Nobody Can Bowl

Last (cricket) Post: The Myth of the Bowler
The emperor has no clothes. And nobody can bowl. There, I’ve said it and I’m glad.
For over a hundred years we’ve all pretended that a skilled bowler with his arsenal of pace, guile and accuracy can on any given occasion dismiss any batsman against that batsman’s will. Now, thanks to the innovations ushered in by Twenty20 cricket, we can now admit what we’ve always known in our hearts: that any batsman with sufficient reflexes, hand/eye coordination, physical strength and confidence, can swat any delivery out of the ground. Nobody, really, can bowl.
Les Favell said it first. Anybody out there remember Les, South Australia’s cavalier captain and opening bat during the 1960s? He was famous for greeting incoming batting partners in mid-pitch conference saying “This guy can’t bowl!”, sometimes adding “Get in for your chop”.
Bowlers never dismissed Les. He always got himself out. One afternoon, watching a Shield match on TV – they broadcast them in those days – I stepped into the kitchen between innings to make a sandwich. Mum called from the lounge room: “They’re coming out to bat! Better hurry if you want to see Les!”.
I slammed the two pieces of bread together, threw it on a plate, rushed into the lounge – “Too late!” said Mum. Les had holed out, failing to hit a third consecutive boundary off the third ball of the innings. A few weeks earlier, he’d smacked a memorable century against a full-strength MCC pace attack.
Favell played a few Tests, but never came close to cementing his place in the Simpson/Lawry/Redpath era. He made a living working as a sort of odd-job man for the Adelaide Advertiser; when I worked at the Adelaide Festival Centre I would see him hanging paintings in the foyer for the Advertiser Art Show.
Poor Les. A man out of his time. He’d be an IPL multi-millionaire today.
Recent changes to rules, field settings, full-time professionalism (hence fitness), bigger bats and shorter boundaries have all conspired to expose the lie that bowlers can dismiss or restrict batsman; but really, we’ve always known it. We just maintained a conspiratorial silence, because it’s important to believe that cricket is an intriguing tussle between bat and ball.
Devastating innings by guys like Maxwell, Guptill, de Villiers, Gayle and McCullum during the 2015 World Cup have confirmed what Twenty20 hinted at. Improvised strokes such as lap shots, reverse-sweeps and switch-hitting make a mockery of all the stuff your school coach and the cricket academies used to teach. I understand an important delivery in the modern bowler’s armory is now the Slow Full-toss. Yeah, right.
There’s nothing intrinsically interesting about seeing a ball sailing repeatedly over the boundary ropes. It looks like fielding practice. After a while, it’s no more exciting than watching a dead-bat shot. But didn’t we love it when some hopeless tail-end Charlie would come in and belt a quick thirty runs off the same bowlers who had tied down the upper and middle order? It never dawned on us to wonder how come a non-batsman could do this when the specialists had struggled.
It’s simply because the tail-ender had never been trained to show respect to the bowler.
I was a lousy cricketer in high school, playing only a few games, making up the numbers in the Senior B side. I was terrified of getting hurt by the hard ball, and batted at number eleven. Usually the captain closed the innings at nine-down. I was a handy third slip and reserve keeper, but my main talent – seriously, now – was as a wrist-spinner.
This was in that long interregnum between the Richie Benaud and Shane Warne eras, when leggies were routinely overlooked in favour of quicks and the finger-dart men. I only ever came on to bowl when all else had failed. I think my career figures were something like 2-374.
But I was good. Looking back, I’m amazed at my untrained, teenage mastery of flight, variation and prodigious turn. My best work was done bowling to adults in the nets. The coaches and teachers who turned up for an after-school knock at practice loved facing me, would often throw me the ball and say “Send down some twirly ones”. And I didn’t disappoint them, getting them in all sorts of strife, famously bowling our A-team coach three times in a row, before striking him a painful blow in the nuts.
You see, the experienced adults understood and respected what was good about my bowling. And so they succumbed to it.
The opposition boys on match day didn’t see the same thing. All they saw was a skinny little guy bowling really slow. And so they belted me out of the ground. Why wouldn’t you?
The best delivery I ever saw (on TV) was from Shane Warne to a NZ middle-order guy about five years ago. Full, floating, dipping, curving from off to outside leg, dropping on a perfect length and jagging back to clean up middle stump.

The batsman had followed it out, out, out wider, jabbing far too late with a straight bat, the ball nipping comically between his outstretched legs. Beautiful!
But the guy had convinced himself that Warne was bowling hand-grenades, and that became a self-fullfilling prophecy. McCullum or Guptil would have simply tonked it. Warnie got out of cricket just in time.

Double-tons and 400-plus totals are now commonplace in one-dayers.. And crash-bang batting has fed back into Test cricket. Remember the first few overs of that much-anticipated First Test against India this summer? Dave Warner swatting boundary after boundary from Ball One, against a ‘class’ pace attack.
We know that was going to happen, didn’t we? After all the emotion following the Phil Hughes tragedy, of course Davey was going to do something special at that moment. It didn’t matter who was bowling, because nobody can bowl.
Ever wonder why Mitch Johnson looks like a world-beater most days then goes none-fer heaps? It’s not Mitch. It’s because, some days, the batsmen are simply feeling good about themselves. Serve it up, mate.
Please don’t think this is one of those old-boring (aka ‘intriguing’)-cricket-was-better rants. Like the little boy in the emperor’s new clothes story, I’m just exposing the myth of the bowler.
It does however make the game seem a bit pointless. There’s an Ashes series coming up this northern summer and I’m not looking forward to it. England haven’t yet caught on that nobody can bowl. One day they’ll breed another Flintoff or Botham and give us hell. But this series is going to be a sad bloodbath.
And anyway, it’ll be winter down here. Hey, who are Port playing this week?


