Michael Holding bowls

Holding: like mercury

© Getty Images

High Fives

Lights, camera… actions!

Deceptive, languid, animalistic, terrifying and revealing: five favourite bowling actions

Ahmer Naqvi |

Wasim Akram
In a country as obsessed with fast bowling as Pakistan, you can come across imitations of just about every famous pacer in the gullies and maidans. But you'd struggle to find an Akram clone, simply because no one else can really be an effective fast bowler - let alone the lord of deceptive devastation - with that compact, no-frills action off a shuffling, short run.

Akram was enchanting but his action was an integral part of the magic. It was one thing to see the ball reveal itself as poetry once it left his hand, quite another to fathom how such a basic action produced such elaborate trickery.

It was like the performance of a jazz maestro - at once simple, forever effortless, it would produce music that was infinitely layered and complex. The crowning glory, and the action's only concession to menace, was the look on his face as he brought the ball to his eyes, aligning it with his target. Even there, though, an element of deception was inherent - few could match the ease with which Akram changed his action to hide the shine of a reversing ball.

Michael Holding
The only bowler on this list I never saw live. I read about him long before I saw him bowl, and a part of me was convinced that nothing I would see could match the evocativeness of the nickname Whispering Death.

For one, despite his calm, almost stern, demeanour, the way Holding ran in captured a joy glimpsed only in young children, who can run without needing a reason, who can run for the sake of running itself. His head thrown back slightly, his body would flow into a rhythm, the flow of mercury; a sense of absolute motion captured within the otherwise limited human frame.

Steyn: animal magnetism

Steyn: animal magnetism © Getty Images

In terms of delivery, you could argue there were smoother actions. But with Holding, the action was never the end but another form his viscous body would take. It still amazes me how terrifying the resulting deliveries would be - the terror they evoked was an antithesis to the celebration of human form that led up to it.

Dale Steyn
As a spectator, the run-up is my favourite part of fast bowling - it creates a rare mix of drama and frenzy. In terms of sheer visceral pleasure, no one matches the effect Shoaib Akhtar's run-up had, but his replacement on this list comes pretty close.

Steyn is visually the most exciting fast bowler in the world today, and his run-up plays a large part in it. Unlike bowlers from Australia, and particularly others from South Africa, Steyn's run-up is animalistic rather than mechanical. Bowlers like Mitchell Johnson or Brett Lee often feel like pistons in a steam engine, but Steyn's run-up mimics a predator in the wild. When he gathers to deliver, his athleticism becomes more scientific, save for his bowling hand, which becomes a marvel of lithe elasticity, snapping like a catapult at the moment of release.

Yet despite the violence of this moment and Steyn's demeanour, the entire spectacle is extremely eloquent: pure emotion distilled with a divine grace.

Curtly Ambrose
Fast bowling is intimidation, but in the world we live in, it is difficult to appreciate the nobility in a violent act. Intimidation comes across as bullying.

Ambrose: great vengeance, furious anger, and a fist of doom

Ambrose: great vengeance, furious anger, and a fist of doom © Getty Images

Yet intimidation can also be the expression of an earned superiority, and there are few permutations of the human body that conveyed better the glower of Curtly Ambrose than the shake of the fist as he bowled. Divorced from the context of the game, it looked like someone winding up to land a punch, an act of gathering strength, before delivering it with great purpose. Think of Samuel L Jackson's Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction quoting that passage from the Bible (also a meditation on violence and righteousness) and how the quote ends with him hectoring, "And you will know I am the Lord when I lay My vengeance upon you."

The entire effect of Jackson's character in that scene is an extended version of what Ambrose's forearm felt like. When I first saw it as a little boy, it was the most terrifying and wondrous thing I had ever seen, and I'm sure many batsmen felt the same.

Mohammad Asif
The only reason Asif is on this list is because of technology. The peak of his curtailed career coincided with a particular broadcasting trend - the use of super-slow-motion cameras. Without them, Asif might have been viewed as a very different bowler. With those cameras, though, his action could be dissected to a point where it seemed to say something about the person himself.

