The Greatest: Run-Ups

The Greatest: Run-Ups

Short and sweet, or long and winding, there’s been no shortage of variety in bowlers’ run-ups down the years.

Watching yourself on television or video is excruciating. Strictly’s Len Goodman doesn’t enjoy it, and frequently asks himself, “Why did you say that?” or “What did you do that for?” William Shatner loathed watching himself in Star Trek, concluding simply that “I suck”. It’s self-criticism Jim, but not as we know it.

I found my own toes curling once when I saw myself bowling. The loopy medium-pacers did not skid off the pitch as I had previously imagined, but plopped onto a length and sat up, begging to be walloped. My approach to the wicket was the biggest shock. One bowler in our club was considered to have “a run-up like Charlie Griffith and a delivery like Melanie Griffith”. Watching myself, I realised that not only did I bowl like the Hollywood superstar, I also ran in like her. In heels. As Brian Clough once said of Trevor Brooking, I floated like a butterfly, but I also stung like one.

The approach to the wicket is important as it generally tells you what to expect. If it’s long, snarling and menacing, expect one up around your chin. Conversely, if it is short and twitchy, you’re getting something altogether more mysterious. Long run-ups have an enduring relationship with express pace of course, but cricketers don’t always stick to the rules.

In 2015, the Redditch Standard reported that in a charity match between “a Harry the Fish XI” and “a Bunbury XI”, a 43-year old financial consultant called Ian Biddle started his run-up at Alcester Town Hall, and did three laps of the pitch to complete his 2.6 mile approach to the wicket. Despite worrying beforehand that he’d bowl a wide, it was a tidy enough loosener. Watched by a star-studded audience including Barry Fry, Mick Harford and the actors who played the Weasley twins in Harry Potter, Biddle took a wicket with his third ball. Presumably, off his short run.

With an action like that, Thommo didn't need a massive run-up
With an action like that, Thommo didn’t need a massive run-up

Another of the guests that day was Jeff Thomson, who was capable of producing carnage with a run-up uncharacteristically short for a quick bowler. Usually of course, they put their markers down further away than most of us go on our holidays. Take Wes Hall for example. According to the late Tony Cozier, he started his run-up somewhere “in the next parish”. It wasn’t lost on the great man himself either – his frequent quip during his political career was: “If you think my run-up was long, you should hear my speeches.”

In general though, run-up length is a reasonable way for telling batsmen whether they should be quaking in their boots or not. On that basis alone, most found Shoaib Akhtar completely terrifying. Once, when asked by Bob Woolmer, Inzamam-ul-Haq and Imran Khan to shorten his 40-yard approach to help Pakistan’s woeful over-rate, the mercurial paceman responded with incredulity, asking “can a plane take off without a run-up?” This was how he generated his pace, he explained, and he wasn’t going to cut it down for anyone. By way of a concession to his three powerful advisers, he did, however, promise to walk more briskly back to his mark.

Shoaib's long approach
Shoaib’s long approach

Frank Tyson was another paceman often goaded into truncating a run-up that was longer than the wait for Billy Bunter’s postal order. At the beginning of England’s tour to Australia in 1954/55, Tyson’s approach was described by David Frith as “absurdly lengthy”. Indeed, the Telegraph estimated the gap between Tyson at the start of his run and the wicketkeeper to be around “70 yards”. Unlike Shoaib though, Tyson realised that length did not always drive quality. Stung by a fruitless and forgettable spell of 1-160 in the first Test at Brisbane and a bang on the head by Lindwall in the next, Martin Williamson reports that Tyson shortened his run. During the next Test in Melbourne, he “frightened the life out of the Aussies” with what is popularly considered as one of the most terrifying spells in Test history. He was “literally as fast as a typhoon” reports Williamson, explaining the new nickname that would stay with the Northamptonshire bowler for the rest of his days.

The new, 15-yard approach seemed the key to success – one correspondent reported that during “an early speed gun test at the University of Auckland”, Tyson was recorded at bowling at 89mph wearing “three jumpers” off a short run. Richie Benaud was one of the Typhoon’s seven second-innings wickets during the famous spell at Melbourne, and years later Geoffrey Boycott asked him what Tyson had done with the ball that day – had he swung it, seamed it, or cut it off the pitch? Benaud’s deadpan response was that when you are that quick, none of those things are necessary.

Tyson’s approach was described by David Frith as “absurdly lengthy”

The Telegraph note that while Tyson was truly rapid, there was “nothing here of beauty or of style”, and instead his run-up was “rather a display of brute and elemental power”. In that regard, Michael Holding was very different from most pounding power merchants. Described by Christian Ryan as “a malevolent fleck on the batsman’s horizon”, Holding barely seem to touch the ground during the whole of his huge run-up. Mike Selvey describes facing him in the Old Trafford Test of 1976. It was the same match that Messrs Edrich and Close famously discovered how coconuts felt at the school fete. As Selvey took guard, Holding started his run “in a different postcode”. “It was a lonely place”, noted the Middlesex man, the non-striker being “the nearest point of human contact”. In the distance, Selvey watched his fearsome opponent “duck his head in that way a thoroughbred might on the Newmarket gallops”. “The cobra” reflects Selvey, “hypnotises prey in a similar swaying manner”.

