S Rajesh runs the rule over players of yesteryear

West Indies' battery of fast bowlers

Pace like fire

The first instalment of this new series takes an in-depth look at West Indies' amazing pace attack of the 1970s, '80s and early 1990s

S Rajesh

August 15, 2011

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Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Colin Croft and Joel Garner, Trinidad, February 1981
When these men hunted in a pack, no opposition batting line-up had a chance Adrian Murrell / © Getty Images
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On December 1, 1979, West Indies trooped out to play Australia in a series featuring two of the top teams in the world back at full strength. It was the first time the top players were returning to the national teams after the Kerry Packer World Series, but for West Indies it was another historic first: their bowling attack, for the very first time, comprised these four names - Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Joel Garner, Colin Croft. Roberts had already played 27 Tests then, and had an average of 24.61, but the others were relatively raw. Holding had played 13 Tests, but had already made a name for himself with 57 wickets, while Garner and Croft had played seven Tests each, taking 38 and 42 wickets. (Croft's haul included 8 for 29 against Pakistan in only his second Test, which remain the best figures by a West Indian fast bowler in Tests.) West Indies had already produced one great fast bowler, Wes Hall, but over the next decade and a half, opposing batsmen would face an examination like never before from a relentless battery of bowlers who possessed fiery pace, skill, and sustained aggression.

To return to the first Test of that 1979 series at the Gabba, West Indies chose to field, bundled Australia out for 268, and then notched up 441 themselves. In the second innings, though, Australia didn't roll over, facing 166 overs and racking up 448 for 6 declared, with centuries for Greg Chappell and Kim Hughes. That Test was drawn, but no team would last as many overs against West Indies for the next seven years.

For Australia that second-innings display was the high point of their series, for they were resoundingly beaten - by 10 wickets and 408 runs - in the next two Tests, with totals of 156, 259, 203 and 165 in those four innings. The West Indian pace juggernaut, which had briefly been halted by the Kerry Packer years, was well and truly on its way: over the next decade and a half, they played 31 series (including the one in 1979 against Australia), won 21, drew nine, and lost just one, quite controversially to New Zealand in 1980.

During this period West Indies won 61 Tests and lost 16. Add the couple of years pre-Packer when they played with a largely pace-centric attack, between 1976 and 1978, and their win-loss ratio added up to 70-18, which was more than twice that of the next best side, Pakistan (3.89 to 1.76). West Indies' bowling was quite clearly the best too, with an average of less than 26. Not surprisingly, pace accounted for 91.63% of the wickets taken by their bowlers (2070 out of 2284), at an average of less than 24.

What's also remarkable about the West Indies numbers is the relatively low five- and ten-wicket hauls - there were so many great bowlers in the attack that there was seldom the opportunity for one bowler to run through a batting line-up. There were only 12 ten-fors, which is half as many as Australia managed, and nine fewer than Pakistan.

Test teams* between Mar 01, 1976, and Feb 28, 1995 (excluding the Packer years#)
Team Tests W/ L Wickets Average 5WI/ 10WM Pace - wkts Average Strike rate
West Indies 137 70/ 18 2284 25.89 88/ 12 2070 23.87 53.1
Pakistan 133 44/ 25 1990 29.42 101/ 21 1286 27.63 58.8
Australia 171 57/ 51 2598 31.41 120/ 24 1889 29.78 62.5
India 132 28/ 37 1794 34.09 82/ 11 789 34.13 69.4
New Zealand 109 24/ 38 1452 34.04 74/ 14 1133 31.56 67.7
England 182 41/ 70 2518 34.78 103/ 10 1947 32.85 68.9
Sri Lanka 58 4/ 27 674 39.22 25/ 0 446 36.39 70.8
* Those who played at least 50 Tests
# The period between Apr 1978 and Nov 1979

Quite amazingly seven West Indian fast bowlers took 50-plus wickets at sub-25 averages during this period. Ian Bishop played only 18 Tests in this era, but he achieved amazing numbers, averaging just over 20 and taking a wicket every 47 deliveries. Malcolm Marshall achieved similar numbers playing more than four times as many matches, which, in a nutshell, indicates just how good he was. Garner played all of 58 Tests without once taking 10 in a match, and taking only seven five-fors. That, perhaps, is the best illustration of how good West Indies' attack was, for Garner finished his career with 259 wickets at less than 21 apiece. In fact, Marshall, Garner and Curtly Ambrose are the only three in the history of Test cricket to take more than 200 wickets at averages of less than 21.

