…
Holding: And they would go whoooo, with the wicketkeepers getting out of the way.
Monga: What was your ideal field?
Akram: These guys never had a fricking mid-off or mid-on. (Holding laughs)
Holding: Six slips. Fine leg. Leg gully. Bat-pad. Sometimes a man just in front of square on the off side.
Unless we pitched absolutely flat up, you were not going to drive us. We were not looking for the bowled. We were looking for the outside edge. We had a fantastic cordon. Dujon and Richards and Lloyd and Greenidge and Richardson and Joel Garner. Those guys didn't drop anything. Unless it is a tailender, you are not looking to hit the stumps. You are looking to hit the outside edge.
"Each person is comfortable with a length of the run-up. It's not about the length, it's what you do with the length"
Monga: Mikey, you had a long, rhythmic run-up. Wasim, you were short and whippy. How crucial is a run-up?
Akram: Varies from action to action.
Holding: And person to person. Each person is comfortable with a length of the run-up. It's not about the length, it's what you do with the length. What you do when you are running in. No point running in from 100 yards if you flipping trot in. What you have do is: make sure when you get closer to the crease, you are comfortable at your delivery.
Akram: Follow through, head still…
Holding: You don't want to be tired by the time you get there. And you also don't want to think, "Oh shit, I am already there."
Akram: Nowadays you see bowlers - (Mimics them marking run-ups with uneven strides in the end) What the f*** is going on? One day they jump longer than another day [at the end of marking the run-up]. They are putting pressure on themselves even before they bowl.
Monga: Since you bring up bowlers of nowadays, let us discuss major changes to fast bowling. One of them is training. What do you think of gym training?
Akram: Gym training is good for individual muscles. Like your shoulder, hammie, lower back, whatever. But if you are not running, it means you are not doing your job properly.
Holding: One without the other doesn't make sense. You can be strong but you can be unfit even if you are strong, because you need to be running. You can't just stand up at the crease and bowl fast. You have to be able to run to the crease to bowl fast. In the gym, lifting weights is not going to help you do that.
Akram: "If you are not going with some purpose to a nets session, you are not going to learn anything"
Akram: "If you are not going with some purpose to a nets session, you are not going to learn anything" © AFP
Monga: But gym training is also important?
Holding: Both. I did gym training. Nobody could look at me and say I was a big, powerful guy, but I did gym training. I lifted weights to get strong, but at the same time I did a lot of running.
Monga: What are the muscles you need?
Akram: [Bowling is] one of the rare activities in which every muscle, from your hair to your toe, is used. (Holding laughs) There is no particular muscle. So the more you bowl the better you will become. Your fast-bowling muscles will develop by bowling more and bowling fast.
Holding: You want to develop your entire body. Don't tell yourself, "Just have strong shoulders." Yes, your shoulders are important but your legs are also important. Your back is important. Your stomach is important, because you can't have a strong back without a strong stomach. You need equilibrium there. All parts of your body. The groin. You stretch that a lot. It is pretty difficult to strengthen your groin. You just stretch it a lot to make sure you don't have a problem.
Akram: Imagine a youngster from India or Pakistan, or even the West Indies. He has arrived in the team. The trainer is saying, "You have an option. It's 40 degrees outside. You go for a run. Or you go to the air-conditioned gym." (Holding laughs)
What will I pick? Tell me, what will I pick? What will a youngster pick? The fricking air-conditioned gym. That's where they have gone wrong.
Holding: They have become like Atlas. They can lift anything, and tear up a telephone book, but can't bowl properly.
"A bouncer is easier to bowl than a yorker. For a yorker you need the pace and the dip to beat the batsman under the bat"
Monga: You have seen young bowlers. Do you think they waste their time in the nets? As in, not utilise it properly.
Akram: They don't think when they go to the nets. Nets are the best breeding ground for fast bowlers. To try different things. If you are not going with some purpose to a nets session, you are not going to learn anything.
Holding: And you don't even have to have nets with batsmen in them either. All you need is stumps put up in the ground, one stump by the bowler, and a line to make sure you don't bowl no-balls. And you run in and bowl. And you are trying to hit a particular part on the pitch, and just hit that particular part. That helps you develop your control. As a fast bowler that is very important.
