The Fast Men

Speed read

Frith's history of fast bowling is encyclopaedic, but also fittingly brisk and concise

Steven Lynch

November 29, 2008

Text size: A | A



Watching spin bowling can be engrossing. Watching a great batsman can be exquisite. Watching a close run-chase can be exciting. But watching a really fast bowler tear in and let one go at the batsman, only 20 yards or so distant, is the one thing in cricket that can set the hairs on the back of your neck a-tingle. It is the nearest the sport has to a one-on-one boxing bout. The element of danger adds to the spectacle.

It has been like this almost since cricket was first properly organised. In the late 18th century batsmen feared "Lumpy" Stevens, who was helped by being able to choose the pitch on which the game was played (he liked to hurl his deliveries over the gentle brow of an incline), while in 1751 the Prince of Wales was hit in the side by a cricket ball and later died of a burst abscess.

Many of Test cricket's most memorable passages have involved fast bowlers. The Ashes came about after the Australian "Demon", Fred Spofforth, demolished England at The Oval in 1882. Forty years later the Australians Jack Gregory and Ted McDonald formed a frighteningly fast new-ball pairing, and a decade after that, Bodyline - a strategy that wouldn't have worked if the main bowlers trying it hadn't been pretty slippery - almost ripped the cosy cricket world apart.

To catalogue the mayhem caused over the years, you need something approaching an encyclopedia. Fortunately, there already is one: The Fast Men, by the tireless Anglo-Australian historian David Frith, gives chapter and verse on everyone who sneaked above fast-medium.

The book is probably most useful if you want to find out what sort of bowlers those far-off 19th-century names on scorecards, like Charles "The Terror" Turner or Ernie Jones, were. Look no further: "Turner had a springy, graceful approach, and his bowling was once timed at Woolwich Arsenal at 55mph" ... "Of Australia's early fast bowlers, none was truly express until Ernest Jones." But Frith is equally good on Larwood and Voce, Hall and Griffith, and Trueman and Statham. And he doesn't forget the easily forgettable: "Kodgee" Kotze and "Froggy" Thomson are in there too (Pelham Warner rather enthusiastically estimated Kotze's "muzzle velocity" at about 1950 feet per second, or 1300 mph: maybe he'd just been hit on the thigh by him). Later we reach the modern demons, who at the time of the first edition in 1975 included Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson, and Andy Roberts, the first of the conveyor belt of West Indian pacemen who would dominate the next decade and more.

It's an engrossing procession, helped by the fact that these speed merchants are dealt with at some speed: the whole history of fast bowling is covered in less than 200 pages, so you're never far from discovering another interesting factoid about another fast bowler, with a change of bowling never far away. All in all The Fast Men could serve as a university text on the subject.

From the book
"Imitating Ray Lindwall gave exquisite pleasure, like arrowing through surf or ice-skating. There was the balanced, rhythmic run, a build-up. The eventual separation of the hands, with the left slicing a slipstream around the midriff and the right swinging to and fro, ball at fingertips. The crease approached. The right arm became a V. The left shoulder turned to the batsman (or kerosene tin). A calculated leap and the propelling arm made its circle. The tennis ball winged away and veered to the left after the roundarm slinging motion and off-cut action. It mattered hardly at all that no wicket was taken or that the ball may even have been driven for four runs into Mrs Shepherd's flowerbed. The ecstasy was in the act itself. In 1950 there were thousands of boys in Sydney practising this fantasy."

The Fast Men: A 200-year cavalcade of speed bowlers
by David Frith

Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1975

Steven Lynch is the editor of the Cricinfo Guide to International Cricket (reviewed here)

RSS Feeds: Steven Lynch

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

FeedbackTop
Email Feedback Print
Share
E-mail
Feedback
Print
Steven LynchClose
Steven Lynch Steven Lynch won the Wisden Cricket Monthly Christmas Quiz three years running before the then-editor said "I can't let you win it again, but would you like a job?" That lasted for 15 years, before he moved across to the Wisden website when that was set up in 2000. Following the merger of the two sites early in 2003 he was appointed as the global editor of Wisden Cricinfo. In June 2005 he became the deputy editor of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack. He continues to contribute the popular weekly "Ask Steven" question-and-answer column on ESPNcricinfo, and edits the Wisden Guide to International Cricket.
Related Links
Players/Officials: Ray Lindwall

    The return of Bob Simpson

Rewind: When the 41-year-old former captain came out of retirement to lead Australia against India

    Ranji in Ireland, Hazare in Mumbai

Subash Jayaraman's cricket world tour takes in Dublin, Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore and Chennai

    A year of triumph and disaster

Martin Crowe: Misbah, McCullum, and the ICC's efforts against chucking were the positive highlights in a year that ended with the tragedy of Phillip Hughes' death

    Two fortresses called Brisbane and Centurion

Numbers Game: Australia haven't lost at the Gabba since 1988, while South Africa have a 14-2 record in Centurion

Why Steven Smith's here to stay

Russell Jackson: He has experienced captaincy at every level. Most admirably, he has managed to reinvent his game to succeed at the highest level

News | Features Last 7 days

The perfect Test

After the tragedy of Phillip Hughes' death, this match showed that cricket and life will continue to go on. This time Test cricket dug in and got through to tea.

Kohli attains batting nirvana

Virat Kohli's innings on the final day transcended the conditions, the bowlers and his batting partners, and when it was all in vain, he displayed remarkable grace in defeat

What ails Rohit and Watson?

Both batsmen seemingly have buckets of talent at their disposal and the backing of their captains, but soft dismissals relentlessly follow both around the Test arena

Hazlewood completes quartet of promise

Josh Hazlewood has been on Australian cricket's radar since he was a teenager. The player that made a Test debut at the Gabba was a much-improved version of the tearaway from 2010

Australia in good hands under proactive Smith

The new stand-in captain has the makings of a long-term leader, given his ability to stay ahead of the game

News | Features Last 7 days

    BCCI's argument against DRS not 100% (164)

    Turning your back on a system that the whole cricketing world wants a discussion on, refusing to discuss it because it is not 100%, is not good enough

    Karn struggles to stay afloat (114)

    The failed gamble of handing Karn Sharma a Test debut despite him having a moderate first-class record means India have to rethink who their spinner will be

    Kohli attains batting nirvana (110)

    Virat Kohli's innings on the final day transcended the conditions, the bowlers and his batting partners, and when it was all in vain, he displayed remarkable grace in defeat

    When defeat isn't depressing (57)

    After a long time we have seen an Indian team and captain enjoy the challenge of trying to overcome stronger opposition in an overseas Test

    What ails Rohit and Watson? (52)

    Both batsmen seemingly have buckets of talent at their disposal and the backing of their captains, but soft dismissals relentlessly follow both around the Test arena