West Indies fast bowlers between Mar 1976 and Feb 1995 (Qual: 50 wickets)
Bowler Tests Wickets Average Strike rate 5WI/ 10WM
Ian Bishop 18 83 20.45 47.1 5/ 0
Malcolm Marshall 81 376 20.94 46.7 22/ 4
Joel Garner 58 259 20.97 50.8 7/ 0
Curtly Ambrose 50 224 21.11 54.2 11/ 3
Michael Holding 55 239 22.10 48.3 13/ 2
Colin Croft 27 125 23.30 49.3 3/ 0
Courtney Walsh 70 255 24.77 56.6 9/ 2
Winston Benjamin 17 52 26.09 59.8 0/ 0
Andy Roberts 34 133 26.78 58.1 6/ 1
Pattrick Patterson 28 93 30.90 51.9 5/ 0

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the West Indies pace attack was the manner in which they dominated in every country they played in. In fact, nowhere did they concede more than 26 runs per wicket. Even on the slow wickets of India, they averaged 25.41, and their strike rate there was the best among all countries. They were at their best in the 1983-84 six-Test series. Still smarting from the defeat in the World Cup final earlier in the year, they destroyed India's famed batting line-up, taking 97 wickets in six Tests at an average of 24.65. Marshall was the star of that series, with 33 wickets at 18.81, while Holding wasn't far behind, taking 30 wickets at 22.10. In fact, the 97 wickets they took remained their biggest haul in a single series.

They were even more lethal in Pakistan, taking 44 wickets in three Tests in 1986-87, and 54 in four at 19.53 in 1980-81. In fact, in the 35 series that West Indies played during this period, only twice did their pace attack concede more than 30 runs per wicket - against Pakistan at home in 1987-88 and against India in 1975-76.

The team they played most often against, though, were England, and the fast bowlers were exceptional in each series they played against them. They were at their best in the 5-0 drubbing in 1985-86, when five Tests fetched the fast bowlers 94 wickets at 19.54. When they toured England, West Indies' fast men were no less lethal, as these stats will testify: 88 wickets at 21.01 (1976), 85 at 20.24 (1988), 81 at 21.48 (1984), 81 at 25.27 (1980), and 81 at 25.56 (1991). (Click here for the full list of series-wise performances by West Indies' fast bowlers during this period.)

Individually there were 19 instances of a fast bowler taking 25 or more wickets in a series. Marshall and Garner led the way, achieving it five times each, while Ambrose did it four times. (Click here to check out the highest individual wicket-takers among these fast bowlers in a series.)

West Indies fast bowlers in each country between March 1976 and Feb 1995#
Host country Tests Wickets Average Strike rate Win/ loss
Sri Lanka 1 9 15.33 49.6 0/ 0
Pakistan 10 142 19.52 46.8 3/ 2
England 25 416 22.66 54.5 15/ 2
West Indies 59 877 24.29 52.6 34/ 6
Australia 21 327 25.02 56.1 11/ 4
New Zealand 8 102 25.37 60.6 2/ 2
India 13 197 25.41 48.0 5/ 2
# Excludes the period between Apr 1978 and Nov 1979

West Indies had such an abundance of fast-bowling talent in the late 1970s and the 1980s that it was impossible to accommodate all of them in an XI. Here's a look at how many matches some of the legends of the game played together (with a cut-off of 10 Tests for four of them playing together, and 20 Tests for three), their performances and the team results in those matches:

  • Roberts, Holding, Garner, Croft
  • The original fast-bowling foursome, they played together 11 times, starting with the series mentioned at the beginning of this piece. West Indies won five of these 11 Tests, while five were drawn, of which two were in that ill-tempered series in New Zealand in 1980, and a couple against England that were affected by the weather. The only Test West Indies lost with these four bowlers playing together was the Boxing Day match against Australia in 1981, when the home team won by 58 runs. Holding took 11 for 107 in that Test, one of only two ten-fors he had in his career, but chasing a fourth-innings target of 220, West Indies folded for just 161.