Akram: When I see bowlers say, "He is only bowling two overs in the nets today", I say, what's the point of bowling two overs in the nets? He may as well not bowl. Let him bowl for an hour and a half. That's what I did. Just bowl and bowl, and run for training. That's what we did.
Holding: I was a little different. I didn't do a lot of bowling in the nets. I bowled a little bit, obviously, but I was more interested in running. I did a lot of running, especially after Dennis Waight [an Australian physio and trainer] came into the West Indies set-up. He had the fast bowlers running uphill, downhill, through the stands, up the steps, everything. Because you had to have strong legs. Because you are going to be running a lot when you are bowling. Yes, I went to the nets and bowled, but not over after over after over. I would perhaps bowl a five-over spell at the top of the innings to whoever is batting - Greenidge or Haynes. Perhaps later on I would come off a few steps and bowl again. I wouldn't bowl quick.
Akram: When I was young I used to bowl for about an hour with the new ball. Then I would come back for half an hour with the reverse-swinging ball. Just to try different things. I used to bowl round the wicket a lot. As a bowler, if something is uncomfortable for me, or if I am not enjoying it, it means I need to work harder at it. Bowling round the wicket, for me, was boring. Nothing was happening, but I knew I had to do something different. I had to practise a lot more. That's how I got my control bowling round the stumps to right-hand batsmen.
Holding: "You don't want to be tired by the time you get [to the crease]. And you also don't want to think, 'Oh shit, I am already there'"
© Getty Images
Holding: "You don't want to be tired by the time you get [to the crease]. And you also don't want to think, 'Oh shit, I am already there'" © Getty Images
Monga: At first it wouldn't have started going away from the right-hand batsmen…
Akram: No. It seemed impossible. My natural swing was to bring the ball back in. Then there was the angle from round the wicket. That's where you have to open the wrist up and flick it at the point of delivery.
Monga: Did you need a coach to tell you that?
Holding: In our day we didn't have too many coaches. We had senior players.
Akram: Imran was there. Miandad was there. Mudassar Nazar was there.
Holding: We learned from these guys. Just like today you have these computers telling you where this guy scores his runs, in our day we learned that from experience. We would remember that. It's all memory.
Akram: Everything is handed on a plate now. There is so much technology. They say, this batsman plays 20% of his shots there. And 20% there. (Holding laughs) It gets too complicated for a bowler.
Especially a youngster from our part of the world. What the heck is happening? What should we do? For instance, Dhoni had this field: four slips, leg slip, square leg, short leg.
Holding: Where do you bowl? Off side, straight, leg side?
Akram: I was sitting in the comm box. Jeez, if I was bowling, what would I be thinking?
Holding: What line would I be bowling? (Akram laughs)
"Jimmy Anderson got nearly destroyed with people telling him what is right for him. Now we're seeing it with Steve Finn"
Monga: You sit in commentary boxes and discuss things threadbare, with close-ups, replays and stats. Has technology helped batsmen more than bowlers?
Holding: To be honest, I don't think it helps anybody. All this technology that has come in prevents certain cricketers from thinking for themselves.
Holding: Let me tell you something. The first time they had what we called the spin cam back in the Caribbean, with close-ups and a super slow-mo camera, Australia were there. They filmed Shane Warne. Every delivery. Slowed them down. And they took him to the control room and said to him, "Have a look at this. Do you think this is going to help the batsmen?" Shane Warne said, "No, they still have to play it." You can tell them what is coming, but they still have to play it.
Monga: You wouldn't feel hampered by it if you were to bowl today?
Akram: I would have taken a lot more wickets today. We would have.
Holding: Especially with these umpires.
Akram: We never got lbws on the front foot. They [umpires] never even thought about it.
Holding: Sometimes we didn't even bother to appeal.
Holding: "You play so much limited-overs cricket, you bowl six different deliveries in an over. Absolute rubbish"
© Bipin Patel
Holding: "You play so much limited-overs cricket, you bowl six different deliveries in an over. Absolute rubbish" © Bipin Patel
Monga: Another technological innovation is the speed gun. Mikey, you didn't ever have it. Wasim, you said in an interview that it has had an adverse effect in that people are now looking up to see how fast they are bowling. You said they have forgotten other aspects of bowling. Can you elaborate?
Akram: I remember when it came out in 2001 or 2002. Instead of thinking of the next delivery, every bowler was looking up at the screen.