Asif: a myriad of tiny conspiracies

Asif: a myriad of tiny conspiracies © PA Photos

In an unremarkable run-up, he carried the ball as if it were made of wet clay and holding it tighter would ruin it. When he delivered, it wasn't particularly aesthetic, but a slow-mo would reveal something significant - the seam would come out wobbling like a dancer in an especially gratuitous music video.

Up close and super-slow, he had a wickedly laconic quality. When you saw the deception of his deliveries, it changed how you viewed him. Now that ambling run-up felt like a ploy to lull the batsman into a sense of false security. The action no longer felt uninspired but full of tiny, imperceptible movements, like conspiracies. The wrist, where the final magic was generated, was the most mysterious, offering clues that were all red herrings.

With Asif, that extreme level of detail was needed to appreciate what he had done, but no one could come close to deciphering it. All you could conclude was that there was a lot more to him than met the eye.

Ahmer Naqvi is a journalist, writer and teacher. He writes on cricket for various publications, and co-hosts the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. @karachikhatmal





  • POSTED BY Raghu Nandan on | May 29, 2015, 13:38 GMT

    Though I really love the way actions were elucidated, there are some better and beautiful actions to be added to this list. I clearly respect the authors pick because its his choice and he is not rubbing it on others. In my teens, I use to mimic the run-ups and actions and my favorite one is of Allan Donald's..... the rhythmic run-up with a jump accumulating all the energy and the burst of release hitting bat edges in a fraction of time. Its Awesome. Another most loved one was of Lance Klusener's. a rhythmic hop-o-hop followed by a big hop with ball coming close to eye before being delivered just like dart targeted towards the board. I myself feel Ian Botham(Most Perfect and Beautiful to watch), Imran Khan, Jimmy Anderson, Waqar, Zaheer Khan, Curtly Ambrose(we use to call 'Samba Dance'), Bret Lee, Holding, Lillee(too good action but worst follow-up), Kapil Dev, C Cairns(Shane Bond- almost same), Hadlee had beautiful actions from start of the run-up till the follow-up post deliver

  • POSTED BY anwer on | May 25, 2015, 12:48 GMT

    You are right Mr. ROBERT ROEMER !!! It seems writer's topic is "5 Effortless Actions" instead of "My 5 Favorite bowling actions". Rubbish choice ??? But nevertheless it is a beautiful topic. The bowlers with attractive actions : 1) Dennis Lillie 2) Michael Holding 3) Jeff Thomson 4) Sir Richard Hadlee 5) Andy Roberts 6) Marshal 7) Donald 8) Ambrose 9) Imran

  • POSTED BY Tashfeen on | May 24, 2015, 13:59 GMT

    lol, hilarious article. Cannot really believe what the writer is talking about. Holding, yes, Akram? No, Shoaib? No. Ambrose? No. Asif? No. The best there ever were are: Michael Holding, Imran Khan, Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson and Allan Donald.

  • POSTED BY Nick on | May 19, 2015, 14:08 GMT

    No mention of Bishen Bedi?

  • POSTED BY Ganesh Ramani on | May 19, 2015, 12:31 GMT

    Richard Hadlee.??? I would rate him amongst the best

  • POSTED BY गिरीश on | May 15, 2015, 10:49 GMT

    How come Alan Donald is skipped from this list ??? Action-wise, he had the best...

  • POSTED BY addn on | May 15, 2015, 1:55 GMT

    I hope the writers of these articles do read these comments. I just wanted Ahmer to know that I am from Pakistan and I had copied wasim's action as a right handed fast bowler with great success in my 30s. I was inspired by Imran, Marshall , Morrison , hadllee in my early 20s and totally captivated by Waqar at his peak . But after watching holding on video, nothing comes close to his smooth action. Did anyone know that Muhammad Akram is the closest replica in international cricket of holding's legendary action. I had the honor of watching live actions of Imran, wasim, Waqar, Shoaib, Ambrose, Marshal but the action that I loved the most in live action was Ian Bishop's . I am surprised how no one noticed his smooth , strong pivoting delivery stride. I totally agree with your assessment of Asif's guily action. To all other readers, please note that this was only one person's perspective.

