“Typhoon Tyson”; “Whispering Death”; “White Lightning”; “Rawalpindi Express” - each an epithet to describe that ultimate terror in cricket – the truly frightening fast bowler.
Those who have watched cricket since the fifties will swear that there was no more thrilling sight than Wesley Hall and Roy Gilchrist bowling together. Hall, shirt unbuttoned till the navel, gold cross glistening on ebony chest and a magnificent athlete’s run of around 60 yards from near the boundary line for every delivery. His new ball partner, Gilchrist was shorter and smaller than Hall, but he was truly terrifying. Mean and vicious, he had had a nasty bouncer and also bowled beamers at will.
At Chennai, in that test in 1959, the unforgettable moments are when the West Indies after batting first, came to field. These two fast bowlers ran ahead on either side of the ground and there was a hush as each of them measured their run, almost to the boundary ropes. Both Hall and Gilchrist bowled bouncers that sailed over the leaping wicket keeper Alexander’s gloves for four byes.
Even today as we relive those times, we can hear the crescendo of the Indian crowd as Hall and Gilchrist ran in to bowl. That unimaginable mix of thrill, trepidation, awe and anticipation is indescribable. There were no speed guns those days but surely Hall and Gilchrist must have bowled at 100 miles an hour.
We attempt to write on fast bowling with the humbling acceptance that only pale justice can be done to it in any one essay. Let us begin with some facts and figures to place this in perspective.
Right arm fast bowlers alone have taken around 60% of the test wickets which implies that all other forms of bowling put together account for the remaining 40% of test wickets. In over 2000 tests played so far, right arm fast bowlers have taken over 33000 wickets. There are 270 right arm fast bowlers with over 30 test wickets. 85 of them have in fact over 100 test wickets.
Unlike other forms of bowling, here one has to contend with the fact that there are serious sub – classifications: the tear away fast bowlers, the fast medium accurate ones; the classical seam bowlers, the medium pacers and even those who run up to bowl what in current parlance is called the 110 km/ hour bowlers. There is also a very clear need to separately view bowlers of different eras
We present here a summary of fast bowling data in five eras: (a) from 1877 (when test cricket began) to the beginning of World War I; (b) between the two World wars; (c) from 1947 to 1970; (d) 1970 to 2000 and (e) since 2000. Each era too was so different: in rules of the game; the nature of the pitches; the equipment and gear available to players.
Who were the great fast bowlers of these eras? The task becomes progressively more difficult with each era but here is our short list and then some analysis and discussion.
When fast bowlers hunt in packs they are devastating. West Indies dominated world cricket from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s with the greatest galaxy of fast bowlers of all time. For those of us who want to understand how West Indies came to create their fearsome quartet, there can be no better source than the movie “Fire in Babylon”.
Similarly Australia’s “Invincibles” under Bradman had Lindwall and Miller. England had its best times when Trueman and Statham bowled together. Pakistan was at its best when Imran Khan and Sarfraz Nawaz formed a genuinely good combination. And then there are many more.
There ought to be absolutely no doubt that the top dozen right arm fast bowlers of the last forty years are: Marshall, Lillee, McGrath, Steyn, Waqar Younis, Hadlee, Imran Khan, Ambrose, Holding, Garner, Donald and Walsh. We must make room for Pollock, Botham and Kapil Dev too.
Was the best of them Marshall? We think so. We saw him for the first time in 1979, making his test debut – a callow youth of promise in 1979 when he came with Kallicharan’s team. By the time he came again in 1983, he was the world’s best fast bowler. Shorter than his comrades, he had a bustling run to the crease, a whippy action and would bowl both in and outswing, from over and round the wicket. He was very quick, but because of his repertoire the speed became only the crowning glory.