“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.
In fact it is this “completeness” that raises Marshall to a pedestal of his own. But history tells us that he could face competition for this title from S F Barnes. Barnes, according to records and reports of 100 years ago, was the finest exponent of in-cutters and inswing. Tall and strongly built he was deadly accurate. He nailed batsmen repeatedly with his leg cutters and in-cutters and break-backs They say he never had even one off day in his entire career. With the ball he was England’s most precious match winner.
For sheer poetry and grace of action, we need look no further than Holding. Umpires have sworn that when Holding ran in to bowl, they would know he had arrived at the bowling crease only as he went past them. He was called the Rolls Royce of fast bowling. It made perfect sense, because the classic Rolls Royce advertisement claimed, that when the Rolls Royce ran at 100 mph, the only sound you heard was the ticking of the clock. Competition for Holding comes from Lindwall.
Those who have watched Lindwall, insist that there was none to beat Lindwall for the classicism of his action. He delivered from a perfect side – on position to get late and accurate swing. We got a glimpse of Lindwall at Chennai in 1956. Though past his best, Lindwall nailed seven Indian batsmen with a display of terrific fast bowling - the control, late swing and pace made him unplayable. There is a marvelous picture of Lindwall in Bradman’s “Farewell to Cricket”. It is a side-on delivery stride of Lindwall just about to deliver the ball. The photograph captures the magic of his action.
It is very instructive that some of these famed fast bowling combinations were forged only after those countries suffered heavy defeats. Lloyd created his famed battery of fast bowlers after his team was soundly defeated in a very one sided series in Australia in 1975-76. Similarly Chappell the piratical captain of Australia formed his fast bowling battering ram of Lillee, Thomson, Walker and Gilmour after Australia returned home from South Africa in 1970 with a 0-4 drubbing.
Thomson was frighteningly quick with a slinging action while Lillee was classical. Lillee overcame career threatening stress fracture of the back to reinvent himself. From a tear-away fast bowler he became the complete bowler, and till Marshall came along was considered the most complete fast bowler. It is for Indians a real regret that we never saw Lillee and Thomson bowl in India.
Indian spectators also sadly did not see Fred Trueman in action. He reduced India to 0 for 4 in 1952 at Manchester. Indian batsmen had never faced such pace before and Trueman scalped 22 Indian wickets that summer. Trueman had a lovely action and an ideal outswinger and all we have are pictures of Trueman’s divine follow through, his mop of thick black hair falling over his eyes. Boycott, his team mate at Yorkshire and England, emphatically says that Trueman, Lillee and Marshall were the best fast bowlers he ever faced.
The quiet heroes are the relentlessly accurate fast medium bowlers who bowl long spells against the wind. They keep the pressure on from their end, not providing even a moment’s respite. That is why Brian Statham of England is considered among the greatest of fast bowlers.
Freddie Trueman might have spectacularly knocked over the stumps and sent batsman scurrying back to the pavilion, but he did that because Statham made life miserable for the batsmen at the other end. Alec Bedser was another of those who bowled at less than express pace but carried England on his back for many years. He had the stamina of a horse and carried a huge work load. In fact in his test career Bedser bowled an average of 29 overs in an innings, which is more than anyone else with over 150 test wickets.
Waqar Younis was perhaps the most effective bowler against the lower half of any batting side. He produced fast accurate yorkers at will and with the old ball reverse swung them to crush batsmen’s toes. For a few years in the nineties, all sides against Pakistan were virtually all out when their sixth wicket fell, for Waqar with Wasim, simply polished off the tail in no time.
Shaun Pollock, with that amazingly loose jointed action, took over 400 test wickets and is the fifth highest wicket taker among fast bowlers. Pollock consumed most of his victims with subtle swing. He formed an awesome combination with Donald.
McGrath and Ambrose, without a doubt are right up there with Barnes and Marshall. These two epitomized the best of fast bowling – hostility, accuracy, variations, making the batsman play every ball, fitness over long years of bowling, bagful of wickets, in short they were match winning spearheads for their country. The only interesting variant is that for McGrath, more than his fast bowling partners like Gillespie and Brett Lee, it was his combination with leg spinner Shane Warne that made Australia absolutely invincible for the 15 years.
Dale Steyn today has already done enough to join these four as the greatest of fast bowlers. He has serious pace and a full repertoire, jewel among them the perfect outswinger. And his figures - wickets, bowling average and strike rate are right at the top.
What do we say about India? We began promisingly in 1932 with the red hot pace of Mohammed Nissar and the skillful seam of Amar Singh, but very quickly fell away. Then in 1959 we discovered Ramakant Desai. Tiny Desai as he was nicknamed had a beautiful run up, a lovely leap and also a good bumper.
But after Desai, we had to wait till the peerless Kapil Dev emerged in 1978. It is with the advent of Kapil Dev that pace came to have meaning in India. At last India was able to return fire with fire. Javagal Srinath, followed, faster than anyone else and it was a sign of changing times that an Indian fast bowler relished the bouncy track at Perth as much as anyone else did.
We in the last 50 to 60 years have been lucky to have seen virtually every one of the greatest fast bowlers - from Lindwall and Trueman to Lillee and Roberts to Marshall, McGrath and Steyn. Our generation has also seen the greatest ever quartet of all-rounders playing at the same time. Botham, Hadlee, Imran and Kapil Dev were colossal match winners and huge crowd pullers. All four were so good that they walked into their country’s test team on the strength of their fast bowling alone.
Almost on a whim we asked some of our friends who were not particularly close followers of cricket, what according to them was the best sight in cricket. And the unanimous answer was the sight of cartwheeling stumps! Can the knowledgeable cricket follower argue with that?