Proteas coach Ottis Gibson laughs good-naturedly at the question. Sitting in the press conference room deep in the bowels of The Wanderers Cricket Ground in Johannesburg, his eyes light up with a schoolboy reverence as he remembers the great West Indian fast bowlers of the 1970s and 1980s and makes a mental comparison to his own all-pace quartet that picked up 59 of the 60 wickets available during South Africa’s three-nil Test whitewash of Pakistan.
“How it measures up? It’s difficult to compare eras,” says Gibson, “but certainly that was my inspiration [growing up] and that is why, I guess, when I see a situation to play four fast bowlers I will always try to use that.”
“Those guys, that was my inspiration growing up, you know. Watching Michael Holding, [Malcolm] Marshall and [Joel] Garner, and [Andy] Roberts and [Colin] Croft and all those guys terrorise batsmen — and good batting sides, you know — so to be able to play four fast bowlers and have the variety — you got Vernon [Philander] with the accuracy, you got Duanne [Olivier] with the aggression, you got Dale [Steyn] with the high skill and then you got KG [Kagiso Rabada] only at 70% apparently but bowling 140km — so you got a lot of variety and they are all capable of taking wickets, so it’s fantastic [for the Proteas],” says Gibson.
Over the summer, as Pakistan’s batsmen attempted to duck and dodge jugular-sniffing short balls while unsuccessfully searching for runs to guarantee victory — inevitably flinching, panicking and collapsing — the Barbados-born coach and his Proteas team have been unapologetic about South Africa’s pulverising tactics.
The pitches at Centurion, Newlands and The Wanderers have been hard and bouncy. The deliveries have been short-pitched. Pakistani partnerships — with a few noble exceptions — have been short-lived.
Advantages of home
Any suggestion that South Africa may be considered fast-track bullies is shrugged off by Gibson. As long as the Proteas keep winning he is unconcerned about epithets.
“Like I keep saying about this whole thing about home-team advantage, you gotta play to your strengths and if you’ve got four quality fast bowlers you use that, you know. You look at the opposition and say: ‘OK these guys are accustomed to play on slow wickets, then why not produce fast bouncy pitches when we play at home, as our batsmen are comfortable on those same pitches.’”
“So, we will certainly continue to play this brand of cricket because, again, it’s successful and ultimately that is what we want to be. We want to be successful and this is working for us, so we will continue this trend.”
But, with the Boxing Day Test won in three days, and the following two Tests finishing in the first session of the fourth day, the approach has elicited criticism. Pakistan coach Mickey Arthur, while conceding that home ground advantage is part of the game, questioned the “inconsistent bounce on day one at Newlands and Centurion”, which he felt had detracted from a fair contest between bat and ball.
With shorter touring itineraries, and shorter Test series, preparing pitches that heavily favour the home side, and ensure results within three or four days, appears the new normal in the game. South Africa suffered similar travails when they toured Sri Lanka last year and were rolled over in a two-Test whitewash. The first Test match at Galle ended in three days with South Africa scoring 73 in their second innings, their lowest-ever innings total since readmission. The second Test in Colombo scraped past lunch on the fourth day because of some doughty batting from Temba Bavuma and a Theunis de Bruyn century. The pitches favoured spin to such an extent that Sri Lankan captain, fast bowler Suranga Lakmal, rarely bowled.
Going for helmets — and boxes too
During this series the Proteas have gone for power and violence in their bowling — best epitomised by Olivier’s 24 wickets over the course of the series. An approach that sets the heart racing and the crowds baying for more deliveries which threaten to — or actually do — rattle a batsman’s helmet or bollocks.
Tactics that elicit exquisite, sadistic, primal pleasure in the viewer — whether in Australia, the West Indies or South Africa, countries where it is a heritage most celebrated.
The 1980s West Indian pace quartet revered as the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (Holding, Roberts, Garner and Croft) all bowled at over 150km per hour. And, as Holding noted in the documentary Fire in Babylon: “[O]nce you have that capability of hurting someone with the ball that person is not thinking about how to play the ball, he is thinking about self-preservation.”
That was a philosophy that Holding, and the rest of the West Indian attack, put to good use during their 1976 3-0 win over England during a five-Test series. On the eve of the series Tony Greig, the South African-born captain of England, had passed judgement on the West Indian side: “I’m not really sure they’re as good as everyone thinks,” he said. “These guys, if they get on top they are magnificent cricketers. But if they’re down, they grovel, and I intend, with the help of Closey [Brian Close] and a few others, to make them grovel.”
This was 1976. The West Indies team were redefining themselves around a new brand of powerful cricket, Black Consciousness and reggae music. Black school children had been massacred by South African police in Soweto just over a month earlier. Greig was a white South African. “Closey” and the rest of the England batting line-up reaped the whirlwind of their captain’s words. It hurt.
Need for speed
The fearsome 1970s Australian fast bowling duo of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson (who clocked up the fastest Test delivery at 160km per hour) relished the short ball, too. They made good use of it during Australia’s 4-1 Ashes series victory in 1974-75 with the kind of intimidatory bowling against England which caused Wisden to observe that “never in the 98 years of Test cricket have batsmen been so grievously bruised and battered by ferocious, hostile, short-pitched balls.”
But as Holding told New Frame this week, the great West Indian sides of the 70s and 80s did not just succeed on seamer-friendly home wickets, they also thrived in England and Australia. Most instructively, the West Indies of that era also won matches on a featherbed, batting-friendly home surfaces such as the Antigua Recreation Ground.
The short-pitched ball worked well against a Pakistani team which, because of a 2009 terror attack against the Sri Lankan team in Lahore, has spent the last decade playing their home matches in the United Arab Emirates — where there is little variety in the cricket pitches and the bounce is not as steep as in South Africa.
The Proteas will need a multi-dimensional approach to their on-field strategy — including the plans and traps set by their seamers — when Sri Lanka tour in February and play two Tests in Durban and Port Elizabeth, respectively. Grounds where, Gibson admits, “the spinner generally comes more into the game”.