Ishant Sharma in his final delivery stride

Framing the follicles: Ishant Sharma looks like the ideal fast bowler even if he's not one


Mane attraction

We get to the root of why we love fast bowlers' hair

Jarrod Kimber  |  

It's wild and free; it ain't taking shit from no one, it's thousands of stallions galloping, it's an expression of rebellion, of kicking arse, it's bloody jet flames flying out the back of a lunatic's head. It is the greatest thing about fast bowlers. Their hair.

You might be a fan of line and length, if you're one of those buttoned-down people, or maybe you like pace and violence, you sick bugger, or perhaps it's the seam or swing that is your kink - it doesn't matter, all of these have one thing in common. The bloke making it happen has fast-bowling hair.

Now, as you and I are aware, this is a many-splendoured thing; there are many variations. There is no fast-bowling cut, because that would be absurd and weird. But there are a few critical kinds of fast bowling hair, and this is their story.

The nerd cut
"My mate Roger got a girl pregnant when he was 14" is the opening line of a song by Melbourne band TISM. The song goes on: "He was the guy who first brought a block of hash to a party."

But the last verse has these lines:

It got you in the end, I thought to myself as I looked at Roger
Life got you in the end, pal
You were such a cocky successful winner when we were 16
But now you're just another sad, fat ***k
Sitting in the MCG high-fiving in self-congratulation
As if it's you that had the skill and determination to play for Australia

The last line of the song is: "Glenn McGrath got 5 for 50 that day."

The more uncool McGrath looked, the more uncool he made you feel when he got your wicket

The more uncool McGrath looked, the more uncool he made you feel when he got your wicket © Getty Images

There is one line in that verse which sums up McGrath better than anything I have come across before: "It's the c***s with the bad haircuts that you've got to watch out for."

When McGrath's hair came in to bowl at you, no matter how uncool you were, you couldn't help but feeler hipper in comparison. It was not a shock of hair but a dull of hair. A bowl cut given to a seven-year-old boy whose parents dress him in clothes they find in bus shelters. It was the opposite of aggression; it was a squished moth in the butterfly house.

But his haircut told you much about the man. He didn't have time to find a real hairdresser. He wasn't trying to look suave. His entire existence was about taking your wicket.

McGrath is the alpha bowler of the nerd-do. Others have had it. Angus Fraser's was found on the shelf listed under middle-aged accountant. Heath Streak seemed to have his hair cut some time after they had tended to the animals. Ravi Rampaul had the sort of style that gains approvals from mothers. And Chaminda Vaas spent a whole career with standard office haircuts.

The main advantage of the nerd cut is that no thinks you're going to be anything special. It's uncool subterfuge.

The mullet
Other than country music, in no public realm has the mullet had such a long and lustrous career. Because it's a scientific fact - a mullet makes you bowl faster.

Exhibit A, chapter one: A long, long time ago on a cricket ground far away, Mark Waugh bowled medium-fast. He had a decent bouncer and got the ball through okay. Then he became an offspinner - as Gideon Haigh once suggested, cricket's rubbish skill. The only difference, Waugh had cut off his mullet.

The mark of the mullet: it's an indisputable fact that the more your hair tickles the back of your neck, the faster you can bowl

The mark of the mullet: it's an indisputable fact that the more your hair tickles the back of your neck, the faster you can bowl © Getty Images

As David Gower once said of the Damien Fleming mullet: "They obscure everything. You can't see the hand, you can't see the bowler, you can't see the ball, you can't see the sightscreen."

Mullets and fast bowling have a great history together. In one of the great tactical fielding moves of all time, Allan Border once asked Terry Alderman to field his mullet at short midwicket to trap Graham Gooch lbw.

Kapil Dev sported a mullet when he became India's first great fast bowler, and also when he took the catch that changed cricket forever. Yet one of his great regrets is never sporting anything as beautiful as Manoj Prabhakar's mullet.

Many people believe Bruce Reid's injury problems were from carrying such an impressive mullet. Sri Lanka had the Ratnayekes, Ravi and Rumesh, mulleted together from both ends for Sri Lanka. Ian Botham's later years involved a mullet so extraordinary it inspired the film Joe Dirt.

There aren't as many mullets in fast bowling as your memory probably tells you. That's because one mullet is worth a thousand of a normal look. Jason Gillespie's mullet was so striking that it felt like it was bowling from both ends. The most recent mullet is that of Suranga Lakmal, who for his hair alone deserves better than a Test bowling average of 44.

At its most grand, the mullet is line and length at the front, pace and bounce at the back.