Holding: (Laughing) Goughie [Darren Gough] used to do that. Always looked up at the screen.
Akram: Before that we never knew. We just knew how to get the batsmen out. There was no distraction. Just batsman, batsman, batsman. Now people bowl one delivery at 150kph and it becomes fricking front-page news. One delivery.
Monga: And you obviously know when you have bowled fast. You don't need to look up at the screen.
Holding: The reaction of the batsman…
Akram: And the keeper.
Holding: Exactly. If the ball goes through to the keeper and it thuds into the glove, you know you are bowling fast.
"I remember when somebody asked me to learn the slower ball back in 1989. I said, 'Piss off'"
Monga: In an interview Waqar said that bowlers today start to learn too many things too early. He said when he had just come in he just used to bowl - old ball and reverse swing. Once he had mastered it, Imran asked him to move to the new ball. Are fast bowlers trying too much too early nowadays?
Holding: That is happening, but you know why? Because of limited-overs cricket. T20 and 50-over cricket. Every ball is so important in the shorter form of the game. You can lose the game in one over. You are not going to lose a Test match in one over. Because you are playing so much limited-overs cricket, they then go into the Test matches thinking something has to happen every ball. You have guys bowling an over with six different deliveries. Absolute rubbish.
Akram: Yes, you have to set batsmen up in Test cricket. That's where you have to be consistent with your line and length. You can't try everything every delivery. Even Anderson in this series, he is one of the top bowlers in the world, but I reckon he tries too many things with the new ball. If he bowls just one kind of swing for two-three overs - say outswing - and then one ball is an inswinger, he will get more wickets. Two outswingers, one inswinger, two outswingers, then another inswinger. You are messing up your line.
Monga: T20 is an interesting topic. Wasim, you are a bowling consultant with an IPL team. You know Mikey has no time for that format. Can you convince him about it?
Akram: I can't convince him. (Holding laughs) But the only thing I tell my bowlers at Kolkata Knight Riders is: you know a lot of theories are floated around, bowl outside-off yorker, bowl this ball, that ball… I have told them, "Guys, it is simple. The best way to contain runs in T20 is to get wickets. And how will you get wickets? Bowl at the stumps. You can't bowl outside off, have a six-three field, and expect that you will be able to save runs." Batsmen have got all kinds of shots to counter it. They play the switch hit, they play ramps, they sweep fast bowlers.
As a bowler you have to run in with two to three plans. If he is going towards the off, that's where the slower ball comes in. The slower ball that goes away from him. If he is going to slog-sweep, again the same. T20 is part and parcel of the game today. You have to get around it.
Holding: Fifty-over cricket is similar. You have to run in with different plans in your mind. Because you never know when the guy is going to back away, you never know when he is going to charge you, you never know when he is going to go towards the off stump. You can't run up and say, this is what I am going to bowl. You have to have options in your mind.
I grew up with 50-over cricket. We were told: bowl straight. If you miss, I hit. You don't want them to be swinging and missing, and still having another opportunity to be able to swing. If they swing and miss, they must be back in the pavilion. As Waz said, the best way to prevent runs is to take wickets. You can't get runs in the pavilion.
Holding: "You don't even have to have nets with batsmen in them. All you need is stumps"
© Getty Images
Holding: "You don't even have to have nets with batsmen in them. All you need is stumps" © Getty Images
Monga: So where are all these fancy wide deliveries coming from?
Akram: I don't know. I don't know where these coaches come up with these absurd ideas. I listen to them and I just ignore them. I tell my bowlers what I feel is right. You know what happens nowadays in T20s is, just after the sixth over, you want to sneak in two or three overs from your part-time bowlers. That's where batsmen start getting runs. So that's where you want to have your main bowlers bowling. Because if you get wickets in those five to seven overs, they won't be able to get runs in the last few. You have to turn the psyche around.
Monga: Have you managed to do that with your team?
Akram: Yes. And credit goes to Gautam Gambhir as well. He is the captain.
Monga: Do you think there is something, anything at all, a fast bowler can learn from T20 and use in Tests?
Akram: No. It's always the opposite.
Monga: Wasim, you grew up idolising bowlers who nicked batsmen out. You were a completely different bowler yourself. How?
