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Feature

Curveball

There was a time when fast bowlers ran in from mid-off. Why do modern quicks stick to the straight and narrow?

Russell Jackson |

As an aspiring fast bowler, Damien Fleming modelled himself on three men. The first was the fast-bowling God of his youth, Dennis Lillee, surely the manliest of all quicks, and thus most likely to inspire in an impressionable boy a sense of shock and awe. Lillee could intimidate a batsman without the ball in his hand, by simply swiping a finger across his brow to collect the sweat and then flicking it away like a tetchy Hell's Angel discarding a cigarette butt.

The second was far more obscure but perhaps telling of Fleming's eventual fate. Australian Rules footballer Gary Buckenara was a man who could slip under your guard; a sublimely talented player who thrived in spite of injuries but is perhaps not a name invoked as often as that of his superstar team-mates.

The third - not altogether surprising if you're familiar with Fleming's commentary work - was Kiss lead guitarist Ace Frehley.

Fleming laughs a little at the thought of it all now but he's also entirely serious. Fast bowlers often feel a deep need to be both feared and admired. At their best they can be showmen and heroes but also intimidators. Batsmen get most of the headlines but as Fleming says, they're reactive contributors to the show. Bowlers set the tone.

The more I read, the more I came to the conclusion that "the curve" had died out to the apparent protestations and expressed sadness of no one

As a skinny teenager with a shoulder-length mullet straight out of a Mötley Crüe video, Fleming knew if he could bowl fast - really fast, off a long, wild-eyed approach to the crease - some of that dangerous and alluring mix of hair, sweat and venom possessed by his heroes could take him places. Like Lillee with his own hero Wes Hall, Fleming's resolution to bowl as fast as he could off as long a run-up as possible started as an act of imitation of his boyhood idol. "Kids are very good mimics," he says.

Up until 25 years ago, it wasn't uncommon to see the very best fast bowlers working their way towards the crease on an extravagant, almost artful curve. With their markers somewhere around mid-off, they ran in an arc that is now almost entirely unfamiliar to avid watchers of cricket.

Merv Hughes had a delightfully curved run-up. It was as much a part of his allure as the handlebar moustache and all the theatrics contained in his follow-through. Alan Ross called it a "short-stepping, mincing run-up, rather as if a lobster was nipping at his ankles". It also probably made Hughes fitter than he might have been, engineering into each delivery a kind of pre-season running assignment.

Malcolm Marshall had a significant curve too, his more like a muscular greyhound rounding the final bend than a crustacean. Bob Willis had it, lost it, had it again, and generally made it look like art. A decade earlier, Middlesex and England's John Price often looked like he would barrel into the umpire before "turning the corner" and straightening in the direction of the batsman. Price is possibly better known for the curve than for any single cricket feat, a testament to how evocative it can be to bowl quick in unconventional ways.

Damien Fleming:

Damien Fleming: "Because I was a real side-on bowler, I think that angle made me feel like it was easier to jump up and get into the side-on position" © PA Photos

Watching those bowlers again now, I had the vague sense that curved run-ups had died out on account of cricket's endless march towards more scientifically honed practice, but I didn't know for sure. The more I read, the more I came to the conclusion that "the curve" had also died out to the apparent protestations and expressed sadness of no one in particular.

(Before going further, it's worth acknowledging a distinction, between angle and curve. There were and remain a significant number of bowlers who bound in on a slight angle, but an angled approach still involves running in a straight line. The true curved approach did not.)

Weren't there some romantics wearied by the sight of contemporary fast bowlers athletically pumping in along dead straight lines from run-ups measured out to the millimetre with the assistance of coaches, analysts and number crunchers? The curved run-up started forming in my mind as a symbol of some lost and elusive idyll, a relic thoughtlessly tossed into history's trash can with cable-knit sweaters and Gray-Nicolls Scoops.

To see a curved run-up now you need to scour old videos and YouTube. There you'll find Graham Dilley, "the Dartford Diamond Cutter", winding around towards the crease from somewhere close to long-off. To an eye accustomed to contemporary bowlers it actually looks a bit mad, the bowler zeroing in towards the umpire like an obsessive-compulsive with an inner-ear imbalance.

