October 1, 2011

The electric art

John Woodcock
There's nothing more exciting in cricket than watching a quick man tear in with a batsman in his sights

Last month the Lord's Taverners organised a gala dinner in London, at which 23 of the world's greatest living fast bowlers - including Wes Hall, Curtly Ambrose, Sir Richard Hadlee and Alan Davidson - were guests of honour. This piece was specially commissioned for the evening.

Two hundred years ago George Brown of Brighton, the fastest bowler of his day, is said to have bowled a ball at practice that went through a coat being held up to stop it and killed a dog that was passing by. Ever since, the fast bowler has bossed and electrified the game, and to have so many of the finest and most famous of them under one roof is enough to make a batsman's waxwork tremble.

In the pavilion at Lord's, when they were both in their eighties, I heard Sir Pelham Warner say to CB Fry, "Come on, Charles, let's go and have a good boast." What fun that must have been. On the whole, fast bowlers are not, I think, given to boasting; anyway not since the great FST breathed his last. They let their bowling do the talking, allowing the legends and myths to build up around them.

Paying tribute to "The Demon", FR Spofforth, the first Australian fast bowler to put England to flight, and a dead ringer for Dennis Lillee, CI Thornton, who hit the ball over more pavilions than anyone before or since, wrote not of Spofforth's bowling but his catching. "I would say to him at lunch, 'How did you come to be such a fine short-leg, Spoff?' and he would reply, 'When I was young I made a boy, when out for a walk, throw stones into a hedge, and as the sparrows flew out I'd catch 'em." More Trueman than Lillee, perhaps, but still a nice story.

Comparing the speed of bowlers from widely different generations is as absorbing as it is impossible. Towards the end of the 19th century, the bowler traditionally thought of as having been the fastest was CJ Kortright, who played as an amateur for Essex - but never played for England. Fry thought Ernest Jones was "the fastest of the fast". It was Jones who bowled the ball that went through WG's beard, prompting the immortal exchange, "Steady, Jonah", to which Jones replied, "Sorry doctor, she slipped." At the end of that innings, Grace's body was as bruised as Brian Close's was in the photograph taken after his valiant 70 against Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith on the last day of the Lord's Test of 1963.

Driving away from the Adelaide Oval in 1976, having watched West Indies heavily beaten by Australia, I asked Sir Donald Bradman who was the fastest bowler he had ever seen. By then the Don had seen or played with all those of the preceding 50 years. Although Lillee and Jeff Thomson were in their prime, and, as Bradman said, tremendously formidable, and although West Indies already had Michael Holding and Andy Roberts in their side, I still thought Bradman would say Harold Larwood, after the experience of Bodyline. Not a bit of it. Almost without hesitation, he named Frank Tyson, bowling as he had in the three successive Test matches that England won in Australia in the 1954-55 Ashes series.

To give an idea of Tyson's pace over those few weeks (he never found quite the same rhythm again), Arthur Morris, who was opening Australia's innings, said the difference between facing Tyson at one end and Brian Statham at the other was the same as the difference between facing Statham and Trevor Bailey. And Statham was among the very quickest and distinctly quicker than Bailey. When Bradman said that, Holding and Roberts' fastest and most devastating days lay ahead of them, and Malcolm Marshall, Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh and Patrick Patterson were all still at school.

When they were both in their eighties, I heard Sir Pelham Warner say to CB Fry, "Come on, Charles, let's go and have a good boast." On the whole, fast bowlers are not, I think, given to boasting. They let their bowling do the talking, allowing the legends and myths to build up around them

It was on that West Indies tour of Australia that their captain, Clive Lloyd, having seen the horrors Thomson and Lillee could wreak, decided that West Indies' future lay in "pace like fire". He went back to the Caribbean and set about setting up the deadliest and most fearsome attack, based exclusively on speed, the game has ever known or is ever likely to. So rich was the vein of fast bowlers he struck that one thought it would last forever. In the event, it hasn't, and West Indies have fallen on hard times as a result.

The only side to be ranked among the immortals without containing at least a couple of great fast bowlers was Joe Darling's Australians in England in 1902. It was not so much Bradman who lit the flares and turned his side into "The Invincibles" in 1948; it was Keith Miller and Ray Lindwall, bowling faster than anyone had since before the Second World War. Until Lloyd decided that four fast bowlers were better than two or three, it was in pairs that they hunted.

Besides Miller and Lindwall, think of Bill Voce and Harold Larwood, Jack Gregory and Ted McDonald, Learie Constantine and Manny Martindale, Neil Adcock and Peter Heine, Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith, Frank Tyson and Brian Statham, Fred Trueman and Brian Statham, Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson, Mike Procter and Peter Pollock, Wasim Akram and Imran Khan, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, Shaun Pollock (Peter's son) and Allan Donald, Glenn McGrath and Brett Lee. However they line up, they bring drama and colour and turbulence and trepidation to the game.

All games, in some way and at some time or other, provide the ultimate test of a player's nerve and courage. It may involve holing a putt or potting the black or taking a penalty or saving a match point or getting a double top. But there have been times when I have thought nothing surpasses the courage needed to take guard against the great fast bowlers of the day, letting fly on a pitch still the same length as it was when the Laws of Cricket were first framed and the ball was delivered underarm. Even those champions now assembled, all passion spent, must wonder about the fitness and fairness of that.

John Woodcock was cricket correspondent of the Times from 1954 to 1988 and editor of the Wisden Almanack from 1981 to 1986