Akram: Because of the wickets we grew up on. We needed reverse swing. We needed to attack the stumps. And with the slip fielders [Pakistan] had… (Both laugh) They must have dropped 150 catches just off my bowling, forget Waqar and Imran. They'd say sorry. Fricking hell, that's not good enough! That's where we realised we needed to attack the stumps. Sometimes reverse-swing edges don't carry on low and slow pitches, so you have to bring the ball back in.
"I didn't do a lot of bowling in the nets. I bowled a little bit, obviously, but I was more interested in running"
Monga: Reverse swing. Mikey, you are of the belief that it has been there forever, just that it didn't have a name back in your day.
Holding: Yeah, it has been going on for a long time. The thing is, when reverse swing took place initially there was no technology to show it. There were no close-ups for people to say, "Oh hell, it is swinging with the shine." It just happened, and people accepted it. Now with all the technology and with the camera zooming in on the ball, you can see which side of the ball is shiny. People began to talk about it. Obviously it will get a name. When we saw the ball was going opposite to where we thought it should be going, we just turned it around. If you are looking for an outswinger and the shine is here and the ball ain't going, you just turn it around.
Monga: But you knew there was a phenomenon that the old ball was going with the shine?
Holding: Because of the weight. It has all to do with the bias. You are shining one side of the ball, you are putting perspiration, you are putting all sorts of things to maintain the shine, and eventually so much of it soaks into the ball that that side of the ball gets heavy. So the ball is going to drop towards the heavy side. I have said to so many people that it is not a matter of just shine and rough. If I give somebody a brand new ball, and use sandpaper-
Akram: No, it won't happen.
Holding: Hear the master. It will not swing. The ball has to be old. It won't dip. The curve happens with the weight. The bias of the perspiration and all the work going into one side of the ball.
Akram: Till 1994 it was ball-tampering. And now England have learned from a Pakistani and it is reverse swing. All these big journalists who wrote in 1992 should apologise to me and Waqar now.
Holding: They won't. Just like short-pitched bowling. We were supposed to be spoiling the game. When they [England] used four fast bowlers and won the Ashes in 2005, it was fantastic. They hit Ricky Ponting at Lord's. Harmison hit him in the face, there was blood, and the crowds were going delirious. Shoe is on the other foot.
Holding: "No point running in from 100 yards if you flipping trot in"
© Getty Images
Holding: "No point running in from 100 yards if you flipping trot in" © Getty Images
Monga: In your day, Mikey, who was the best exponent of reverse swing?
Holding: Well, we didn't pay so much attention. So it is difficult to say who was reversing the ball. You don't know. You knew the ball was swinging, you didn't know if it was reverse or natural.
Monga: How does the wrist position look when you are trying to reverse?
Akram: More or less the same. It is the ball that does the job. Obviously you need to give it a little sideways push. It is all about how you look after the ball. Not just me as the bowler. The whole team. If they are throwing it one bounce on a grassy square it won't reverse. If it is dry then there is a chance. All these things Mushy [Mushtaq Ahmed] has taught the English team. They are very good at that now. They reverse with even two balls, in a one-day match. (Holding laughs) There has got to be some art to it now.
Holding: Yeah, they are only bowling 25 overs with one ball. It must start reversing after 15. Magicians.
Monga: The idea behind throwing on the bounce is, it might get damaged on either side, but once you see enough damage you start working on the other side…
Akram: See, if the shiny side gets damaged you shine more. If the other side gets damaged you leave it.
Monga: But what if there is no shiny side yet?
Akram: Then it depends on which side bounced in the dry square. But I used to tell Imran to tell the boys to not mess with the new ball. Let's go normal swing, and see what happens after 30 overs. Like Mikey said, you can rough up the new ball with sandpaper and it still won't reverse. It will only reverse when the ball is slightly older.
"Lancashire have got a sleeping guru. I said, 'What the hell is going on? Get a fricking Xanax'"
Monga: You would even stick the foot out when a ball was hit back at you to take a chance and see if the rough side got roughened further by the spikes.
Akram: We started it. (Laughs) Nobody taught us. We learned these little tricks ourselves. Eventually people picked it up because we told them what to do. We learned that when the square is lush green, it's not going to happen. Sometimes the ball is about to start reversing and you concede a single to third man, and the ball comes back to you smooth again. All these details you have to pick up as a team and as a bowler.
Monga: So with all the knowledge of reverse swing, why is the yorker going out of the game?