Jarrod Kimber / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

The villain
The villain look is something quite rare, but one of the 19th-century GOATs, Fred Spofforth, certainly lived up to it. Spofforth was known as the Demon, and as Richard Hodgson, a vicar of the time, said: "His hair parted down the middle, to give the impression of horns". Others suggested he reminded them of the spirit of evil in Faust. Say what you will for Mitchell Johnson, he had no horns.

Rare as it may be, we have seen the villain look in more recent times. Richard Hadlee started as a shaggy young man with a Dennis Lillee obsession. He transformed into a villain later in his career. He was as careful and meticulous with his look as he was with the ball in hand, and his metamorphosis into the man who kidnaps a young woman and ties her to a train track was as stunning as any outswinger he bowled.

Just after Hadlee, Merv Hughes came along (post his mullet phase) and he did try to act, look and sound the part of a villain, but really, he was more pantomime than horror film - all the best action often happened behind him.

It was Sreesanth, in modern times, who kept the villain look going. An incredible villain-like bouffant, which he dressed up with headbands, wristbands, necklaces and occasionally evil-looking facial hair. Sreesanth looked like the sort of guy who would ride with Gabbar Singh. The BCCI thought Sreesanth committed himself too much to the villain role and banned him for life for fixing, but in his forced hiatus he's become, wait for it, a Bollywood villain. That's a better endgame than Merv Huges, who went on to sell inflatable hats that double as car-wheel covers.

The afro
Mike Whitney is remembered by some for hosting Australian extreme game shows, and by others as the guy who got picked from obscurity (well, Gloucestershire) to represent Australia. Both of these reasons are wrong. His hair is why he should be remembered. His white-man Afro, if that is the correct nomenclature (it isn't), was the reason anyone realised he could play cricket in the first place. Before Whitney, the all-time leading left-arm fast bowlers were Alan Davidson and Garfield Sobers. To be a left-armer and get a Test, you mainly had to be able to bat as well. But Whitney's hair changed that.

Grow your 'fro (but not too big): Andy Roberts, Michael Holding and Colin Croft look stylishly fierce while Joel Garner leaves the intimidation to his bowling

Grow your 'fro (but not too big): Andy Roberts, Michael Holding and Colin Croft look stylishly fierce while Joel Garner leaves the intimidation to his bowling Adrian Murrell / © Getty Images

But let's be honest, as miraculous as Whitney's hair was, it was the first great West Indian quartet who made this look work. Andy Roberts, Colin Croft and Michael Holding had Afros so good that cricket changed as a consequence. The only danger with the Aafro was letting it grow too large. Roberts mostly had his perfect, because he was the wise old man of this group. Croft's went into unusual shapes, but never got out of control. But it was Holding whose Afro very nearly got too big. That could have been a disaster, and might have ended the West Indian dynasty just as it was starting.

We have evidence of what happens when an Afro grows too large. Bernard Julien, a forgotten member of West Indies cricket at this time, had the biggest of them all. It was, purely from a non-fast-bowling point of view, a breathtaking thing. But he was by far the slowest bowler. When you are talking fast-bowling hair, there are no coincidences.

The shave
The legendary photo (above) of the four West Indian quicks includes three Afros and one guy with no Afro to speak of. Joel Garner stands tall above the others; his hair is short. Garner's close-shaven head is a statement in lack of style. He doesn't need the razzmatazz of his fellow bowlers. He's the big bird. He has a yorker that will break your foot and a length ball that will smash your head. Just cut it short, give me the ball, and I'll dismiss someone with it.

It wasn't just Garner from the West Indies who went with the close cut. Curtly Ambrose finished his career with something fun on the top of his head, but for the rest of the time there was no fun, just a pair of clippers cutting him as close as he was to the throat of batsmen for over a decade. His partner in fear, Courtney Walsh, had the same thing, and Fidel Edwards has continued the tradition.

Simon Jones and Freddie Flintoff reverse-swung the 2005 Ashes with this cut. Peter Siddle is not as committed to his close cut as he is to veganism, but he's certainly had some short hair. Mitchell Starc, like many Australian fast bowlers before him, shaved his head for India. Some may remember Makhaya Ntini had this cut, and also at times mini dreadlocks. Statisticians confirm that Ntini was better with this style.

Beware the bald: if they don't mind getting sunstroke, what are the likes of Doug Bollinger going to do to you?

Beware the bald: if they don't mind getting sunstroke, what are the likes of Doug Bollinger going to do to you? Bradley Kanaris / © Getty Images

There are few bald fast bowlers, partly because, as this article is making pretty damn clear, you need hair to bowl quick. Tino Best is one of the baldest quick men ever, and recently Tymal Mills has tried to bowl as fast as he can much without wind resistance.

