Jeff Thomson August 3, 2007

Jeff the ripper

John Benaud
Observing Thommo at close quarters did not dim affection for the bowler with the ballet dancer's feet and a larrikin streak

From 22 yards away Jeff Thomson was an even more frightening prospect © Getty Images
My first memory of hero worship amounted to gross disloyalty. I was eight years old and, although the Australian Test team listed household names such as Arthur Morris, Lindsay Hassett, Neil Harvey, Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller (and my older brother Richie, although he was a rookie), in my dream matches on the front verandah, played with a ragged tennis ball and a cut-down bat, I was always the South African No.3, Russell Endean. It was 1952, Jack Cheetham's team were visiting Australia and the Springboks, inspired as much as I was by Endean's prodigious run-gathering and electric catching, mugged Australia and drew a series the experts had said they would lose.

These days I wonder if I might have been guilty less of disloyalty than of an immature desire to offer good old Aussie "fair go" to maligned visitors. Down under, the catch-cry of paying fans can sometimes be "We want a contest, not a walkover".

There was a good deal of well-meaning Aussie 'sympathy' in 1960-61 too. The late Frank Worrell's wonderful West Indians were on the receiving end of some harsh predictions, yet proceeded to lead brother Richie's team such a merry, memorable dance that it seemed every Aussie was cheering them from the rafters.

Watched from afar, heroes can come and go as quickly as their halcyon summers; less fleeting is the fancy experienced when one is touched by genius.

Fast forward to the start of the 1970s. The scene is Bankstown Oval in the heart of Sydney's west; the outfield is dry and brown but there is a greenish tinge to the pitch. I am on strike with a full-size bat; the bowler, hard, shiny red ball in hand, is standing casually at the end of his run, about 40 yards away, and resembles any other knockabout Aussie bloke - skinny but sinewy, fair hair cropped close, eyes squinting in the bright midday sun.

His name is Jeff Thomson but his circling team-mates in their urgings simply call him "Thommo". While I am surveying the field, it is hard not to think of the latest Thommo rumour on grade cricket's grapevine: the previous weekend the former New South Wales opening batsman Warren Saunders, a champion exponent of the hook shot, was late on a Thommo bouncer. After being treated at hospital Saunders rang Neil Harvey, then a selector, and said: "You've got to pick this bloke, he's the fastest I've ever faced."

It certainly sharpens my focus. I had seen Saunders deal comfortably with Ray Lindwall and Wes Hall. I need a plan and the hook shot is not going to be part of it.

So Thommo begins - the highstepping gait of a thoroughbred, bowling hand bobbing at waist level and the ball visible. It is conventional and comforting because facing a strange bowler for the fi rst time invariably generates edginess. Then, in the split second before delivery, at gather, Thommo drags one leg behind the other in a sort of Swan Lake crossover, sways back and hides the ball behind his right knee - unconventional and very unsettling.

Upon achieving Test fame, Thommo was asked to explain this unique bowling method to a bunch of wide-eyed schoolboys. "I just run in and go whang," he said.

I can vouch for that.

On that day in Bankstown 'whang' meant a ball landing just short of a good length outside off, steepling past my unhelmeted head, up and over the wicketkeeper and one or two bounces into the fence for four byes.

Upon achieving Test fame, Thommo was asked to explain this unique bowling method to a bunch of wide-eyed schoolboys. "I just run in and go whang,"

In that instant I knew what Ian Chappell would confirm for the world's batsmen years later: you had 0.47sec to react once Thommo delivered. "It didn't allow you time to change your shot. If your first choice was wrong, you had to hope your luck was in," Chappell said.

My favourite Thommo moment was in the Barbados Test of 1977-78, when I saw him tear into Gordon Greenidge, Desmond Haynes, Vivian Richards, Alvin Kallicharran and Clive Lloyd. If those elite batsmen were not intimidated by his pace and aggression, then body language is a flawed yardstick. Thommo took 6 for 77 off 13 overs in one innings. Think about that - a wicket every two overs.

He had an appeal for caught off the gloves rejected against Greenidge, probably because Greenidge rubbed his shoulder. At the end of play that day Thommo said: "That was gutsy, the way Gordon rubbed his shoulder, because his broken hand must have been hurting like hell."

We like our favourites alone on a pedestal. Wishful thinking abounds in Australia that Shaun Tait is "another Thommo". But Tait lacks that sliding foot-cross which enabled Thommo to maintain height at delivery and generate his extreme pace and lethal bounce. However, because technology rules this age of cricket, coaches might be able to create another Thommo. The good news for other Thommo fans, and batsmen, is: I've never seen a bowling machine with a larrikin streak.

John Benaud played three Tests for Australia, has been a Test selector, and is the author of Matters of Choice: A Test Selector's Story