Akram: Because it's not an easy delivery to bowl. You have to work hard. You need pace for it. And I don't see teams getting little things right. When me and Waqar were there, and I wanted to bowl a yorker with the new ball, I used to have my mid-on and mid-off straighter and at the edge of the circle. That would save the boundary if I ended up bowling a low full toss. These things don't happen anymore. Bowlers just come with empty minds. I don't know… I think they [bowlers] have got too much information going into their head.
Monga: I remember you telling me a story of an exhibition match where Kim Barnett was hitting you around, and then you bowled a yorker to get him. But you told your team-mates, "Damn, I didn't want to bowl it."
Akram: Well, that's because a bouncer is easier to bowl than a yorker. You don't want to be doing it in an exhibition match because it takes a lot out of your body. For a yorker you need the pace and the dip to beat the batsmen under the bat.
Akram: "The best way to contain runs in T20 is to take wickets. And how do you take wickets? You bowl at the stumps"
© Getty Images
Akram: "The best way to contain runs in T20 is to take wickets. And how do you take wickets? You bowl at the stumps" © Getty Images
Monga: I remember an interview where you said you used to aim for the top of the stumps when bowling yorkers.
Akram: That was when I was learning to bowl yorkers. That's what Imran told me. I remember playing Sri Lanka in an ODI in 1986. Ashantha de Mel came in and hit me for three fours in one over. I was bowling length. So Imran said, "You need to learn yorkers." I said, "How?" And he said, "Let's go to the nets tomorrow." And he started by asking me to aim for the top of the stumps. "Eventually you will get the hang of it." Obviously nets and county cricket helped. And I just used to give my 100% when I had to bowl the yorker. I think that's where they lack nowadays. They think the yorker is just a full delivery. It is much more.
Monga: You have both played county cricket. Do you think it holds the same advantage for a fast bowler today?
Holding: Any cricketer can learn from playing in county cricket because you are going to be playing in so many different conditions. Some days it is going to be bright and sunny, as you had in June and July. Some days are going to be like this [nippy and overcast], and it might seam and swing all over the place. You can learn playing under so many different conditions.
My opinion is that county cricket today is a lot weaker than when we played, and the main reason for that is the central contracts. When you take the cream out of the flipping milk, the milk is not going to be as good. That's what is happening with county cricket. There is so much international cricket, they are not getting the best out of the players, and their own best players are not playing.
Akram: In our era you had to be the absolute best in the world to be able to play in county cricket. You were allowed to register two overseas players and play only one at a time.
"You cannot play Test cricket for ten or 12 years bowling fast with the amount of cricket they are playing now"
Monga: What is the school for fast bowlers now?
Akram: County cricket still is. Come for one year. They will bowl a lot more, on different wickets, live on their own, especially bowlers from our part of the world - they can grow up quickly. When they come here, they have to do everything themselves. They become confident as a person, and that personality comes out when they are bowling, eventually.
Monga: Is cricket all year round the reason for the lack of out-and-out fast bowlers? We have Mitch Johnson, and to an extent Dale Steyn.
Holding: Yes, because of the amount of cricket they play. Steyn is not as quick now as he was three years ago. And he won't get that pace back.
Akram: Once pace is gone, it's gone. It's rare in this day and age for someone to have pace.
Monga: There is this theory that the success of Glenn McGrath, where he stuck to bowling short of a length just outside off, might have had an impact on future generations. Because pace is not easy. And here is a guy who has shown them an alternative route.
Akram: McGrath was 6ft 6in. He was tall, he had bounce. He was strong and clever. Line and length on Indian and Pakistani wickets, you are asking for trouble.
Holding: You have to remember McGrath played a lot of cricket in Australia and England. Those are about the only places where you will succeed with just line and length.
Holding: "In our day, we learned from experience. It's all memory"
Holding: "In our day, we learned from experience. It's all memory" © AFP
Monga: Mikey, you played 60 Tests in 12 years. Anderson will be playing a possible 17 next year. Would you have been able to manage it?
Holding: No. Too much cricket. You cannot have fast bowlers who will last ten or 12 years. You cannot play Test cricket for ten or 12 years bowling fast with the amount of cricket they are playing now. Even if they played Test cricket alone, they would struggle. They have to play Test cricket plus 50-over plus T20. Ridiculous. Cannot happen.