  • POSTED BY SauronsSon on | May 14, 2015, 18:03 GMT

    Dan Morrison and Chris Lewis come to mind. Very fluent actions. Allan Donald too.

  • POSTED BY Cricinfouser on | May 14, 2015, 12:37 GMT

    For sheer fluidity and economy of movement , the post-vertebraes-fracture Lillee, Snow, Hadlee, Holding , Alan Davidson spring to mind in the last sixty years ...I am 58 years old. And for sheer excitement and terror-inducement, the 1971/72 Lillee who was unbelievable, Wes Hall from near the sightscreen, Thommo..all arm shoulder and splayed feet, Marshal's whippet-like ferocity and Donald's raging-bull run-up and tremendous delivery stride are my favourites!

  • POSTED BY chandrasekhar on | May 14, 2015, 11:13 GMT

    Purely subjective when you consider the beautiful bowling action ,with out considering the effectiveness or having a bench mark of having taken certain number of wickets. To pick just 5 of hundreds of bowlers who played with distinction is difficult. For me, Imran,Kapil,Steyn,Holding, Donald among pacemen. Among spinners Warne,Swann,Pat Symcox ,Carl Hooper and Anil Kumble.. As I said purely subjective ..and this is just MHO..

  • POSTED BY Worrell on | May 14, 2015, 10:15 GMT

    @ Robert Roemer - Totally agree with you. Lillee is a must. Jeff Lawson and Patrick Patterson for frightening explosive delivery.

  • POSTED BY Vinod on | May 13, 2015, 23:56 GMT

    Nice topic..... I tried Jeff Thommo's slingshot action (and came off looking like a drunk rhino on roller skates!!)which was unique and an absolute beaut, loved Graham Dilley of that wonderful runup & cartwheel action, Donald was an absolute marvel-steyn similar and rhythymic, Shoaib-Waqar with their wonderful straight- back frenetic runup and the theatre that comes with this, Brett Lee with that 'wowser' of a leap...but my all time fav was Imran - what a catwalk of an action-absolutely frozen when he bowled...others I raved/craved/imitated was Holding, McDermott, dan morrison, Mike procter -of that wrong footed delivery stride....ah awesome....

  • POSTED BY Robert Roemer on | May 13, 2015, 18:25 GMT

    Sorry to say, this is one of the worst opinion pieces I have ever read on the Cricinfo site. No Allan Donald?? And WASIM AKRAM INSTEAD? Akram was incredibly effective but had one of the UGLIEST actions of all time, he looked rushed, ungainly, just plain ugly. And you have him in your top 5 of all time - and again, no Donald. Unbelievable. And no Lillee? Come on, that is just plain ridiculous. Michael Holding, Allan Donald, and Dennis Lillee are absolute musts, then whoever you like. But putting Akram in there is just mental, And Asif just as bad.

  • POSTED BY Prasanna Gopal on | May 13, 2015, 17:25 GMT

    Seamers: Darren Gough, Geoff Allott, Lance Klusener, Ian Bishop, Brett Lee, Heath Streak, Chaminda Vaas, Irfan Pathan, Mohammad Sami, Shayne O'Connor, Dominic Cork, Mervyn Dillon, Chris Cairns, Nathan Bracken, Andre Nel.

    Spinners: Pat Symcox, Paul Strang, Mushtaq Ahmed, Brad Hogg, Robert Croft, Carl Hooper, Daniel Vettori, Anil Kumble, Graeme Swann.

  • POSTED BY Skanda on | May 13, 2015, 17:19 GMT

    No Paul Adams???

    Kidding - but seriously you seem to have missed out Alan Donald, Darren Gough, Shane Bond, Waqar, Akhtar. And Warne too!

