Jofra Archer Fast Bowler Cricket

Why hasn’t cricket produced the perfect fast bowler yet?


Let’s be honest here, perfection is a long shot. It’s every muscle of your body, every shard of your hair and every disgusting orifice doing the right thing, at the right speed, and at the right instant. The ideal gas does not exist and a straight Lorenz curve gets seen only in Indian administrative data. But in fast bowling the variables involved aren’t exactly infinite.

Biomechanical research exists since as early as 1958, about the same time when baseball was championing statistics. Players, ex-players, coaches and administrators have vigorously thrown their weight behind refining the art since the dawn of time – and rightly so, for fast bowling is antithetical to the natural motions of the body. And funny still, most scientific findings fall in tandem with traditional knowledge (something that deserves a hundred Toy Story aliens standing in line exclaiming, ‘ooooh’). Cricket is to javelin throwing in quick bowling what baseball is to cricket in hitting.

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Yet, cricket hasn’t given rise to the perfect fast bowler. It’s a bit like if Germany scuffed up automobiles.

The perfect fast bowler has long arms, muscular shoulders, runs in quick and straight, jumps high, delays flexion of the body, initiates circumduction late, accelerates through the backfoot contact-frontfoot contact phase, slings the bowling arm from the highest point, delivers the ball from only just beyond the perpendicular, braces the front-knee, and is slightly round-arm in nature.

None of Wisden’s ten fastest bowlers of all-time comprise a soup of all that. Shane Bond’s arm flails away, Shaun Tait’s front knee splits like the vertex of a square, and Brett Lee withdraws his back toes early.

Make no mistake, Lee, Shoaib Akhtar and others have travelled farther down the barrel of perfection than the Kardashians. But each is distinctly dissimilar, despite having achieved about the same levels of expertise. This winks either in the direction of the infamous ‘there is no one correct technique’ motif or to the point where nobody has found light at the end of the barrel, and only one can hold correct.

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Let’s refocus for a moment. The dominant feature found missing in the Wisden list of top ten bowlers is the front-knee brace. Jasprit Bumrah and Jofra Archer are two modern quicks who efficiently work with the knee brace. Yet this full knee extension also frightens fans and commentators alike.

Michael Holding recently remarked on Bumrah that he worried about “how long that body will hold up with that short run and the amount of effort he has to put into his bowling,” because it’s a “human body, not a machine.” But Bumrah has never really been overly concerned about them, or it. He can carry out the front-knee brace without putting his tendons through pain because the short run-up produces not so much lower-body momentum so as to jeopardise his knees on landing. The pace comes mostly from the circumduction and the knee brace.

And that’s the thing about fast bowling. There are greater and more interdependent variables involved in the production of a singular heave, a singular flinch of the body, whereas when it comes to batting you have a more stationary activity performed from the crease that does not summon the lower body so much.

With all these variables in place, it could be hard to find that motley smorgasbord of ingredients required for the making of the perfect action and group them all together in order. Tait and Akhtar never cared about bracing the front-knee for instance and their circumductions began from almost behind the body, or the built-up momentum in the lower body would have set off a TENS unit on their knees.

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According to a 2009 paper by Rene Ferdinands and team, “Fast bowling is a vigorous activity which requires the lumbar spine to flex, laterally bend and rotate in a short period of time to produce ball speeds of upto 45 m/s.” Nearly 30% variation in release speeds can be predicted by shoulder angle at ball release – and adding run-up speeds to this equation makes the number pop up to 57% – but that’s about all.

Addition of the knee extension and shoulder angle at front-foot contact lifts the number up by only 13% more, to 70%, leaving the final quarter to be described by at least seven other factors. For comparison, three variables – the X-factor, lead-elbow extension and wrist uncocking – alone explained 77.7% of the variation in range hitting.

A pacer’s centre-of-mass (COM) velocity must ideally increase within the backfoot contact-frontfoot contact phase and decelerate in the frontfoot contact-ball release phase.

Usain Bolt’s COM velocity normally typically hovers around 11.5 m/s through a sprint. By the usual token that with a ball in hand you can achieve 70% of this speed, you’d expect a fast bowler’s maximum velocity to be around 8 m/s. Jofra Archer’s COM velocity accelerates from 6.5 m/s to 7.1 m/s in the first phase, and his is one of the weightiest accelerations seen. Perfection is far, far away.

Then there’s the other problem: a braced front knee alone is not enough, the ground reaction force born from the front leg’s contact with the ground has to act behind the bowler’s COM, otherwise the torque required to induce forward rotation about the COM using the front leg as a ‘block’ (check @CricketWithAsh’s captivating video) does not get supplied. So our hypothetical utopian pacer from the icelands of Arabia must not only run in at 7 m/s and accelerate further during the backfoot-frontfoot contact phase, he also has to cut the deceleration before ball release at the waist, and point torso onwards forward, putting greater stress on the knee.

It effectively boils down to this: you’re gonna have to get more variables right to assemble the biomechanically perfect pacer, but these variables individually contribute to no more than a smidgen of everything. It’s like the effort you need to put in to get from 60 to 90 out of 100 on a test is lesser than the effort taken to get from 90 to 100.

Now let’s not forget, this is all on top of the preexisting injury threat pacers place themselves under. Bowling in spells in high temperatures is known to increase heart rates, muscle soreness, pH and lactose and what not among less skilled players, and we see Deepak Chahar clenching his hamstrings. Then there’s the peril of trying to put revs on the ball like Mustafizur Rahman found out. It’s all a tradeoff between one thing and another, because all of them together would feel like wearing every piece of cloth you own at the same time.

It’s not certain if there is much scope left for experimental biomechanics in pace bowling. Existing research is very extensive. But if there is any grey area left, it is possibly to extend such research to individual players rather than groups, and this will only help us understand the prospectiveness of perfection further.

More the money plumped into the game, more the probing. But the truly illuminating takeaway from all this is that the variables governing a function don’t exactly have to be infinite or far too many in number for the function to lose predictability, they could just be evenly influential and difficult to achieve.

So broadly speaking, we reach where we started: Perfection is a long shot. Just consider this article moot.