But hair does matter, as Dougie Bollinger found out. Bollinger has been bald since he started playing top-level cricket, and he did quite well that way. Then he decided to get artificial hair put in place, and while his career wasn't ended, it was clear something, probably the hair-like substance on his head, was holding him back. Last season he turned up for the Australian domestic one-dayers bald, but with a magnificent bushranger beard. He took 15 wickets at 22. At pace, hair, wherever it is, matters.

The don't-care
There is a certain speed at which you stop worrying about your hair at all. Shaun Tait's hairstyle never changed, not once, not for a joke, not for the seasons, not as he matured. He's still got the same hair. At some stage early in his life, Tait walked into a local hairdresser and said something like, "Look, not too short, not too long, and don't make me look crap." At the end of that haircut, he looked at the mirror and slowly nodded. His hair has stayed like that since. Tait only needed his locks for the moment after he'd bowled a wide - for his hand to run through it quizzically.

Shane Bond has similar hair. Hell, so does Steve Harmison. You think these guys were worried about their hair? They thought about bowling fast. Hair, who cares, just cut it, quickly. Look at Harmison - there was no grand plan with his hair, it was merely something he kept mostly pretty short. So was his bowling. That's the closest he ever got to synergy.

Even Nantie Hayward, who dyed his hair from natural ginger to Eminem blond, didn't care about his hair. Chances are that even his dye job wasn't at some fancy salon but that his girlfriend did it in the family sink. But he bowled fast, so who cares?

Fred Trueman sports a deceptively floppy-haired look

Fred Trueman sports a deceptively floppy-haired look © Getty Images

And there is historical precedent with bowling so fast you don't care about your hair. With a bit of product, Fred Trueman turned his mop of hair into a decent style. But when he bowled fast, his hair was like him, bucking broncos playing electric guitar in a storm. At the point of release, he looked like he was being electrocuted, and as he came off the ground, it looked like his hair had been to war. And won.

The topic of which hairdo bowls quickest has long been debated by academics, but many experts believe this next one to be the fastest style.

The prison guard
There are a lot of fast bowlers who have seemingly ordinary hairstyles. At a very brief glance, they look like reasonably respectable members of society. They are not. Andre Nel's short back and sides hid an insane mouthy monster. Harold Larwood's styled-up flock of hair hid a man who almost started a war. Mitch Johnson spent a career pretending to be a male ingénue with his hair, and then came the massacre of 2013-14. You turned your back on Javagal Srinath's hairdo at your peril. And while Andy Caddick tried to pretend he was a Poundland Prince Charles, everyone could see his evil streak.

No, these men, and many like them, had the evil prison guard cut. It's obviously not a uniform sale, as it comes in many shapes and sizes, but once you know what to look for - standard hairdo, yet with the ability to do you horrific harm - it's easy enough to spot.

No matter who the wearer is, if you run afoul of their rules, there will be consequences. It was this way for Tom Richardson and the 2104 first-class batsmen he dismissed while sporting a hairstyle so bland it barely needs mentioning. While the world fawned over the hair of Imran Khan and Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, the man-child with the torso of mass destruction, had a sensible haircut, so he just bowled the ball at your toes as fast as he could. Devon Malcolm was the cheery prison guard until you injured him. And Patrick Patterson was the corrections officer you might have been friends with out in the real world but not inside.

Product plus sweat plus wind give Mitchell Johnson the porcupine

Product plus sweat plus wind give Mitchell Johnson the porcupine © AFP

There are, of course, other fast bowlers with normal hairstyles that are not the prison-guard style. But what separates this hair from an ordinary fast bowler is the general feel of menace these guys gave out.

The best example of this is that Dale Steyn and Brett Lee both had perfectly respectable hairstyles for the eras they played in. And other than bowling fast, they also shared the same wicket-taking celebration - the chainsaw. Lee would, after skipping in the air, crouch down and start an imaginary chainsaw, although mostly it looked like a frustrated dad trying to start the mower after a long winter. Steyn liked this so much he asked Lee if he could use it. And these two men went around the world using this celebration happily.

But in 2012, when South Africa arrived in England, former Wisden editor Scyld Berry wrote about Steyn's celebration: "When really roused, he takes an imaginary sword or spear and plunges it several times into his victim, as if he were lying on the pitch, not walking to the pavilion."