    Among the individual bowlers, Garner and Holding were the most effective in those 11 matches, averaging around 20, while Roberts was the most disappointing, taking only 28 wickets. Croft's decision to be a part of the rebel tour to South Africa in 1983 ended that four-man partnership relatively early.

    Holding, Garner, Roberts and Croft in the Tests they all played
    Bowler Tests Wickets Average Strike rate Econ rate 5WI/ 10Wm
    Joel Garner 11 47 19.48 55.8 2.09 2/ 0
    Michael Holding 11 51 20.56 45.7 2.69 4/ 1
    Colin Croft 11 46 25.82 54.7 2.83 2/ 0
    Andy Roberts 11 28 35.53 84.6 2.51 0/ 0
    All together 11 172 24.12 57.27 2.53 8/ 1

    Marshall, Roberts, Garner and Holding played only six Tests together, with Roberts being the outstanding bowler in those matches, taking 33 wickets at 17.48. The results in those six matches were three wins, three draws.

  • Marshall, Garner, Holding
  • In the 26 Tests these three played together, West Indies had an outstanding record, winning 16 and drawing nine. The only Test they lost was a dead rubber in Sydney in 1985. Between April 1983 and December 1984, West Indies won 10 Tests in a row when all these three played - seven of those by an innings or by 10 wickets. All three bowlers had exceptional records in these 26 Tests, and together they averaged almost 13 wickets per Test, conceding less than 23 runs per dismissal.

    Tests featuring Marshall, Garner and Holding
    Bowler Tests Wickets Average Strike rate Econ rate 5WI/ 10WM
    Joel Garner 26 110 21.03 51.0 2.47 3/ 0
    Malcolm Marshall 26 123 21.33 46.7 2.73 7/ 1
    Michael Holding 26 98 25.63 53.3 2.88 3/ 0
    All together 26 331 22.51 50.16 2.69 13/ 1

  • Marshall, Ambrose, Walsh
  • The highlight of their 28 Tests together was the period between April and December 1988, when they won eight out of 10 Tests and drew the other two. That phase included four wins in England and three in Australia. Overall West Indies had a 16-5 win-loss record when these three played together, but they ended on a relative low: the 1991 series in England finished 2-2, which was the first time in six tours that West Indies failed to win a series in England.

    Marshall was in outstanding form in these 28 matches, averaging less than 20 for his 133 wickets, at a strike rate of 44.7. Overall these three bowlers accounted for 12 wickets per match in these 28 Tests, at an average not far off the one achieved by the previous trio.

    Tests featuring Marshall, Ambrose and Walsh
    Bowler Tests Wickets Average Strike rate Econ rate 5WI/ 10WM
    Malcolm Marshall 28 133 19.17 44.7 2.57 8/ 2
    Curtly Ambrose 28 118 23.77 58.2 2.45 4/ 0
    Courtney Walsh 28 87 28.26 65.5 2.58 1/ 1
    All together 28 338 23.12 54.81 2.53 13/ 3

  • Ambrose, Walsh, Bishop
  • This was the last lethal pace trio for West Indies, and the numbers show they were every bit as good as their predecessors - in 37 Tests they averaged 11 wickets per Test, and less than 24 runs per wicket. West Indies' results, though, had started to fall off: they won 16 and lost eight, including a couple of innings defeats in Pakistan in 1997.

    Tests featuring Ambrose, Walsh and Bishop
    Bowler Tests Wickets Average Strike rate Econ rate 5WI/ 10WM
    Curtly Ambrose 37 139 22.25 54.8 2.43 9/ 1
    Ian Bishop 37 138 24.24 51.3 2.83 6/ 0
    Courtney Walsh 37 135 25.26 56.4 2.68 6/ 1
    All together 37 412 23.91 54.23 2.65 21/ 2

    (The three tables above were for combinations where the three fast bowlers played together in at least 20 Tests. There were three other combinations that deserve to be mentioned: Croft, Garner, Roberts played 18 Tests together, of which West Indies won nine and lost two; Roberts, Holding, Garner played 17 Tests together, of which West Indies won eight and lost one; and Holding, Garner, Croft played 16 Tests, of which West Indies won five and lost two.)