  • POSTED BY Aatif on | May 13, 2015, 16:43 GMT

    No shane bond? U must be kidding.

  • POSTED BY RANDY on | May 13, 2015, 16:15 GMT

    Good choices. Pity they were limited to five. I would add Colin Croft, Joel Garner, Malcolm Marshall, and one of the most fearsome, lethal pacemen with a ball in his grip, Andy Roberts.

  • POSTED BY Partha Banerjee on | May 13, 2015, 16:11 GMT

    I have seen footage of Ray Lindwall's action. That was perhaps the best. Lillee comes very close. Kapil had a languid action. Waqar's slinging action is a favorite. Richard Hadlee's action was economic and precise. Walsh was beautiful but then of course he was almost a carbon copy of Holding. Wasim Akram's action was just wizardry. Loved Alan Donald's run up and high arm action. In the current lot I like to watch Umesh Yadav, Mitchell Starc, James Anderson, Dale Steyn and Mitchell Johnson.

  • POSTED BY IFTIKHAR on | May 13, 2015, 15:31 GMT

    After 50 years of watching international cricket here are mu high five: Fred Trueman, Wes Hall, Dennis Lillee, Michael Holding and Imran Khan.If i reduce my cricketing age to 30 than i would prefer Wasim Akram, Curtly Ambrose, Shoaib Akhtar,Jaques Kallis and Dale Steyn.all these greats had fasincating run ups and actions.

  • POSTED BY arauf123 on | May 13, 2015, 12:10 GMT

    Dennis Lillle ,Sir Richard Hadlee,Malcom Marshall,Glen Macgraw & John Snow

  • POSTED BY a on | May 13, 2015, 11:36 GMT

    The most beautiful (fluid or explosive) fast bowling actions were of Holding, Thomson, Imran, Hadlee and Larwood. I dont agree with 3 of your choices at all - Wasim, Ambrose and Asif were positively ugly - no 10 year old ever drooled over them frame-by-frame as they most certainly have done or would have wanted to do for Holding, Thomson, Imran, Hadlee and Larwood.

  • POSTED BY Robert on | May 13, 2015, 8:53 GMT

    All great choices. My cricket watching goes back a bit further and I would include Fred Trueman, Dennis Lillee and Andy Roberts in my top selections. Imran, Waqar, Donald, Hadlee, Marshall, Kapil - to name a few more - also worthy of consideration.

    Then there are the actions in the "look ugly, shouldn't work, but are very effective and I sure as hell wouldn't want to face them" category.

    Step forward: Jeff Thomson, Lasith Malinga, Colin Croft, Andrew Flintoff, Max Walker and (my number 1) Mike Procter.

  • POSTED BY Raza on | May 13, 2015, 8:52 GMT

    Cheers, Naqvi. On to something here. This ought to make an interesting trope for folk able to do it justice. Would TCM be open to commissioning the most inspired piece every month? We all have our five.

  • POSTED BY Andy Parry on | May 13, 2015, 8:13 GMT

    Sir Richard Hadlee should have been on the list, his rhythm and swing were poetry in motion.

  • POSTED BY Jibran Khalil on | May 13, 2015, 7:39 GMT

    Not including Imran to this list, is blasphemy to Cricket! Even the people on the list would agree with me.

  • POSTED BY Monusai Rathod on | May 13, 2015, 7:39 GMT

    I am surprised, Why there are no Australians on the List. According to me, Brett Lee had Most Intimadating Action. Mcgrath Could use the Crease so Well. He can bowl close to stumps and away from the stump. I can't agree more with the above Bowlers, They were the best. Mohd Asif was magician. Who can forget 2006 Karachi Test Vs India. He Bamboozled best Batsman of Mid-2000 Era.

  • POSTED BY Umair Ahmed on | May 13, 2015, 7:39 GMT

    Action concerned! Allan Donald, Danny Morrison, Micheal Holding, Shoaib Akhter, & Waqar Yunus are my fav.

