Life in the fast lane
This feature was originally published in full in the official programme for the third npower Test against India at Edgbaston - click here to buy England match programmes online
Once they whistled down a mine for fast bowlers. Now the ECB fast bowling programme does the job…
As he offers a guided tour of the ECB’s National Cricket Performance Centre at Loughborough, David Parsons makes a simple observation. "The one thing that everyone who works here has," he says, "is passion for what they do, passion for the game."
Cut into the bank by the pretty university ground, it looks from the outside like the kind of futuristic aircraft hangar where a Bond villain might keep his plane. Inside, it bristles with technology that reflects the cutting edge of modern sports science – in all, the perfect place for that passion to have its outlet.
"Our job is, very simply, to provide players for the chairman of selectors Geoff Miller and the coach Andy Flower that they can take into the England team," says Parsons. "And we want those players to go into the team and be able to perform, as Eoin Morgan has, and as Steve Finn has."
As ECB performance director, Parsons oversees the work of the two men about to join us, national fast bowling coach Kevin Shine, and strength and conditioning coach Sam Bradley.
Together they have engineered a flow of quicks towards the England team that over the next few years may become a flood: to the familiar names of Anderson, Tremlett, Broad, Bresnan, Onions, Finn and Plunkett, add those of Ajmal Shahzad, Jade Dernbach, Chris Woakes, James Harris, Stuart Meaker, Andy Carter, Nathan Buck and a clutch of younger men now working their way up an established pathway of elite player development, including the England age-group sides, the England fast bowling programme, the England performance programme and the Lions, all aligning closely with the players’ county coaching systems.
Fast bowling is a physiological mystery only now being unpicked by sports science. Part of that mystery stems from the sheer variety of people that have been able to propel the ball at high speed, from Chris Tremlett at 6ft 7in to Fidel Edwards at 5ft 8in; from the classical action of Dale Steyn to the slingshot arm of Lasith Malinga; from Michael Holding running in from 30 yards to Malcolm Marshall motoring up off 10, it can be done in any number of wildly different ways.
"That is true," says Shine, who has 249 first-class wickets of his own and still looks fit enough at 42 to wind a few down if required. "But we have studied this and we know, without doubt, that there are four factors that all fast bowlers have in common.
“People often use the example of Malinga, because what he does looks very different, but I can assure you that the four factors are present in him. Once we understood what they were, we were and are able to apply them when we’re looking at the players coming into the performance programme."
While Shine remains understandably coy about the key principals of the research, one of the first and most pressing needs that he identified was the need for fast bowlers to stay fit.
Statistical analysis showed that stress fractures were affecting up to 50 per cent of young fast bowlers, with a result that 169 playing days per year were being missed. Fitness for purpose remains a mantra at Loughborough.
"Everything had to start from there, really," says Shine. "If you’re not out on the park, you can’t practise your skills, and you’re not improving your game. So getting the guys out on the park and keeping them there became key."
It’s here that Sam Bradley steps in, devising and implementing individual strength and conditioning programmes that keep the quick men in shape.
Yet sports science is relatively new to the field. It used to be said that when England needed a fast bowler, they’d just go and whistle down the nearest mine. Those were the days of physically tough men who could bowl a thousand overs a summer.
"There is maybe something in that," says Bradley. "Young people were naturally fit in a way that they might not be today because life has changed."
"Also," adds Shine, "those were the days of uncovered wickets. I played one season on uncovered wickets and believe me, it made a huge difference. You could put the ball there at 80mph and it would talk."
Bradley now works weight training into cricketing lives early. "Before the kids are ready for lifting, we will have them working with just the bar, so that they get used to the movements that they need to make," he explains.
His aim is not to produce muscle-bound supermen who look good in swimwear, rather to condition the body to withstand the unique and dangerous forces bowling fast imposes upon it.
"If you put a member of the public in front of Chris Tremlett and Jimmy Anderson and said, "Which one’s the fast bowler?" most would probably pick Tremlett, because they associate speed with strength and strength with muscle, but the connection is not necessarily that direct," says Bradley.
"When most people think of someone strong they envisage that bodybuilder kind of strength, but Jimmy Anderson is a great example of someone who is very strong in a way that allows him to do his job."
Fast bowling is an endeavour that used to be easily defined: run up and let it rip. But today’s young quick comes into a game in which the range of skill and pace of invention demand a steep and enduring learning curve: reverse swing, slower-ball bouncers, yorkers, cross-seamers and death bowling over distances from four overs to five days, there is much to know, much to learn.
To support that learning, the amount of metrics data available has increased exponentially. Parsons shows us into a room with three large screens, each running a different game.
"In here, we log every ball bowled in international cricket," he says casually. "Who bowled it, who faced it, what happened to it."
Such a volume of information needs to be presented to the players carefully.
"They love it when we ‘cricketise’ it," smiles Shine. "Basically, they love it when they can feel it. You can show them video, but they really like it when they can get hold of the ball and feel how it’s done, then they can absorb that."
Ultimately, though, the mark of the fast bowler comes down to speed. Before pace could be accurately measured, the velocity of famous tearaways like Jeff Thomson and Michael Holding could be quantified only by the naked eye or the word of mouth of those who faced them. Now, television speed guns provide at least a notional measure of pace. At Loughborough, the calibrations are rigorous.
"The speed gun here, I know, is 100 per cent accurate," says Shine. "I can’t speak for the ones they have on TV, but we know that ours is."
Which leads to an obvious question: who is the quickest? For a while, there have been rumours that the honours have gone not to one of the big guns, but to Surrey tyro Stuart Meaker.
"That’s true," says Shine. "Stuart was clocked, absolutely, at 93mph. Graham Onions and Liam Plunkett were watching up in the gallery, and it was seriously impressive. We’ve had Harmison and Flintoff here, all the big guys, and that is the quickest."
Meaker has just signed a new three-year deal at Surrey. "We’re not rushing him," says Shine. "He needs to keep working on his game, but we’re excited about him and about lots of the lads here. The future looks good."