Sunday, 17 February 2019

Third Test Notes: No-one born slow gets fast

Pace bowling remains one of the game's great unknowables. There is mystery inherent within it, and very few men on earth can do what Mark Wood did in St Lucia last week. As the old sprinters' proverb goes: 'no-one born slow ever got fast'.

It was interesting to hear Wood describe it as "feeling like a superhero." When I worked with Simon Jones on his book The Test, he made the same analogy: "It's like having a superpower, it's a surge, an urge. It's a feeling like no other, to know that the opposition are worried about you, sometimes frightened of you... I've had guys throwing up in the dressing room toilets before facing me. I've had guys refusing to come into bat."

And Simon was always quick, he was born fast. When he was fifteen years old and still five feet six inches tall, he toured Zimbabwe with a Welsh schools side and removed the front teeth of a 30 year old sheep farmer who refused to wear a helmet against a kids team. He felt he was at his quickest, and his wildest, when he first played for Glamorgan. Their wicketkeeper Colin Metson thought he was the fastest he'd kept to since Wayne Daniel. Bob Cottam saw Jones almost hit a keeper on the Lord's groundstaff during practice on the eve of his Test debut against India with a delivery he later called the fastest he'd ever seen.

Simon's genetic line illustrated something. His father Jeff Jones was England's leading wicket taker in the 1965-6 Ashes, and regarded for a while as the quickest on the county circuit. Yet Simon has a fraternal twin, Matthew, and an older brother Richard, "who can bowl quickly, but not as quick as me".

We are in the age of sports science, when almost everything in every sport is undressed and analysed, and everyone and everything is getting faster, stronger, longer. And yet fast bowling isn't, and arguably, it never has. Those who saw Larwood or Thomson, or Holding, or Croft, or Patterson, or Wasim, or Shoaib, or Johnson or Simon Jones, or Mark Wood, have seen men bowling about as fast as anyone can, give or take the vaguaries of the human eye and the speed gun. While the science and analysis might make it happen more consistently (and that's debatable) its arrival is dependent on particular genetics. If you're born slow, you may get less slow, but you won't get fast.

Simon Jones and Mark Wood are often compared. Simon endured some horror injuries that curtailed his career, yet he played in teams that beat West Indies home and away, South Africa away, and of course in the greatest series of all, the Ashes of 2005. Wood has struggled with injury too, though happily not to the same degree. Both generate a lot of their pace from their action rather than the impetus of their run. Simon can still bowl at more than 80 mph from four paces, and, in common with Mark Wood, cut down his early, long approach to something much shorter - six paces at one point.

It's a far more complex process than you may think, and when Jones decided to extend his run again because the strain on his body was too much, he had to consult with Lynn Davies, the champion long jumper, to find something that worked.

Wood has a much smaller and more slender frame than Jones, and it seemed like madness that his run had been made so short. His body couldn't possibly survive that amount of repetitive strain. Even in St Lucia, watching the super slo-mo of his ankle when the force of delivery went through it was like a video nasty as the joint kinked one way and then the other.

And yet as both men say, it is a superpower, and it does strange things to batsmen. The West Indies players who had stayed in for days on an Antiguan minefield against 85 mph were jerked from that comfort by Wood's pace on a far more predictable deck. After he faced Brett Lee for the first time at Lord's in 2005, Simon Jones said that McGrath from the other end "felt like spin".

It's just a few miles per hour, but it is the vital few, at which physiological limits are reached. Fast bowlers who can do that live on in the imagination of batsmen. Mark Wood is something rare, and it is impossible to guess how long it may last, or when it might come again.


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