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'I like to see blood on the pitch'

Martin Williamson recalls the arrival of a fast bowler who boasted he liked "to see blood on the pitch"

Martin Williamson

November 18, 2006

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Click here to see Jeff Thomson in action on YouTube

Jeff Thomson leads Australia off after ripping England apart with 6 for 46 at Brisbane © The Cricketer
So much has been written about those likely to feature in the forthcoming Ashes that it is inconceivable that anyone who takes part will not already be a known quantity.

That's not always been the case. In 1950-51 Jack Iverson took 21 wickets for 15.73 runs in five Tests. Iverson developed a peculiar method of spinning the ball, which he gripped between his thumb and middle finger which bemused England's batsmen. That series was his entire Test career. In 1954-55 Frank Tyson, who made his Test debut just before setting sail to Australia, took 28 wickets at 20.82 to effectively decide the series. And in 1974-75, Jeff Thomson was the unknown who turned a series on its head.

England set off for Australia in October 1974 buoyed by a drawn series in the Caribbean the previous winter and a summer in which they had whitewashed India and drawn with a strong Pakistan side. Under Mike Denness, they possessed a good fast-bowling attack, even though they controversially omitted John Snow, the hero of the previous tour.

Australia seemed to pose few threats. Their one known fast bowler, Dennis Lillee, was on the comeback trail after a career-threatening back injury and few thought he would be remotely as quick as he had been in the 1972 series. The England side watched him in action during a state game soon after they landed. "He was not employing the high kick and jump which he had used just before delivery," Denness noted. "Neither did he look as quick as before."

One other bowler's name had cropped up in the local media - Thomson. He was erratic but fast and with a unique action. He had played one Test, almost two years earlier, when he had taken 0 for 110. It subsequently emerged he had been bowling with a broken foot.

The tourists got a chance to see him first hand when they played Queensland. For a couple of overs he was sharp, but then he cut back and the feeling was that he was quick but wayward. "Most of us found it a little difficult to pick up the ball, because when the arm goes back the ball is hidden behind the body, and could not be seen again until just before delivery," Denness noted. "At that time we were very open-minded about the threat he posed."

What England didn't know was that Thomson was under orders from Greg Chappell, his captain. "Just **** around," Chappell told him. "Don't show the English batsmen what you can do." "I followed his instructions," Thomson admitted, "and just toyed around and bowled within myself." Even so, he let rip in the second innings after Peter Lever and Bob Willis had peppered the Queensland tail with a barrage of short stuff.

However, England were surprised when Thomson was included in the Australian side for the opening Test at Brisbane. "We never thought they'd pick Jeff," recalled David Lloyd. "We thought it was a different Thomson ... Froggy, who played for Victoria."

In the build-up to the match, Thomson upped the hype in a TV interview when he said: "I enjoy hitting a batsman more than getting him out. I like to see blood on the pitch."

The night before the match Lillee came across Thomson in the bar drinking scotch. "When I go out to bowl I want a hangover from hell," Thomson explained. "I bowl really well when I've got a headache."

When the game got underway Australia batted first, leaving Thomson in the pavilion to nurse his hangover. Towards the end of their innings Tony Greig, who could bowl briskly and generated significant lift from his 6'7" frame to trouble decent batsmen, bounced Lillee. The ball reared at his head and he could do no more than glove it to Alan Knott. "Just you remember who started this," muttered Lillee as he trooped off.

Although England were not outgunned in the first innings, largely thanks to a brilliant counterattacking hundred from Greig, they were blown away by Thomson second time round. He took 6 for 46 to give him 9 for 105 in the match. "He frightened me, and I was sitting 200 yards away," wrote Keith Miller. There was no looking back.

In the first four-and-a-half Tests Thomson took 33 wickets at 17.93 and left England battered and beaten. He seemed set to break Arthur Mailey's Australian record of 36 wickets in a series when on the rest day of the penultimate Test at Adelaide he tore muscles in his shoulder playing tennis.

Thomson ready to unleash a thunderbolt © Martin Williamson
By then, England's morale was in tatters. Lillee's form had increased as the series went on and Thomson's raw pace had left nerves shattered. Just how bad was it facing the two of them in an era before helmets and chest protectors.

"When I batted at Perth I didn't even wear a cap," said Lloyd. "All I had was an apology for a thigh pad." It was in that Test that Thomson struck Lloyd so hard in the groin that his protective box was turned inside out. "You didn't feel fear," he added, "but you did feel a hopelessness at times, a feeling that you couldn't cope." Denness noted Lloyd's reaction when he returned to the dressing room after one innings. "Within seconds his body was quivering. His neck and the top half of his body in particular were shaking. He was shell-shocked."

"There was no respite," added Dennis Amiss, who the previous year had set a record for the most Test runs in a calendar year but ended the tour a shadow of the batsman he was. "They were in your face the whole time."

Australia won the series 4-1 - England's sole win came in the final Test when Thomson was absent and Lillee broke down after four overs, as if to underline the impact the pair had on the rubber.

Thomson was almost as effective in the 1975 Ashes series which followed, and again in the unofficial world championship against West Indies in 1975-76 which Australia won 5-1. But in the first Test of 1976-77, again at Adelaide, he collided with Alan Turner as they both went for a catch in the deep and seriously injured his shoulder. Thereafter he was rarely as fast in anything other than occasional bursts, but he had already stamped his mark on Ashes history.

Is there an incident from the past you would like to know more about? E-mail us with your comments and suggestions.

Thommo David Frith (Angus & Robertson, 1980)
My Story Tony Greig (Stanley Paul, 1980)
I Declare Mike Denness (Arthur Baker, 1978)
Matches Of My Life ed Sam Pilger & Rob Wightman (Know The Score, 2006)
Various newspapers

Martin Williamson is managing editor of Cricinfo

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Martin Williamson Executive editor Martin Williamson joined the Wisden website in its planning stages in 2001 after failing to make his millions in the internet boom when managing editor of Sportal. Before that he was in charge of Sky Sports Online and helped launch and run Sky News Online. With a preference for all things old (except his wife and children), he has recently confounded colleagues by displaying an uncharacteristic fondness for Twenty20 cricket. His enthusiasm for the game is sadly not matched by his ability, but he remains convinced that he might be a late developer and perseveres in the hope of an England call-up with his middle-order batting and non-spinning offbreaks. He is now managing editor of ESPN EMEA Digital Group as well as his Cricinfo responsibilities.

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