  1. Anybody out there remember Les Favell? Brylcreemed swept back hair. Slashing square cut. Taught IM Chappell most of the important things about captaincy and leadership.
    I remember him coming around to our country school with the Advertiser Cricket Schools. We all stood in the asphalt quadrangle and hung on every word in the blazing heat, playing imagined forward defence and backward defence and cover drive and pull shot (always roll your wrists) with real or imagined bats. I remember a similar Advertiser Tennis School but I don’t remember if Mr Favell took that. As you say he was the Addy’s man for all seasons when it came to sporting odd jobs.
    Seemed to live his life as he batted, with a full hearted careless joy. Taken too soon.
    As for all the bat/ball/one day cricket debate – I don’t care much. Cricket will do what it has to do to feed Indian Pay TV and commercial interests.
    I don’t watch much cricket these days, but I love having the radio on in the background. Its the rhythms not the content that still fascinate me. Cheers.

  2. “By Hook or By Cut” by Les Favell is still on my bookshelf. It was the first sports autobiography I ever received. (btw- another NSW skipper for SA)

  3. Peter Fuller says

    Les Favell was a wonderful cricketer, but probably because of his approach couldn’t persuade the selectors to make him a regular opener. England’s revival to recover the Ashes in 1953, and hold them through the next two series was based on Len Hutton’s turgid approach as captain and influenced his successors. As the weaker team during that period, Australia sought to replicate this conservatism, which undoubtedly influenced selection policy. After Alan Morris’ retirement, Colin McDonald became the constant, with various partners, Jim Burke being the nearest thing to a regular.

    I had to look it up, but Les played four of the Tests in that magical series against the Windies in 60-’61, but he was batting number 5 until Adelaide when he was dismissed cheaply twice as an opener. It’s pretty obvious that his cards were marked then, as a few weeks later the touring party to England included Bill Lawry and Bob Simpson as McDonald’s potential opening partners, and by series end the Lawry-Simpson combo was in place.
    Robbie’s eloquent account of the plight of the bowler has some antecedents, related to the prejudice of the game’s decision-makers over much of its history in favour of the bat. While it’s of symbolic rather than real significance, the early knighthoods were indicative. When Hutton, followed Hobbs and Bradman to be knighted, that great wit (and fine spinner) Arthur Mailey ruefully observed that the last (i.e. preceding) bowler to be knighted was Francis Drake.

  4. E.regnans says

    Nicely done, Robbie.
    But I’d keep an eye on D Fleming and his fast-bowler’s cartel emerging in cricket.
    J Sutherland of Cricket Australia a bowler
    A Dodemaide of Cricket Victoria a bowler
    J Gillespie coach of Yorkshire a bowler
    An uprising could be upon us.

    Loved T Southee’s bowling to England in the World Cup, too. Worth a youtube.

  5. Dave Brown says

    Nice read, Rob. No doubt the rules and general conditions have moved in the favour of the bat. But the great thing is that innovation occurs in adversity. In the last BBL series we actually saw average scores decrease because fielding captains have become better at employing tactics to contain a score.

    Following the success of Hogg in that form of the game, due to batsmen’s complete inability to read him out of the hand, I am currently teaching my right handed son to bowl left arm wrist spin. He’ll make me a fortune I tells ya…

  6. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Really enjoyable Robbie Thank you ! Les was a great man and is a revered man in sa cricket . Grounds smaller , better bats , flat wickets have contributed and the game over all is for the poorer love a equal contest between bat and ball
    ( have sent article on to Alan Favell son of )

  7. Given today’s news, I’m now slightly embarrassed at having mentioned my bowling efforts in the same paragraph as the name of Richie Benaud.

  8. I really enjoyed your article Robbie, I think anyone who’s played or watched a bit of cricket can identify with the mystery around the art of bowling as opposed to batting. As Jack Dyer said of footy once (I think), something along the lines of it all being ‘90% half mental’.

  9. Les was my second cousin and I proudly own a copy of By Hook Or By Cut autographed by him. Made absolutely no difference to my cricketing career, unfortunately. Shane described me perfectly – can’t bowl, can’t bat – but I did have one ball that was unplayable. The only problem was that it was my only ball and once survived was easy to recognise and then nudge for a 4 or 6.
    Rob is right… none can bowl, but then most of the ‘batters’ are just that tonking/heaving/thwacking/graceless baseball players (the Oz lot even have a baseball fielding coach) so the game of cricket is forever changed – maybe not for the better…

  10. Barry Nicholls says

    Great piece Rob. Les would have ben a huge hit today. I loved him. I had a pleasure of working with Les throughout country SA running ‘Advertiser cricket clinics.’ We’d have to change in school sports sheds after each session. One day a group of young female teachers accidentally walked in on us. We stood there in underpants looking shocked. The teachers lingered for a while. When they apologised Les said,’ I don’t think the young bloke minds!’
    Les and I would stop at a country pub and have a meal for lunch. He’d always have just a butcher of beer with his meal. After we finished the school holiday coaching series I scored 176 for Kensington in a B grade match. I saw Les at the SACA indoor centre- he walked by one day and called out ‘Hey Barry told you all that coaching would help.’ It was the last time I saw him. He passed away a few years later aged 57. Thanks for conjuring up some memories Rob.

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