  • POSTED BY life on | May 13, 2015, 5:03 GMT

    On reading the heading the first name that came to my mind was Md. Asif and thankfully he is mentioned. I have always loved the smooth free-flowing action where the bowler doesn't make a pivot/aim with the front arm like Mcgrath or Donald. Just run in and bowl with the continuity and an arm that goes high that's my type of action ..hence my favs would be Asif,Waqar,Kapil Dev,Shane Bond even Shabbir Ahmed and Md.Shami.

  • POSTED BY Intesar Yunus on | May 9, 2015, 4:51 GMT

    Dont agree with Wasim Akram as we are talking about bowling action waqar, imran, shoaib was way ahead of him

  • POSTED BY Mohsin Zunzunia on | May 8, 2015, 14:04 GMT

    Well, on my list Donald would be somewhere near the top. Asif would be behind a dozen or so Pakistanis including Wasim, Imran, Waqar, Sami, and even the spinners Afridi and Mushy. I loved Wasim's action though, he is Lara's equivalent of bowling, thrilling to the core!

  • POSTED BY Ulloo on | May 7, 2015, 1:40 GMT

    Ahmer, I think you got this one wrong. In my opinion, Waseem Akram does not belong in the list. Even in Pakistan, Imran Khan's and Waqar Ypunis's action were far better. Waseem's action was too complicated and did not have the romanticism of Imran's or Waqar's actions. For Paksitan my favorite 5's are (bowling actions alone): Imran, Waqar, Aamer, Asif and Akram (I included Akram because you had him so high although Mohsin Kamal was not too bad). Overall my fav 5 in world cricket are (in no particular order): Lillee, Holding, Richard Hadlee, Marshall, Waqar/Imran

  • POSTED BY sam on | May 6, 2015, 16:18 GMT

    IMO the best bowling actions since 1980, 1. Lillee 2. Holding 3. Akram 4. Hadlee 5. Donald

  • POSTED BY zomma on | May 6, 2015, 7:52 GMT

    Comparing the bowling actions of Michael Holding, Imran Khan, Dennis Lillee, Alan Donald and Mohsin Kamal to the rest of the bowlers is just like comparing Mercedes to the other cards of the world. Some cars might have the power, some the speed and some the economy, but Mercedes? Beautiful ! Here's a little acid test...post the bowling action videos of the bowlers that you list along with the above mentioned to 100 international cricketers of the past 5 decades....see what they throw up....At their peak, the above bowlers were poetry in motion...run up, actions, speed, the lot, with Michael Holding taking the top billing...most people would pay an arm and a leg to watch them bowl ! They were simply the Majid Khans, the David Gowers and the Greg Chappels of fast bowling; Sublime Beauty!.

  • POSTED BY mahmood on | May 6, 2015, 6:40 GMT

    The best 5 bowling actions in my eyes are - 1. Dennis Lillee 2. Alan Donald 3. Michael Holding 4. Imran Kha

  • POSTED BY Ranveer Phukan on | May 5, 2015, 15:45 GMT

    Agreed with the article up until the last name. Mohd. Asif?? Seriously?? There's no way his action can compare with Allan Donald, Waqar Younis, Dennis Lillee or Shane Bond just to name a few!! These guys were way better to watch running in and releasing the 5 1/2 ounces than the overrated trundler you named. You may be right about one thing though Mr. Naqvi, there certainly was more to Asif than what met the eye, but not in a good way. Peace...

  • POSTED BY James on | May 5, 2015, 12:28 GMT

    Harold Larwood………bustling doom

    Imran Khan……. lightning

    Dennis Lillee……..a Swiss watch - a fast one

    Derek Underwood……..bobbing perfection

    Mike Hendrick……..jollopy jerky

    Geoffrey Boycott……..under-rated as a bowler

    Joel Garner……….lumbering beauty

    Kapil Dev……..curry smoothie

    Abdul Qadir………the original frog in a blender

    Kerry O'Keefe……..whirlybird

    RP Singh………left-handed Lillee

    Frank Tyson……….lop-sided legend