Lillee could intimidate a batsman by simply swiping a finger across his brow to collect the sweat and then flicking it away like a tetchy Hell's Angel discarding a cigarette

Why did bowlers stop doing it? Why did they ever do it in the first place, digging as deeply as they were into reserves of energy and coordination that could have been better channelled in a straight line? Had it really helped? The more I started researching this dead art the more I concluded that no, it surely couldn't have helped at all. Otherwise bowlers would still be doing it, right?

Well, not exactly. You can start with coaching manuals but even good ones aren't much help. Bob Woolmer's The Art and Science of Cricket - at 655 pages, as thick as a phone book - devoted not a single word of its six pages on run-ups to the issue of the curve. "It is not an exaggeration to say that the entire bowling action - and therefore the success of the bowler - is dependent on the run-up," wrote Woolmer. How to go about it? "It is an entirely individual process," concluded the master coach.

Woolmer's trial-and-error conclusion echoed that of Lillee 30 years prior in a compelling work of his own, The Art of Fast Bowling. Lillee's is a strange and intriguing book, less a coaching text than a genre entirely of its own: cod-science-flavoured self-help memoirs. This was the synthesis of everything Lillee had learned about his craft in game situations, the nets and from other bowlers. "I had to learn the hard way," he notes at one point, in doing so highlighting that fast bowling is something that's learnt in the doing, not by reading books.

Lillee had a curve, but you would hardly know it from reading him in this instance. He pays virtually no attention to the run-up process, claiming fast bowling to be at its best when it is spontaneous. His own curve is only broached via implication, in that he modelled his approach on Hall's long, intimidating arc. Perhaps he thought that spoke for itself.

Dissecting Mitch: Johnson gained pace and venom by changing the length of his run-up and also the angle of his approach to the crease

Dissecting Mitch: Johnson gained pace and venom by changing the length of his run-up and also the angle of his approach to the crease © Getty Images

Of the major coaching manuals, you need to go back to Bradman's The Art of Cricket to get any specific reference as to the reasoning behind the curved run-up. The run-up "should be smooth and regular" starts Bradman. "There is no point in unnecessarily wasting your energy." Highlighting the curve of Alec Bedser's run, Bradman claimed that approaching the wicket from the mid-off region gave the bowler a better side-on positioning in the delivery stride.

This seemed the most sensible thing I had read so I put it to Mike Selvey, the Guardian cricket writer and former England fast bowler, who not only agreed but explained how I had missed the forest for the trees. Curved run-ups weren't an anachronism or a strange, outmoded affectation unleashed upon us by attention-starved bowlers. They died out because the pure, traditional side-on bowling actions of the bowlers who used them also died out.

"With a side-on bowler, the curve in the run [for a right-armer] was about having a kind of bias towards the left side even in the run," says Selvey. "I would reference Fred Trueman as exemplary in this. It just helped get into the best position at the crease." Given that the fundamental nature of bowling actions changed, there's now simply no logical reason to run in on a curve.

"Bowling was once a side-on business," says Selvey. "My own run certainly came in on a slight angle for this reason. There were peculiarities, though, regarding Lord's, where I spent the bulk of my playing days. I bowled from the Nursery End mostly, so the slope ran down from right to left and a curved run helped set me against the slope.

To an eye accustomed to contemporary bowlers it actually looks a bit mad, the bowler zeroing in towards the umpire like an obsessive-compulsive with an inner-ear imbalance

"A curved run from the Pavilion End would tend to throw a bowler down the slope, so needing a sort of leaning back to compensate, which meant that there was then a tendency to push the ball down the leg side." In this his thoughts lined up neatly with those of another fast bowler-turned-scribe, Frank Tyson. "The more oblique his approach, the easier it will be for him to turn into his [side-on] action in the delivery stride," was how Tyson once put it.

I wondered, though, how bowlers employing these curved runs - even with a side-on action - managed to set off towards fine leg and consistently deliver the ball on a desirable line and length without straying down leg or even injuring themselves on account of having to bowl "around" their own body.

