Cricket, the Brilliant Game!

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What is Pace Bowling?

Posted by wildkiwi25 on November 23, 2008

Fast bowling, sometimes known as pace bowling, is one of the two main approaches to bowling in the sport of cricket. The other is spin bowling. Practitioners are usually known as fast bowlers or pace bowlers although sometimes the label used refers to the specific fast bowling technique the bowler prefers, such as swing bowler or seam bowler.

The main aim of fast bowling is to bowl the hard cricket ball at high speed and to induce it to bounce off the pitch in an erratic fashion or move sideways through the air, the combination of these factors making it difficult for the batsman to hit the ball cleanly. A typical fast delivery has a speed in the range 136 to 150 km/h (85 to 95 mph). The fastest delivery that has ever been officially recorded clocked in at 161.3 km/h (100.2 mph) and was bowled by Shoaib Akhtar of Pakistan during a match against England in the 2003 Cricket World Cup. The batsman on the end of the delivery was Nick Knight who tamely guided it into the leg side.

In most cricketing countries, fast bowlers are considered to be the mainstay of a team’s bowling attack, with slower bowlers in support roles. In the subcontinent, especially India and Sri Lanka, the reverse is often true, with fast bowlers serving mainly to soften the ball up for the spinners. This is mainly due to the condition of the pitches used in those countries which gives more help to spinners than to fast bowlers, but at international level it is also a reflection of the outstanding skills of their spinners compared to their pace bowlers. By way of contrast, the other major subcontinental country, Pakistan, has produced several generations of feared pacemen mainly due to that nation’s mastery of reverse swing and having pitches that provide relatively more assistance to fast bowlers.

Categorisation of fast bowling:
It is possible for a bowler to concentrate solely on speed, especially when young, but as fast bowlers mature they pick up new skills and tend to rely more on swing bowling or seam bowling techniques. Most fast bowlers will specialise in one of these two areas and will sometimes be categorised as strike, swing or seam bowler. However, this classification is not satisfactory because the categories are not mutually exclusive and a skilled bowler will usually bowl a mixture of fast, swinging, seaming and also cutting balls, even if he or she prefers one style to the others. Instead, it is more common to subdivide fast bowlers according to the average speed of their deliveries, as follows:

Classification of fast bowlers:

TYPE (mph) (km/h)
Fast: 90 + 145 +
Fast-medium: 80 to 89 129 to 145
Medium-fast: 70 to 79 113 to 129
Medium: 60 to 69 97 to 113
Medium-slow: 50 to 59 80 to 97
Slow-medium 40 to 49 64 to 80
Slow: below 40 below 64

There is a degree of subjectivity in the usage of these terms; for example, Cricinfo uses the terms “fast-medium” and “medium-fast” interchangeably. The fastest bowlers are said to bowl at express pace. For comparison, most spin bowlers in professional cricket bowl at average speeds of 45 to 55 mph (70 to 90 km/h). The ability of some bowlers to deliver a variation ball, faster or slower then their standard, can cause some confusion as they could appear to put them in different categories, e.g. Brett Lee bowls his stock ball at around 145 km/h, making him a fast-bowler, although he will occasionally bowl a slower ball at around 120 km/h. Conversely, Anil Kumble, a spin-bowler, has a quicker ball which can reach 110 km/h. However these are rarely taken into account in determining what category a bowler fits in because these deliveries are variations, intended to surprise batsman, not the standard pace of a bowler.

The slower the fast bowler, the more they have to rely on the variation techniques listed below to get wickets, while fast and to a lesser extent fast-medium and medium-fast bowlers can often get batsmen out through sheer speed and aggression. In practice, very few specialist bowlers fall into the medium category – bowlers who bowl at this speed are mostly batsmen who can bowl a few overs on occasion. These bowlers are known as medium pacers. The medium-slow and slow-medium categories are mostly occupied by spin bowlers, since a delivery bowled at these speeds with a fast bowling technique, rather than spin, would simply be too easy to hit. Although spinners are sometimes colloquially referred to as “slow bowlers”, very few players in professional cricket bowl in the actual “slow” category (below 40mph).

