The Fast Men November 29, 2008

Speed read

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

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)