In his new incarnation as "The Bowlologist" and as a first-hand witness to the death of the curve, Fleming is one of the best people to explain. He points to Hughes as an example of a key element I had missed. "Merv was actually a bit unique in that he actually ran in, but about two steps away from his take-off step he actually straightened and then jumped towards the target," says Fleming.

"Biomechanics would say that his run-up's quite inefficient, really. But because it's grooved over years, a lot of bowlers will say that it just felt right. But Merv got himself out of that trouble of jumping in towards the stumps and the momentum going away [towards fine leg] because he straightened ahead of his take-off step." Once formed, fast-bowling habits are also hard to shake.

Dead straight run-ups measured out to the millimetre might be more efficient, but they have robbed cricket of some of its romanticism

Dead straight run-ups measured out to the millimetre might be more efficient, but they have robbed cricket of some of its romanticism © Getty Images

Fleming himself had nothing like the curve of Willis, Marshall or Hughes, but as an old-fashioned side-on bowler he did start his professional career with a 28-step angled run-up, which at that stage he felt allowed him to reach the desired position at the crease more efficiently. "Because I was a real side-on bowler - I was perhaps even past side-on - I think that angle made me feel like it was easier to jump up and get into the side-on position. With front-on bowlers, they generally want the pace of their run-up to get through the crease, so a lot of those guys run in a lot quicker and a lot more direct."

The influence of Lillee and rock gods aside, Fleming also theorises that the angle in his own approach - and perhaps so too the curve in others - was in part due to an interesting environmental factor in his development; worn-down and hollowed out patches in the approach to a concrete landing strip where he trained as a junior forced him wide before his take-off step.

Like the young backyard batsman conditioned not to play the pull for fear of breaking his parents' window, he adapted to his surroundings and then fell into a groove. "A lot of those older bowlers were products of the conditions they grew up in," he says. "There's a lot in that. It's bloody interesting. There's hardly any two actions the same."

To assess how far bowling has evolved in an aesthetic sense, one only need look at the reaction to the curved run-up of South Australian fast bowler Daniel Worrall, whose retro-styled path to the crease in recent Big Bash League games Fleming likens to that of former Aussie quick Mick Malone. "He's the only one of the modern day where you go, 'Wow, look at that!'"

The curved run-up started forming in my mind as a symbol of some lost idyll, a relic tossed into history's trash can with cable-knit sweaters and Gray-Nicolls Scoops

Worrall is the exception rather than the rule, though. Most bowlers now employ hybrid front-on actions for which a run-up aligned with their desired off-stump bowling line makes the most sense. After years of learning, coaching and exposure to biomechanics theory, Fleming has come around to the more direct approach of contemporary fast bowlers, even if it is a little less romantic than the days of Willis, Dilley and Hughes.

"If you want the ball to go towards off stump, I generally say to fast bowlers, 'Get most of your momentum going towards off stump', because if all your body parts are going towards off stump then the ball should go towards off stump as well.

"If you're going to pick something up off the ground when you're walking outside a train station, you're going to go the most direct route. So if you want the ball to go on off stump or just outside, running in towards that target and making sure your body parts are heading towards it makes sense to me and no doubt most biomechanics and skill-acquisition guys."

Just as junior cricketers of Fleming and Hughes' era looked to heroes of their time for inspiration, so too have the current crop of fast bowlers followed the straighter lines they grew up idolising. "Things become trendy, don't they?" says Fleming. "Years ago there were fast bowlers with angled run-ups, so [young players] follow that. Fast bowlers used to have massive long run-ups, so we all used to do that."

Still, current Australian bowling coach Craig McDermott doesn't like his pupils to approach the crease gun-barrel straight, preferring a slight angle in order to achieve a better position at the delivery stride stage.

Start as you mean to go on: modern run-ups tend to be straight partly because fewer bowlers are classically side-on in delivery now

Start as you mean to go on: modern run-ups tend to be straight partly because fewer bowlers are classically side-on in delivery now Richard Heathcote / © Getty Images

So while curved run-ups as we once knew them are most likely dead and buried, idiosyncrasy should still thrive. "What I love about watching fast bowlers is that as much as we don't want them to become robots, I don't think they can," says Fleming. "Each action is so unique. But I think there are basic principles that most bowlers need to do."