Monga: Let me quote Allan Donald from an interview. "My biggest battle now with some of the young fast bowlers is, they sometimes don't realise when they have someone so locked up and it's just a matter of balls before you knock this bloke over. And the guys [bowlers] back off. Maybe they don't know it, or they have run out of gas. That is when you need to put the foot down and go for the kill." Do you see that too?
Akram: Everything has got easier nowadays. Everything is handed to them on a plate. They don't think for themselves. Allan Donald ran in every time he bowled. He was a fighter. He was quick, equally quick on subcontinental wickets. That's why I can see his frustration with these young bowlers when they don't understand the art of bowling.
Holding: And in not recognising what's going on. Maybe, Waz, if they have someone beside them telling them what is happening, they will recognise it.
Monga: So you agree this happens?
Holding: I wouldn't say they back off. I think because they are still experimenting, they try things that they shouldn't be trying. That sort of eases the pressure.
"I hated the short delivery that the batsman could leave alone. It has to make him uncomfortable. Let them wait. It's coming. It's coming. It's coming"
Monga: Do you think fast bowling as an art has grown since you retired?
Akram: More variety, I suppose.
Holding: Definitely more variety. A lot more variation with bowling.
Monga: But not necessarily for the good?
Holding: Some of it is for the better.
Akram: Slower balls. In one-day cricket they save you at times. It's part and parcel of the job now.
Monga: Slower balls in your times…
Akram: We didn't want to. I remember when somebody asked me to learn the slower ball back in 1989, I said, "Piss off." (Both laugh) I am a fast bowler, why should I bowl a slower ball? I realised after five years that I need to learn it. It is part of the armoury.
Holding: Those days we didn't bowl the slower ball. We didn't have the variations that these guys have. These guys bowl the slower ball from the back of the hand. I would never ever think of that. Imran did it.
Monga: Would you have liked to have bowled today?
Akram: I would have got a lot more wickets with new technology and the new mindset of umpires.
Monga: Despite T20 and the amount of cricket played today?
Akram: With my game, I would have enjoyed T20. Two overs with the new ball, one with the old ball, one in the middle, and go and sit down and come out and whack the ball with the bat.
Holding: (Laughs) Easy.
"When you take the cream out of the flipping milk, the milk is not going to be as good. That's what is happening with county cricket"
© Bipin Patel
"When you take the cream out of the flipping milk, the milk is not going to be as good. That's what is happening with county cricket" © Bipin Patel
Monga: Would you, Mikey?
Holding: Yeah, why not? Definitely.
Akram: Imagine Mikey running in today. It would have been a sight to watch.
Monga: Would you have been allowed to run in the way you did [shoulders swaying from left to right]?
Holding: Why not?
Holding: Nobody can tell me what is right for my body.
Monga: That's not happening.
Holding: Because too many bowlers are being given too much information. They are not thinking for themselves. Everybody is coming and telling them what is right for them. You have to know what is right for you. Jimmy Anderson got nearly destroyed with people telling him what is right for him. We are now seeing [it with] Steve Finn. People are telling him what is right for him. He is flipping up a wall one day and down it the next day.
Akram: They [England] had 17 support staff when they came to India. Lancashire have got a sleeping guru. I said, "What the hell is going on? Get a fricking Xanax."
"When batsmen are confident walking out to bat, they look as if they want to be there. There are some batsmen - you can tell that they are not looking forward to it"
Monga: As a fast bowler how do you know whom to listen to?
Akram: It is difficult, especially in our part of the world. You have to say yes to everybody. But you have to say yes and do whatever you think is the right thing. You don't listen to people and change your action based on what everyone tells you. You listen and see if this is working for you and stick to it.
Holding: Important people are the senior people in your team. They know you more than anyone. They will know what is best for you. You stick with the senior people in the team. I wrote an article about Bangladesh years ago. Every time they came to England they would be the youngest ever team. Who do you learn from?
Akram: You need mentors in the team. I don't know about the west, but our part of the world, if you get a young fast bowler, you need someone at mid-on or mid-off talking to him. Not necessarily telling him what to do but just discussing stuff with him. What are you trying to do, what field you want, this batsman is weak here, so try bowling there. You can't throw the ball to Varun Aaron and expect him to get 7 for 50. He won't be able to.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.