Twenty years ago, Shoaib Akhtar became the first person recorded to bowl at 100mph (161km per hour) during the 2003 One-Day International Men’s World Cup match for Pakistan against England. There was an expectation afterwards that this feat would become a regular occurrence.
As humans have continued to run faster, throw further and jump higher, it was believed that this milestone would be a stepping stone consigned to history similar to Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile. It was thought it might also act as a catalyst for serious worldwide improvement in fast bowling.
However, despite continuing improvement in the athletic ability of fast bowlers, the magical three-figure barrier has only been surpassed since by Brett Lee and Shaun Tait – and not for over ten years.
Has cricket fast bowling’s top speed stalled? During the current 2023 One-Day International Men’s World Cup being hosted in India, only a handful of bowlers have produced speeds over 90mph (145km per hour), with the fastest being around 95mph (153 km per hour).
The performance of cricket fast bowlers almost entirely depends on two factors. The first is the amount of momentum developed in the run-up and maintained before the front foot contacting the floor. The second is the technique employed to generate and transfer momentum within the body during the bowling phase between the front foot contacting the floor and the release of the ball from the bowler’s hand.
Previous research has highlighted that the fastest elite male bowlers generate more momentum in their run-up, adopting a movement strategy that aims to maintain and transfer this momentum into the throw instead of generating additional momentum from their muscles.
Testing the limits
To investigate the limits of fast bowling performance, a world-leading predictive musculoskeletal computer simulation model of ten elite male fast bowlers (essentially a virtual clone of each bowler) was developed. It then optimised their technique to maximise the release speed of the ball.
Significantly, none of these bowlers were predicted by the computer model to break the 100mph barrier.
To understand why the top speed has stalled, it is important to consider how all the factors influencing human movement patterns affect the technique of fast bowlers.
The behaviour of all our movement patterns is shaped by three types of constraint. The first is organismic: these are constraints on the individual, such as their size, strength and range of motion. The second factor shaping movement patterns is the environment the individual interacts with, including the atmosphere, temperature, equipment and surfaces. The third shaping factor is the task, which involves constraints such as the goal of the activity, the rules and the intensity.
Our previous experiences of the movement – what we have seen, what we have been told and our previous performance of the movement – also affect individual technique in fast bowling.
The innate physiology of the fast bowler, an organismic constraint, provides the only potential area for development in fast bowling. The other constraints, such as environment and task, which often lead to scientific and technological development associated with improvements in other sports, are extremely limited in fast bowling. This is due to the lack of equipment and the simplicity of the activity.
The physiological aspect often considered to be associated with improvements in fast bowling performance is an increase in muscular strength, power and endurance. However, there’s a unique cricket bowling “task” constraint which requires bowlers to maintain a straight arm during the bowling phase. This significantly reduces the time available to complete the throwing movement.
Elite males complete the bowling phase in approximately 100 milliseconds. This is similar to the time required to explosively activate a single muscle. This limits the ability of bowlers to develop additional momentum using their muscles in the bowling phase and neutralises the effect of strength increases on ball speed.
This explains why maximising momentum generated during the run-up is preferred over generating muscular momentum during the bowling phase. It also explains why fast bowling top speeds have not increased despite recent advances in fast bowlers’ athletic abilities.
Interestingly, research on women fast bowlers has highlighted that bowlers who generate less momentum during the run-up and therefore have more time available to generate additional muscular momentum, adopt a movement pattern more akin to throwing. In this approach, the momentum generated in the run-up is added to via the use of large rotational torso muscles within the bowling phase.
Improvements to the performance of the large rotational torso muscles in men and women could possibly improve the generation of muscular momentum. But this approach is considered a sub-optimal technique by the research that’s been carried out on fast bowling.
A potential mechanism to increase the time available to develop more momentum from muscles would be to increase the range of motion that joints move through during the bowling phase.
Recent research has highlighted that, on average, elite fast bowlers with an increased range of motion in the hip and shoulder had greater ball release speeds. It was also suggested that the bowlers’ techniques were probably influenced by their range of motion during their early learning years.
In addition, elbow hyperextension – where the joint travels beyond a straight position – has been shown to increase the speed of ball release by up to 5% during the bowling phase. A common misconception, however, is that taller bowlers will bowl faster due to the benefit associated with increased limb length.
Unfortunately, as limbs get longer, they get more difficult to rotate. As muscular strength does not scale equally with limb length this becomes a disadvantage. Thus, an optimal height for fast bowlers probably exists, though we don’t know what it is.
Organismic factors linked with increased ball speed such as body shape, size and hypermobility are largely genetic. Since human evolution is extremely slow, advances in ball release speed are likely to follow at a similar pace.
The 100mph barrier, therefore, should be viewed more as a mountain that requires a once-every-generation bowler to scale rather than a dam in a river. The potential of this peak to grow is limited by the constraints of the task and by our innate physiology.
Paul Felton, Senior Lecturer in Biomechanics in the School of Science and Technology, Nottingham Trent University.