Technique in fast bowling:
The first thing a fast bowler needs to do is to grip the ball correctly. The basic fast bowling grip to achieve maximum speed is to hold the ball with the seam upright and to place the index and middle fingers close together at the top of the seam with the thumb gripping the ball at the bottom of the seam. The first two fingers and the thumb should hold the ball forward of the rest of the hand, and the other two fingers should be tucked into the palm. The ball is held quite loosely so that it leaves the hand easily. Other grips are possible, and result in different balls – see swing and seam bowling below. The bowler usually holds their other hand over the hand gripping the ball until the latest possible moment so that the batsman cannot see what type of grip he or she is employing and prepare accordingly.

A fast bowler needs to take a longer run-up toward the wicket than a spinner, due to the need to generate the momentum and rhythm required to bowl a fast delivery. Fast bowlers will measure their preferred run up in strides and mark the distance from the wicket. It is important for the bowler to know exactly how long his or her run-up is because it needs to terminate at the popping crease. If the bowler steps over this, he or she will have bowled a no ball.

At the end of the run-up the bowler will bring his or her lead foot down on the pitch with the knee as straight as possible. This aids in generating speed but can be dangerous due to the pressure placed on the joint by this action. Knee injuries are not uncommon amongst fast bowlers: for example the English pace bowler David Lawrence was sidelined for many months after splitting his kneecap in two. The pressure on the leading foot is such that some fast bowlers cut the front off their shoes to stop their toes from being injured as they are repeatedly pressed against the inside of the shoe. The bowler will then bring their bowling arm up over their head and release the ball at the height appropriate to where they want the ball to pitch. Again, the arm must be straight although this is a stipulation of the laws of cricket rather than an aid to speed. Bending the elbow and “chucking” the ball would make it too easy for the bowler to aim accurately at the batsman’s wicket and get them out.

Fast bowlers tend to have an action which leaves them either side-on or chest-on at the end of the run up. While this does not affect the speed at which they bowl, it can limit the style of balls that they can bowl. Although not hard and fast rules, side on bowlers generally bowl outswingers, and front on bowlers generally bowl inswingers.

A variant on the fast bowler’s action is the sling (sometimes referred to as the slingshot or javelin), where the bowler begins his delivery with his or her arm fully extended behind their back. The slinging action generates extra speed, but sacrifices control. The most famous exponent of the slinging action is Jeff Thomson, who bowled at extraordinary pace off a short run up. Current internationals who employ a slinging action include Fidel Edwards, Shaun Tait and Lasith Malinga.

After the ball has been released, the bowler follows through at the end of his or her action. This involves veering to the side so as not to tread on the pitch and taking a few more strides to slow down. Striding on to the pitch at the end of a delivery can damage the surface resulting in rough patches which spin bowlers can exploit to get extra turn on the ball; doing so is illegal according to the laws of the game. Bowlers who persistently run onto the pitch can be warned, with three warnings disqualifying a bowler from bowling again during the innings.

Line and length:
An effective fast bowler needs to be able to hold a consistent line and length, or in common terms, to be accurate. In this context, line refers to the path of the ball towards the batsman, in the horizontal dimension running from the off to the leg side, while length describes the distance the ball travels toward the batsman before bouncing. Length is generally seen as the more important of the two for a fast bowler. The faster the bowler, the harder it is to achieve consistent line and length but sheer speed can make up for the shortfall. Fast bowlers who also manage to be accurate can be devastatingly effective, for example the likes of Australian pace bowler Glenn McGrath and South African pace bowler Shaun Pollock.


In modern cricket, the line usually aimed for by fast bowlers is the so-called corridor of uncertainty, a term coined by Geoffrey Boycott to mean the area just outside the batsman’s off stump. It is difficult for the batsman to tell whether or not such a ball is likely to strike their wicket, and thus to know whether to attack, defend or leave the ball. This technique was historically known as off theory (contrast leg theory), but it is now so routine that it is rarely given a name at all. Of course, variation in line is also important and deliveries aimed at the leg stump can also serve a purpose.