When Lee did it, it looked gentler than a chainsaw. When Steyn did it, an imaginary victim was being stabbed after he had been murdered. That is why Brett Lee's style is boy-band fast bowler (also see Alan Mullally, Darren Gough and Shaun Pollock). And Dale Steyn is a sadistic prison guard.

The Pakistan cut
There could be an eight-part HBO series on Pakistan fast-bowling hair. Sarfraz Nawaz's hair took 7 for 1 at the MCG one day as it bobbled around like a Charlie's Angel. Umar Gul shaped his hair into a perfect tool for death yorkers. Mohammad Amir's bouncy hair was the overwhelming reason fans accepted him back. Aaqib Javed had more hair than a lesser man, or bowler, could have handled. The beauty of every legal thing that Mohammad Asif did started with his gorgeous middle part. Rahat Ali's hair was picked to play for Pakistan before he was.

Imran Khan: locks to love

Imran Khan: locks to love © Getty Images

And we haven't even mentioned Wasim. The Akram.

This was a man who did magical, mythical things with the ball, like he'd possessed it, and did it all with a run-up that made it look like he was late to an important meeting. But for all he could do with the ball, he could do more with his hair. He started with a full mane that was tightened into a proper Asian mullet. He flirted with the prison-guard look, and briefly had a Ben Affleck bouffant. He middle-parted, he had a close cut, there were adorable bangs, hell, at one point the man very nearly had a Jheri curl. Only Matthew Hoggard (bizarrely) had more fast bowling hairdos than Wasim, but he didn't do it like Wasim, because he didn't have Wasim's hair, and no one did it like Waz.

Wasim had the greatest array of hairstyles of any Pakistani fast bowler, and fast bowlers have the best hairdos, and Pakistani fast bowlers have the best of the best, so that means that Wasim Akram is about as good as hair in cricket has ever been.

The mane
Just imagining it, I am overcome with feelings of lust and confusion. It doesn't matter who it is, when a bowler runs in at absolute top speed and that fast bowling mane is roaring behind them, oh, you are about to have a cricketing climax. It's the perfect erogenous moment, even before he has let the ball go, the fire, the hair, then he hits the crease, the train speeds for the tunnel, you reach for a cigarette. I need a lie-down.

The fast-bowling mane is probably the best thing in cricket other than people getting really angry about things changing. Two of the greatest players of all used this mane for devastating results.

Dennis Lillee turned on an entire cricket ground when he roared in at the MCG, tens of thousands of men questioning their sexuality as one while chanting his name in unison and wanting his hair for themselves.

And then there was Imran Khan's hair, which was so breathtaking it survived almost a decade of medium pace before finally taking over world cricket and Pakistan. It was a mane so dominant it could change the bloodlines of kings.

But there are plenty of others out there too. John Snow, the samurai poet of Sussex, fighting batsmen, fans and the establishment. Garth Le Roux, the large man with the luscious blond locks. Lasith Malinga and the unorthodox curly mane that no one could pick. Rodney Hogg, 41 wickets in the 1979 Ashes, flowing in the wind. Nuwan Pradeep's massive hair and ever decreasing bowling average.

Hell, it could be Ishant Sharma, long locks flying around as the whole of India trolls him. In Ishant, we might even have loving proof of the bias towards men with fast-bowling manes. His hair flows like he should be a great fast bowler, and isn't that all that matters? It doesn't matter if he isn't Jeff Thomson or even Len Pascoe. He's got bloody great fast-bowling hair. Not just great, but the mane is, and for me, will always be, the Don Bradman of fast-bowling hair. Without it you're pretty much bowling offspin.

Flo Sho: what would be the state of aerodynamic technology today if Akhtar's hair had been tested as much as his arm?

Flo Sho: what would be the state of aerodynamic technology today if Akhtar's hair had been tested as much as his arm? © Getty Images

And that brings us to the silky smoothest of them all, hair so fast bowler that it turned the man who owned it into the quickest bowler in the world. Shoaib Akhtar's hair was so great that even when it wasn't long, it flowed. When it was wet with sweat, because Shoaib was into his second over of the day, it flowed. You could have shaved it off, put it in a ziplock bag and set fire to it and it would still flow. This was hair made to bowl fast. It should be the logo of fast bowling. The legend has it that it only took one strand to turn a young boy into Shapoor Zadran.

Shoaib's hair flowed even as he went bald because his hair wasn't just covering for his head, it was a movement, a revolution, a statement of intent. It bounced, danced; it was a yorker, a bouncer, a beamer, it was pace and bounce. When in the hands of a fast bowler, hair is a weapon of mass destruction.

Jarrod Kimber is a writer for ESPNcricinfo. @ajarrodkimber