    And finally, a look at the batsmen who faced them better than the rest. Only eight batsmen scored more than 1000 Test runs against them, and none averaged more than 46. Sunil Gavaskar tops the averages, and what stood out was his ability to convert his starts into big scores. His best series against West Indies, though, were when these fast bowlers weren't around - he averaged 154.80 in 1971, and 91.50 in the home series in 1978-79, when West Indies' main fast bowlers were away, playing for Packer. Graham Gooch was probably the most consistent, with 18 scores of 50-plus in 51 innings. Allan Lamb scored more centuries against this attack than anyone else, but he also had a number of low scores, due to which his overall average against them is less than 35.

    Batsmen who scored more than 1000 runs v West Indies between Mar 1976 and Feb 1995#
    Batsman Tests Runs Average 100s/ 50s
    Sunil Gavaskar 15 1135 45.40 5/ 2
    Graham Gooch 26 2197 44.83 5/ 13
    Robin Smith 15 1028 44.69 3/ 6
    David Boon 18 1285 42.83 3/ 7
    Dilip Vengsarkar 19 1179 40.65 4/ 6
    Allan Border 31 2052 39.46 3/ 14
    Allan Lamb 22 1342 34.41 6/ 2
    David Gower 19 1149 32.82 1/ 6
    # Excludes the period between Apr 1978 and Nov 1979

    Apart from their exploits in Test cricket, West Indies' pace attack also left their mark on World Series Cricket, and in ODIs. West Indies were by far the most successful ODI side till the end of the 1980s, and their fast bowlers were among the best, both in terms of averages and economy rates. In a nutshell, when these special West Indian fast men had the ball in hand, the format, the venue, the conditions, and the batsmen ceased to matter.

    S Rajesh is stats editor of ESPNcricinfo

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    Posted by   on (August 18, 2011, 14:31 GMT)

    Irrespective of which team you support, which era you followed cricket in, or your personal bias - champions remain champions. West Indies pacemen from 70s to 90s were just that! They had the skills, nous and unbridled aggression. Most of all, they were fueled by an innate sense of pride and passion. Perhaps that's the main reason why WI and world at large took it for granted that the next great fast bowler would just turn up at the doorstep. It was pure happenstance, but boy! what an awesome one .. RESPECT for all these players. Also, individually all of these guys are greats .. but never another one like Marshall - by far the most complete fast bowler of all time.

    Posted by harshthakor on (August 18, 2011, 4:48 GMT)

    Sorry.earlier i forgot to mention Alan Lamb who brilliantly tackled the calypso quartet in 1984 brilliantly improvising his style.

    The most fascinating aspect his how the attack would have fared today.With helmets in the game,flatter pitches and restriction of bouncers I don't think the quartet would have succeeded as much today.I feel a spinner may have been introduced in the prsent conditions.

    However with their superb versatailty and talent the likes of Marshall and Roberts would have caused havoc even to greats like Tendulkar,or Ponting. as well as Holding at his best.The greatest credit has to be given to Andy Roberts who single -handedly spearhead the attack in India in 1974-75 cap[turing 32 wickets and down under in 1975-76 capturing 22 wickets.His fisrt 103 scalps came in 19 tests when te quartet did not exist.He also captured 50 wickets in World Series Cricket.

    Posted by harshthakor on (August 18, 2011, 4:38 GMT)

    I would rate Marshall,Ambrose,Holding ,Roberts,Garner,Walsh in order of merit.Marshal's amazing armoury od delivelies and stats in the 1980's of capturing over 325 wickets at less than 20 runs with a strike rte.of 44 runs,that too capturing 75% in winning causes overshadowed any great pace bolwerof his era..Ambrose was the ultimate champion as amatch winner.Andy Roberts was the closest to Lillee and rated by the greatest batsman like Gavasakar and the Chappell brothers as the most lethal bowler they faced.Holding had the most consistent speed through the air and bolwed the best over ever in Kingston 1981 and the best bolwinbg spell ever at the Oval in 1976.Garner was amongst the 3 best one day paceman of all and was unplayable with his phenomenal accuracy and bounce derived from a good length.Walsh was simply a bolwing metronome who was a champion even on the Indioan sub-continent with his variations.

    Posted by r1m2 on (August 17, 2011, 20:48 GMT)

    Rajesh is the boss! I love to read such articles, when they were fast an furious...

    I agree with @Emancipator007

    WIndies currently possess a bunch of fast bowlers who have shown through individually, but have not been seen together in a match yet. I think if West Indies can field this bowling attack, they can pulverize any batting line up in the world today:

    Jerome Taylor, Fidel Edwards, Kemar Roach, Devendra Bishoo (granted he's new, but he's shown that he belongs at the highest level).