Michael Holding's was one of cricket's classic run-ups
Whispering Death: Michael Holding’s was one of cricket’s classic run-ups

The full 35-yards was justified in Holding’s case as the momentum was menacingly built with every pace. Sometimes though, there might have been reason to question such an approach. Now a sporting administrator of note, Martin Snedden was a sound, if unspectacular medium-pacer for New Zealand, and is perhaps unfairly remembered for being the first bowler to yield 100 runs in an ODI. He also possessed one of the most unnecessarily long run-ups you have ever seen. Seemingly never making it out of second gear, such was the length and pace of his peregrination to the wicket, he had plenty of time to ponder all sorts of issues on his way in, besides perhaps, why he was running about 20 yards more than he needed to.

From the sublime to the ridiculous – some didn’t bother with a run-up at all. Viv Richards for example, dispensed with any preliminary paces when bowling towards the end of his career, taking the invitation to “turn his arm over” very literally. Unnecessary effort, like helmets, were for lesser mortals. The non-existent run-up however, was first perfected by Gloucestershire off spinner “Bomber” Wells who seemingly snared 998 career wickets from a standing start.

Who needs a run-up anyway? Not Bomber
Who needs a run-up anyway? Not Bomber

His Telegraph obituary in 2008 reported that the man himself professed to take “two steps when he was cold and one when he was hot”. Often though, he took no steps at all. He bowled his overs so quickly that modern administrators would have loved him for driving such a healthy over-rate. However, they might have disapproved of his playful nature. Once at Worcester, for a prank and with the full cooperation of the opposing batsman, he bowled a full over in the time it took the clock to strike midday. Gloucestershire captain Sir Derrick Bailey “was furious” reports the Telegraph, and admonished Wells for making the game “look ridiculous”.

In between the longest run-ups and those that were non-existent are those that are just plain quirky. Visitors to Lord’s in the Sixties and Seventies would have seen one of the most peculiar. Described by Marcus Berkmann as “looking like a geography teacher” when recalled to the England team aged 35 in 1972, John Price had a huge run. It started, claims Berkmann, “halfway up the steps to the Long Room” and after “curving in and out a couple of times” the burly paceman ran “the last 70 yards or so in a straight line”. If Price was playing today argues Berkmann, “England would struggle to bowl 10 overs an hour”.

For the first few yards he would appear to be heading in quite the wrong direction

On the Middlesex Till We Die website, correspondent “Hughie” suggests that it is “hard to convey J.S.E. Price’s bowling style in words”. Yes, the run-up was long, but the “main curiosity” of his entrée was that “for the first few yards he would appear to be heading in quite the wrong direction”. Furthermore, Spiff1968 recalls that “the sight of his run-up made me, as a young boy rush out and copy it every time he played the game”. Such was the acute angle of the “beautiful arc” says Spiff, that if the TV picture was tightly framed “you would wonder where the bowler was, only for him to pop into shot as he straightened up in the final approach”. Further says Spiff, whilst most bowlers mark their approaches by pacing them out, Price might have also needed “an enormous compass”.

The looping run-up was pioneered by cricketer-turned-Hollywood character actor C. Aubrey Smith. Indeed, his approach was so wonky that he became known as “Round The Corner” Smith. All that however, was long ago, and Russell Jackson suggests that the “curved run-up” seems to be some “lost idyll, a relic tossed into history’s trash can with cable-knit sweaters and Gray-Nicolls Scoops”. But it is not necessarily a quirk; sometimes there are practical reasons for an elliptical approach to the crease. In the Herald Sun for example, Melbourne Stars paceman Daniel Worrall explained that his own curved approach was borne completely out of necessity. “We’ve got a tree in the backyard,” he explained, and when playing against his brother as a kid, if you wanted to come off a longer run up you had to run around it.

Merv the curve
Merv the curve

Whatever the reasons for the parabolic preamble, there have been some memorable exponents. Merv Hughes’ “delightfully curved run-up”, suggests Jackson, was “as much a part of his allure as the handlebar moustache and all the theatrics contained in his follow-through”. Alan Ross described it as “mincing”, as though “a lobster was nipping at his ankles”. However, reflects Jackson, the whole thing “probably made Hughes fitter than he might have been” as each delivery became “a kind of pre-season running assignment”.

Perhaps the greatest curved run-up of all time belonged to Malcolm Marshall. Undoubtedly he would be “the greatest” on many other arbitrary lists, and I must declare an interest in that he was the greatest bowler I ever saw live. Better than your Muralis, your McGraths and even your Warnes. His usual approach, as Jon Hotten confirms, was “like a scythe, and a great semi-circle that he would inscribe with knees and elbows pumping madly”.

Macko: the greatest
Macko: the greatest

But, like his bowling, “Macko” had all the varieties – long, short, curved and straight. When cancer cruelly took him at only 41, the world’s best players confirmed how good he’d actually been. “The complete bowler” said Atherton; “my fast-bowling idol” confirmed Wasim Akram, and “simply the most brilliant bowler of my time” according to Graham Gooch. Mike Selvey said that Marshall “may well have been the finest fast bowler of them all”, while Cricinfo judged that in an All–Time XI, “there will be no-one to take the new ball ahead of him”. It all goes to show that whether your journey to the crease is short and sweet, or long and winding, it’s what happens when you get there that counts.

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