Lean, mean pace machines
West Indies cricket and fast bowling go together like a horse and a carriage. Like their exciting middle-order batsmen, West Indies fast bowlers - and definitely so up to 20 or so years ago - seemed to pop up day after day. Most were fast enough to make batsmen tremble in their boots, and the majority of them are numbered among the best of their time - a few among the best of all time.
From the days of Learie Constantine, George Francis and Herman Griffith, through the likes of Manny Martindale, Leslie Hylton, Hines Johnson, Roy Gilchrist, Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith, to the fearsome quartet of Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Joel Garner and Colin Croft, and later on to the likes of Malcolm Marshall, Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose, fast bowlers have been the bread and butter of West Indies cricket.
Constantine, it is written, was as fast as any bowler of his time; Herman Griffith, the man who became a household name in the Caribbean after bowling Don Bradman for 0 in the fifth Test of 1930-31, was all quality. The Indians of the 1958-59 series will confirm that Gilchrist was undoubtedly one of the fastest of his time. The pair of Hall and Charlie Griffith was one of the great ones in the history of the game, and no batsman who had the misfortune of facing them in the 1970s going into the 80s, doubted the quality, the skill and the class of Roberts, Holding, Garner and Croft. They were four big men, all standing over six feet, one at 6ft 7in, and another at 6ft 8in. They were all fast but brought different skills to the combination, and batting against them was a nightmare.
So rich is the history of fast bowling in West Indies cricket that selecting the three quicks on the all-time West Indies team is no easy task. In fact, even if the job was to select an all-time West Indies team of fast bowlers, batting from No. 1 to No. 11, there would still be some great ones left behind.
A big man with an intimidating approach and follow-through, Hall was the first of the modern West Indies fast bowlers. He formed a deadly duo, first with Roy Gilchrist and then with Charlie Griffith; he and Griffith are numbered among the world's greatest fast-bowling pairs. In 48 Test matches, Hall took 192 wickets at an average of 26.38.
The same height but much bigger than Hall, Griffith was accurate and deadly, especially so with his yorkers, which usually knocked over stumps, and his bouncers, which normally knocked down batsmen. In 28 Test matches, Griffith took 94 wickets at an average of 28.54.
If Hall was the first of the modern West Indies fast bowlers, Roberts was certainly the big brother of the breed that conquered the world - the set that included Holding, Croft and Garner. Known for his well-disguised bouncer, Roberts took 202 wickets in 47 Test matches at an average of 25.61.
The Rolls Royce of fast bowlers, Holding was smooth from run-up to delivery. He was fast - as fast if not faster than any of his colleagues - he was fiery, and yet he had the look of a choir boy, even at The Oval in 1976 while destroying England with 14 wickets for 149 runs. In 60 Test matches, Holding took 249 wickets at an average of 23.68.
One of the most underrated fast bowlers of his time, Croft was a perfect match for the other three members of the quartet that propelled West Indies to the top of world cricket. Roberts was the wise one, Holding the quiet destroyer who delivered some nasty yorkers, Garner the man who got the ball to jump off a fairly good length, and Croft, with his awkward action that so often got the ball to leave right-hand batsmen when it should have been coming in to them, moved the ball off the seam prodigiously. In 27 Test matches, he took 125 wickets at an average of 23.30.
Standing at 6ft 8in, Garner was a batsman's nightmare. At the point of delivery, as Geoffrey Boycott once said, the ball seemed to be coming out of the sky, and it was almost impossible to pick its length. Because of that, batsmen the world over spent most of their time trying to survive rather than to score runs. In 58 Test matches, Garner took 259 wickets at the amazing average of 20.97.
Unlike the other great West Indies fast bowlers, Marshall was a little man. In fact, to look at, he seemed more a batsman or a slow bowler. But he was fast, moved the ball both ways, in and out, and possessed a nasty bouncer. In 81 Test matches, Marshall took 376 wickets at an average of 20.94.
A gentle giant, Walsh was Mr Consistency. He generally bowled just short of a good length. He was dependable, was the "work horse" of the great West Indies team of his time, and astonishingly, in terms of wickets taken he seemed to have gotten better the older he got. In 132 Test matches, he took 519 wickets at an average of 24.44.
Standing at 6ft 7in, Ambrose was one of the tallest of the great West Indies fast bowlers, and it was only natural that he got the ball to bounce awkwardly from an almost perfect length. He dropped it on the same spot delivery after delivery and batsmen found it nearly impossible to play him, forget score against him, as was the case in Perth in the 1992-93 series, when he smashed Australia with seven wickets for one run in 32 deliveries. In 98 Test matches, Ambrose took 405 wickets at an average of 20.99.
If ever a bowler appeared destined for greatness, it was Bishop. Coming in off a lovely run-up, he had a beautiful side-on action, good pace, and got the ball to mostly leave the right-hander. However, after a promising start, injury cut him down on two occasions, and he was forced to change his action. Although he remained good enough to compete and deliver, he never achieved what he seemed destined to do. In 43 Test matches, Bishop took 161 wickets at an average of 24.27.
We'll be publishing an all-time West Indies XI based on readers' votes to go with our jury's XI. To pick your fast bowlers click here
Former sports editor of the Jamaica Gleaner and the Daily News, Tony Becca has covered West Indies cricket for 30 years