    First three are among the fastest bowlers in the world. Funny enough compared to any other fast bowlers Rajesh mentions here, these three are possibly the shortest bunch, and yet pace wise probably faster than all of them. For example, Garner was never extremely fast.

    I would plea to Rajesh to write an article doing an analysis on comparing a bowler's pace vs. his height. My theory (based on observation) is that, the shorter fast bowlers have generally bowled faster than their taller counter-part.

    Posted by Meety on (August 17, 2011, 2:54 GMT)

    @ Emancipator007 - I haven't seen many true cricket followers want to revoke the WIndies test status. They're still popular in Oz, an unofficial Beach Cricket series was played over a few summers a couple of years back, & 1000's came to see the old WIndies greats like Sir Viv etc. @ Bollo/Gerry - re: Harper. I remember when he came on the scene & he was the best fielder in the world, then a tour or two later, he came to Oz & he & others dropped catches left right & centre. It was the last series the Windies won, (just) 2-1, but they were no longer supermen. Oz went toe to toe, just failing, but by then the Ozzys were the better fielders/athletes! Dunno what went wrong that, saw such high standards drop & really with few exceptions never came back. @Lennon Dave Bhagwandin - Ambrose was my favourite, but I don't remember him being jovial except when he had a wicket. He didn't say much (except to S Waugh or D Jones!!! - LOL!), but he had a stare that would make commandos cry!!!!

    Posted by   on (August 16, 2011, 21:28 GMT)

    yo can some1 tell me which great fast west indian bowlers of this time DIDNT manage to get into the side consistently. my dad always spoke of slyvestor clarke? who else. Maybe the author can do a new article on that . the west indian fast bowlers who were good but couldnt get in the side during 1976-1995

    Posted by Emancipator007 on (August 16, 2011, 21:09 GMT)

    @Bollo a typo: meant the 2002 June ODI series against Aus which Pak won. That series became famous because it was billed by marketers as the most competitive ODI series b/w 2 high-quality teams on Indian tele. http://www.espncricinfo.com/ci/engine/series/61109.html @citizenkc, @Biggus:Thanks for the accounts of WI series. @Bollo: One can lalso ook at the other side of the claim about fitness in cricket being paramount (especially in that era). Pakistan won the 1992 World Cup with possibly one of the least fit and ordinary fielding sides: won purely on the strength of other 2 suits -batting/bowling skills -something which Imran (himself one of the worst fielders then) advocated. SL barring Mahanama and Jayasuriya were hardly fit either while wining 1996 World Cup win (captain Ranatunga barely fielded and just marshaled his troops).

    Posted by itzvinay on (August 16, 2011, 20:52 GMT)

    @cricinfo..as we see a cricket fraternity is in the making...with all the regular readers discussing things amongst them..can we have something like a forum or chat room...a social network kind of things where the users can talk about cricket...others..what say?? a good idea for the next meeting on business development :)

    Posted by   on (August 16, 2011, 18:09 GMT)

    The late wasim hasan raja played in the debut series of croft and garner in 1976 - 77. His record of 14-15 sixes was equalled only in 2005 by pietersen . but raja blasted these palm tree high sixes against the likes of Roberts, croft, garner and holding

    Posted by Engle on (August 16, 2011, 15:59 GMT)

    Quite poignant that people are harking back to the days of yore. At the time, the WIndian pace attack was ruthless and tormenting of all batsmen. It also was uni-dimensional with no variety. The only spinner of that era who provided a modicum of relief was Abdul Qadir. Pundits complained about the relentless attack and sought solutions to the direction the game was headed. The only factor in their favor was time. Time was the great leveler, they said. It's only time that could dissipate the unending production of pacers. Boy, were they ever right.

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    S RajeshClose
    S Rajesh Stats editor Every week the Numbers Game takes a look at the story behind the stats, with an original slant on facts and figures. The column is edited by S Rajesh, ESPNcricinfo's stats editor in Bangalore. He did an MBA in marketing, and then worked for a year in advertising, before deciding to chuck it in favour of a job which would combine the pleasures of watching cricket and writing about it. The intense office cricket matches were an added bonus.

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