Precise mastery of the line of the ball is best utilised when a batsman is known to have a weakness hitting a particular shot, because a bowler with an effective line can place the ball in the weak spot time after time. Failing to overcome a persistent inability to hit balls on a certain line has been enough to end the careers of innumerable batsmen once they had been found out by skilled line bowlers.


Lengths of balls showing name & bounce height:
A good length ball is one that arrives at the batsman at around waist height. There is no fixed distance to a good length, or indeed any other length of ball in cricket since the distance required will vary with the speed of the ball, the state of the pitch and the height of the bowler and batsman. It should be noted that bowling a “good length” in this sense is not always appropriate – in some situations, on some pitches and against some batsmen other lengths will be more effective. The diagram to the right should help explain what the different lengths mean.

A ball which bounces a little way before the good length and rises to the batsman’s abdomen is said to be short pitched or described as a long hop and is easier for a batsman to hit as he will have had more time to see if the height or line of the ball has deviated after bouncing. A short-pitched ball is also at a more suitable height for the batsman to play an attacking pull shot. A ball which bounces way before the good length and reaches shoulder or head height is a bouncer and can be an effective delivery. Any ball which is short enough to bounce over the batsman’s head is usually called wide by the Umpire. Bowling short pitched or wide balls is a bad idea as they are relatively easy for the batsman to defend or attack.

At the other end of the scale, balls which bounce slightly closer to the batsman than the good length are said to be full pitched or overpitched or described as a half volley. These are easier for the batsman to play than the good length because they don’t have time to move much after bouncing off the seam. Closer still to the batsman’s feet is the yorker, a very effective length if bowled correctly. If the ball fails to bounce at all before reaching the batsman it is labelled a full toss. It is very easy for a batsman to play such a delivery as it will not have deviated at all from bouncing off the pitch.

It is because the three effective lengths (good length, bouncer and yorker) are all interspersed by lengths which are easy for the batsman to hit that control of length is an important discipline for a fast bowler. Spin bowlers on the other hand are almost always aiming for the good length but need a much finer control of flight and line to be effective. A fast bowler tries to be physically fit through out his cricket career, which may span more than a decade. Needless to say that is tough to do and needs a lot of discipline and luck.


Strike bowling:
Strike bowling is the term usually applied to balls that attempt to get a batsman out through sheer speed and aggression, rather than trying to make the ball move through the air or off the pitch. Against top class batsman, these techniques are usually only successful when employed by genuinely quick bowlers in the fast and fast-medium categories. Slower bowlers occasionally use them, especially against tail-end batsmen, but this can backfire resulting in easy runs for the batsman. However, aggressive bowling techniques can be combined with swing bowling and seam bowling techniques to create nigh-on unplayable balls in the hands of a bowler of any speed. The inswinging yorker is seen as particularly deadly.

A bouncer is a ball which is aimed to pitch in the first half of the pitch, meaning it has had time to rise sharply to chest or head height by the time it reaches the batsman. This causes two problems for the batsman who receives the ball. If he or she attempts to play it, their bat will be at eye-level making it difficult for them to watch the ball onto the bat and time their shot correctly. If he or she leaves or misses the ball, it may strike him or her a painful blow on the head or chest and occasionally result in injury. For this reason, bowling spells containing many bouncers are said to be intimidatory bowling.

The usual response to a bouncer is for the batsman simply to duck underneath it, but this requires fast reflexes and a strong nerve and the batsman is sometimes hit in any case. The natural reflex is to attempt to defend one’s head with a straight bat but this should be suppressed if possible as the likely result of this will be that the ball flies off the bat at an uncontrolled angle making for an easy catch. Most batsman have panicked and lost their wickets in this fashion several times in their career after prolonged spells of bouncers.

Physically powerful batsmen often attempt to strike the ball on the rise, even though this obstructs their vision of the ball since it is not uncommon that their sheer brute force combined with the speed of the ball will cause it to fly to the boundary. This possibility, combined with the difficulty that the wicketkeeper will have trying to stop a high ball means that bouncers can be expensive in terms of runs against skilled batsmen.

The Slower Ball
The Yorker
Seam Bowling
Swing Bowling
Intimidatory Bowling

*Acknowledgements to and owners of pictures and videos used.


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