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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Christopher on October 4, 2011, 23:17 GMT

    @The_Wog...Your entire rationale lacks credibility.Bradman was commenting in 1976 after having seen many of the modern era bowlers,including Thommo,Roberts and Holding.As Thommo was timed at 99.5 MPH,it rather opposes your views on pace before the professional era.The general consensus is and should remain,that from McDonald and Gregory onwards,fast bowlers were genuinely fast.2 differences advance the modern eras cause.Medicine and communication.In all other respects,the intelligence,courage and endeavour being applied were equivalent or greater.The only reason this debate is taking place is that poor camera angles,lack of cameras and highly infrequent measuring of past fast bowlers have led to a common misconception that everything new is better.Given that everything that now exists was imagined and created by those who came before,it seems idealogically backwards.

  • Christopher on October 4, 2011, 22:58 GMT

    @timmyw...Always a pleasure to read a genuinely well considered blogs.I maintain that intelligence & excellence are timeless & integrity of endeavour & process indispensible.I commended reading Headley Verity on this site,when ascertaining the work ethic & quality of past bowlers & systems.Larwood was genuinely fast.His strength arrived from working down the coal pits as a youth,which gave him immense upper body and leg strength.His action,widely deemed to be perfect,was emulated by Lindwall,who described him as the master & Peter Pollock,with equal success.Footage of Lindwall shows an unmistakably fast bowler.When he lost his outswing,he describes mounting a sprung,shoulder strengthener in his garage,to work and encourage his front arm to go up when he released the ball.It worked.The proliferation of modern coaches create doubt,not clarity.Few of the players under CA care in the last 4 years have improved and many have fallen far.Given Watsons book revelations,im not surprised.

  • Christopher on October 4, 2011, 22:31 GMT

    The balls speed is measured shortly after leaving the hand,at a point commonly agreed upon by the ICC.By the time it arrives at the batsmen,its far slower.The pitch is relevent only to the batsman & is independently described,irrespective of the bowler,as fast or slow.My interest in the speed debate,one which can never be resolved,is in Bradmans assessment of Tyson.Theres no question he was fast,but I wonder if personal views on the legitimacy of Eddie Gilberts action influenced his opinion.At his peak in 1931,having conquered Larwood,Gilbert knocked his bat from his hand & his cap off as he was put flat on his backside,before taking his wicket.He described the keeper as over half way to the boundary.He 'unhesitatingly classed that spell as faster than Larwood or anyone else'.MacGilvray said to face Gilbert was to know real fear,like standing before a gun.As a bowlers pace was rarely measured before the 80s,its reasonable to suggest,many like Gilbert & Thommo regularly bowled faster.

  • Andrew on October 3, 2011, 23:41 GMT

    @davidpk - 93mph = 148kph not 154kph. Anyways still think your dreaming.

  • david on October 3, 2011, 11:54 GMT

    just had a look at crinfo's commentary of the games ( go check ) they had him at 93 mph. were sky had him just above that. and that was a very slow oval pitch just think of those grounds in australia that u mentioned. what u think another couple of points at least, sound fast to me.dpk

  • david on October 3, 2011, 11:32 GMT

    im telling it as a sky watcher in the uk. any other uk sky watcher on here. might be able to confirm this. the changes to the guy, since he last was on international duty has been awesome putting plenty of work in with his bowling coach.hes put on 6 kl in weight and added another 15+kph since the ashes and unless skys gun is wrong and the commentators speaking of the fact. he reached 154.2 kph and having just looked at my sky player replay to confirm that speed. if a guy these days get 50 wickets in 12 test me thinks, that hes doing just right. dpk

  • Andrew on October 3, 2011, 2:08 GMT

    @davidpk - Finn @ 154kph??? I think you must of meant 145kph. He didn't get above 135kph on the entire Ashes summer (Oz pitches being faster than in England), so me thinks your speed gun needs calibrating! As for his potential, he'll need to work on his run up, as he regularly bowls from about a foot or more behind the crease, because he has a terrible run up. He is only saved from being a flop because, a) He's tall, & b) he somehow manages a good release of the ball. He COULD be better if he had an ounce of rhythm!

  • Dummy4 on October 2, 2011, 19:14 GMT

    you didn't mention Shoaib? are you really talking about Fast bowling?

  • Dummy4 on October 2, 2011, 15:34 GMT

    The article did not mention Jeff Thompson's name enough. I saw him and lord I knew he was awesome! But when I saw Patrick Patterson, I thought that Jeff was only a solid fast medium.

  • david on October 2, 2011, 11:16 GMT

    funny as i type im watching on TV a young kid from NSW called cummings who has a very fast run up and hitting 149 and looks faster. the last 2 odis england v india. finn was hitting 154 - 156 speeds and him with a lanky stride and languid look. this boy could be very good, at 22 and 6' 7" and already 50 wickets under his belt after 12 tests. dpk

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