It's worth noting that the most thrilling fast bowling performances of the current era - Mitchell Johnson's wave of destruction in 2013-14 - occurred as a result of the bowler changing not only the length of his run-up but the angle of his approach to the crease, to something close to a curve.

Selvey watched Johnson's renaissance with interest. "Previously he ran in straight, which, with a more orthodox action [side-on] meant he had to jump out when he got to the crease," says Selvey. "This, with his low arm, just wasn't compatible for consistency. So a slight change from straight to an angle transformed him, nothing else changed."

Nothing, that is, but everything.

Selvey, however, saves the most illuminating image of all until last and it lingers in the mind's eye far longer than any amount of YouTube footage can. "The last time I saw [Lillee] live was when he was playing for Northants," he says. "On a damp ground you could see his beautifully measured, gently curved footprints at odds with those of other bowlers."

And at odds with cricket as we now know it is where the curved run-up will probably remain.

Russell Jackson is a cricket lover who blogs about sport in the present and nostalgic tense for the Guardian Australia and Wasted Afternoons. @rustyjacko

 

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  • POSTED BY Robert on | June 13, 2015, 16:44 GMT

    Fascinating article, thank you. As you say, run ups are born out of circumstance. I learned to bowl along the path in my back yard, so my run up was dead straight and quite short as a result. when I got some coaching as a teenager I was encouraged to make the approach more angled so I could get side-on better in the delivery stride. it also helped with the follow through, which was also dead straight from running down the path and got me in trouble for running on the pitch.

    and so it was for many years, until we started doing moor indoor nets. Walls and nets had a tendency to get in the way of the curved approach. so it was back to the straight run up again.

  • POSTED BY IFTIKHAR on | June 13, 2015, 11:55 GMT

    I remember John Price well!Another oddity was the late Grayson Shillingford of the West Indies who came to UK in 1969.Thought he was genuinely quick but he soon fall away.Of all the bowlers with a unusual run- up to me he is the best remembered and most exciting.Ken Higgs had a particular way of moving his backside before starting his run-up and amused us! But Ken was a very clever and talented bowler who should have played more for England,especially at home.

  • POSTED BY Robin on | June 12, 2015, 14:46 GMT

    Liked Russell Jackson's Curveball article immensely. I played for Leics. CCC in the early 1970's against many of the players he mentioned (though unfortunately not in their class) and remember John Price being able to bowl off his normal run in the restricted John Player 40 over games. He just ran along the white line before straightening and thus seemed to bowl off his full run up. Several of us tried the same approach with pretty average results!

  • POSTED BY GV on | June 12, 2015, 13:20 GMT

    Great article, especially since it is about bowling, in a bat dominated time. Glenn McGrath was a tehnically accomplished bowler, and with an arrow straight run up. But in the last two steps, he veered to the right 30 degrees and became side on. So they all have to do it, to be really good. Imran Khan had a curved run up, and a magnificent one, every bit as thrilling as the old Lillee run up. Holding was brilliant, though he was not fully side on, like many West Indian bowlers. Lastly, Marshall was NOT side on at all..., though he had a curved run. Beat that.

  • POSTED BY Richard on | June 12, 2015, 11:55 GMT

    That picture of Fleming in his delivery show how closely he copied Lillee :)

  • POSTED BY Geoff on | June 3, 2015, 13:17 GMT

    And that is likely to be the one and only time that Daniel Worrall gets a mention in this exalted rag. This article wouldn't have been written without him. Top work Rusty.

  • POSTED BY karthik on | June 3, 2015, 11:15 GMT

    Excellent post and conjectures. As a kid I often wondered why some bowlers like Marshall and Willis ran in a curve. I never analyzed it and in my own street games always bowled with a straight run up. Thinking about it, spinners back in the 70s and 80s had a curved stride to the crease too. Think Abdul Qadir. Or Roger Harper. Today many of them seem to have straight strides. Ashwin, Ajmal come to mind. Having said that, EAS Prasanna had a straight stride too if I remember correctly. Anyways, was good to read an article about bowling actions and hearing the comments from people like Fleming who has really studied the art of bowling.